Since its outbreak, the COVID-19 global pandemic has fundamentally changed the way Montgomery County Community College employees and students live their lives. The virus forced everyone to reboot the way they work and study by doing so entirely online for the foreseeable future.
Behind-the-scenes, employees from all areas and departments of the College came together to work as a team to make the transition to online happen as smoothly as possible for students to ensure they could successfully complete their classes. The College also had the ongoing support of the Board of Trustees and the community throughout this time.
Together they spent countless hours preparing for this enormous undertaking and executing a plan to ensure life could move forward with as much normalcy as possible.
Here’s how it happened.
Batten down the hatches
By early March, the looming threat that the global pandemic would force the College to shutter its facilities across both its Central Campus in Blue Bell and West Campus in Pottstown, as well as The Culinary Arts Institute in Lansdale, was growing larger by the day. With the luxury of a limited window of time before the stay-at-home order was eventually given, MCCC developed hypothetical scenarios of what a college-wide move online could look like.
The IT Department began by addressing issues like what equipment would be needed, if the College had the bandwidth to support going entirely online, moving the Help Desk to an entirely virtual setting and determining how to keep payroll and other critical functions of the College running.
“Part of the conversations with faculty were about how to transition their courses online and were unique per discipline,” said Jim Stasik, Director, Enterprise Infrastructure Services.
Meanwhile, other areas of the College also began preparing to work entirely online. Dr. Keima Sheriff, Assistant Dean of Student Programs, met with different departments to determine what they needed to continue supporting student needs. Among them included academic advising, 24/7 tutoring, disability services, libraries and digital and technical support.
“We met with academic advising and enrollment services, we met with IT to figure out if we had to transition to a virtual platform, what the technology would need to be to support advising and student engagement,” said Dr. Sheriff. “We met with academic affairs to see what that would look like. Before we knew it, we were gone. We were in the process of planning what-ifs, the potential and then we were gone by March 12.”
“Then we reached out to students to tell them what’s going on,” Samuel Coleman, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs. “We notified them of the individual support programs, and advisors reached out to their caseloads to let them know what’s going on. By then, when we had fully transitioned, there wasn’t much we needed to do.”
“We thought in a few weeks we’ll be back,” said Dr. Gloria Oikelome, Interim Vice President Academic Affairs. “Then it really became apparent this was not the case. So we had to scramble to make quick decisions.”
‘It has to be online’
An extended Spring Break in the middle of March allowed the College to begin implementing its transitional plan.
Student Affairs and the IT Department employees worked with students to get the technological equipment they needed.
“We started purchasing laptops to loan out to students. Once we initially closed, it was a scramble to find them. Every other college was doing the exact same thing that we were trying to do,” said Stasik.
The process of ordering laptops continued through the end of the spring semester, said Dr. Celeste Schwartz, Vice President for Information Technology & Chief Digital Officer.
“If your only way to participate in a class is by computer and your personal computer breaks, you’re stuck. The stores weren’t open,” she said. “Some students were still calling by the end of the semester. They were saying ‘my laptop broke and now I can’t participate in my class. Can I pick up a new one tomorrow?’”
As the spring semester moved forward, the IT team began working to move smaller programs and organizations online that had never needed to be there before. The team faced challenges converting paper forms into digital files, especially ones containing sensitive information, and helping employees interact with the technology required to move their offices online that was new to them.
‘The greatest showing of resilience’
With the second semester in full swing and now working entirely online, departments across the College faced unique challenges of their own.
In the Athletics Department, for example, Athletic Director Kelly Dunbar said the initial reaction to the pandemic was concern for the traditional spring student-athletes who’d no longer be able to play their sport.
“How will student-athletes respond to this? Student-athletes are the type of people who want to be seen playing,” she said. “Our initial reaction was how will we change that? We had to think differently to keep student-athletes engaged.”
To quell those concerns, Dunbar said each team launched weekly check-ins through Blackboard Collaborate. Student-athletes were required to engage in one-on-one meetings. Additionally, all programming that would have taken place during the season, with the exception of games, was still required.
Throughout the entire stay-at-home order, Dunbar said, the department never stopped recruiting high school students.
“We made a lot of Zoom calls with potential athletes,” she said. “We never stopped recruiting. We just did it in a different way.”
For Coleman, a priority was having trained advisors use Blackboard to continue their sessions with students, and launching a system that would quickly respond to student needs. Included in that system was the College’s COVID-19 web page, which included information on essential resources for students for things like housing and food, and answers to frequently asked questions about financial aid, courses, payment, etc.
“That brings us to today,” he said. “Advisors are working like a well-oiled machine. Advising appointments have gone up. Students are now making their appointments on Blackboard. If they don’t, we call or text. Sometimes a student may have forgotten about the appointment or had a connection problem.”
Meanwhile, there was a spectrum of comfortability among faculty members in teaching their courses online, said Dr. Oikelome.
“Some faculty were very comfortable teaching online,” she said. “Others taught face-to-face courses but used a lot of technology in their classes, and then there were faculty members who had never taught online and had a hard time imagining how that would look.”
Faculty members partnered together to help each other overcome any technological obstacles during the first few weeks.
“That first week was probably the greatest showing of resilience, collegiality and helping each other,” Dr. Oikelome said.
There were also many students who had never taken an online course before, who voiced their concerns.
“The hardest hit were the students who’d never taken an online course paired with faculty who had no experience teaching online,” she said. “Students were already frustrated and had very little patience.
“We worked through it. I am a glass-half-full type of person. There are enough people in the world who are glass half-empty. I focus on outcome. We were able to help the vast majority of students move forward.”
Sherry Phillips, Director of Records and Registration Registrar, said for the most part the transition to working entirely online went smoothly. The department had to make small updates to things like course codes, so students would understand if a course was being taught synchronously or asynchronously, and it had to make sure students weren’t receiving messages saying a class had been canceled when it had simply been moved online.
“Luckily we were able to quickly transition,” she said. “It’s been pretty status quo.”
Faculty members faced their own challenges transitioning to online-only classes. Depending on their level of experience teaching online courses, moving to an entirely online campus in the middle of the semester was either very easy, incredibly difficult or somewhere in between.
“You can imagine the potential for absolute chaos,” said Dr. Aaron Shatzman, Dean of Social Sciences and the acting Dean of Arts & Humanities. “Just the opposite happened. Miracle was not too strong a word.”
IT staff members worked closely with faculty to assist them with computer issues. Faculty members with more computer literacy were also paired with struggling colleagues to help them out.
“It was kind of easy. Most of my classes were scheduled to be online,” said Psychology Lecturer Michael Baron, who finished his first year of teaching. “It wasn’t too tricky shifting entirely online.”
The challenge came in adapting his classes to account for how the entire world had changed, he said. Baron worked diligently to make sure students who preferred taking a face-to-face course were able to get as close to that experience as possible by holding weekly video office hours and creating videos online. He also reached out to students individually to understand what personal challenges they were wrestling with in addition to trying to attend virtually.
“Generally it went exactly as I thought,” he said. “Students were wonderful. They were highly-motivated and made my job a pleasure.”
His father, Dr. Steven Baron, Psychology Associate Professor, said he felt comfortable using technology but was concerned for his students.
“The analogy I use is it was like we started the semester by teaching our students how to speak Spanish,” he said. “Then halfway through we’re going to speak German. We got up and running face-to-face, now we’re going to completely switch to a different approach. It was an awful lot on their end.”
Students rose to the occasion, though, he said. In fact, the students who were supposed to be taking face-to-face courses became even more engaged by taking the course online, through discussion boards and other tools available to interact with their classmates.
“Face-to-face students became more involved with that than those who signed up for online from the beginning,” he said. “It actually felt more interactive online. I found that fascinating.”
By the end of the semester, all faculty members were ready to teach summer classes that were still entirely online.
In the Nursing program, instructors worked together to find instructional materials that could act as sufficient substitutes for in-person clinical and laboratory coursework.
“How do you create an effective learning experience similar to caring for patients?” said Martina Ware, Associate Professor of Nursing and Nursing Program Coordinator. “That was a challenge for all of us in nursing education across the country. How do we create these experiences for students? Some schools canceled semesters because they were not running virtual activities. That was not the commitment for our team. We committed to completing the courses and not giving students incompletes on their records.”
Students were given real-life case studies and interactive videos of patients that challenged them to make treatment decisions like the ones they would normally make in a face-to-face clinical setting.
“The virtual clinical experiences promoted appropriate critical thinking and clinical judgment for the provision of safe patient care,” said Ware. Students commented that although they did not have the opportunity to have the personal touch experience with patients, they liked the scenarios from the perspective that they could make clinical decisions and if they made an incorrect choice they did not cause a real patient harm.
Developing therapeutic communication is still best achieved by direct patient contact, so this fall, the Nursing program will offer hybrid classes that combine virtual and on-campus skills and clinical simulation instruction to best meet the educational needs of students while also keeping them safe.
A seamless transition
The work of moving an entire college completely online wasn’t easy but there were many lessons learned from this experience.
Joe Mancini, Executive Director Information Technology, and Dr. Mary-Kate Najarian, Director of User Success and Learning Technologies, said this experience brought the College community closer together and allowed new technologies to blossom.
“We’ve adopted as an institution things we’ve been talking about for a while,” said Mancini. “We adopted Microsoft Teams and other platforms, which were things we talked about and now everyone’s using. It would be great if everyone could continue to use them post-COVID. We’re seeing it’s effective.”
“We’ve strengthened partnerships with departments across campus,” said Dr. Najarian. “We’ve been able to ask ‘what do you need? Let’s partner together and figure out how to go about it.’”
Faculty members celebrated the moment as well.
“I’m a better teacher because I went through it,” said Dr. Baron. “We all fall into ruts. We do our jobs and that’s what we do. It’s not until the boat is rocked that we realize ‘I could tweak this, tweak that.’ I have a better understanding of what students have said all along about this.”
“I know how far these other people have come,” said Dr. Shatzman. “If there’s any single good thing about this virtual environment, it’s that people have learned so much.”
Dr. Sheriff also celebrated the strength of the College’s technological infrastructure.
“We were one of two schools among the Pennsylvania community colleges able to offer online instruction almost immediately,” she said. “That was amazing to me. That speaks to the infrastructure we’ve been building for years. We have been a leader school in the technology space, so for us, it was not as much of an uphill battle. We had the forethought and vision we needed to have that infrastructure already in place.”
With the announcement in June that the fall semester would remain mostly online (except for a few hybrid classes), Dr. Oikelome said the College would be much more prepared for an online campus.
“We’re breathing a little bit better now,” she said. “There’s more preparation time. The key is preparation time. It’s about content and pedagogy. The experience is the same.”
President Victoria Bastecki-Perez said she was tremendously proud of the way everyone at MCCC worked together to handle this crisis with a keen focus on and commitment to students and their success.
“At Montco, we truly are a family dedicated to our students and communities, and each other. During this unprecedented time, every employee has gone above and beyond to help our students,” said Dr. Bastecki-Perez. “There are so many unsung heroes—the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, administrators, and community —every single person contributed to make our transition seamless.”