As with all other colleges throughout the nation, Western Piedmont Community College has been forced to adapt to the school’s in-person closure in the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Ann Marie McNeely, dean of arts and sciences, and Michael Daniels, dean of applied technologies, spoke with The News Herald about the changes that WPCC faculty members and students have had to make throughout the in-person closure and the college’s plans for the coming months.

Making adjustments

According to McNeely, some professors in her department were already accustomed to conducting remote classes, so the transition was a bit easier. However, one of the most significant adjustments for faculty and students has been the change in communication methods.

“This has been a new adventure for them, because some of the (professors) don’t do a lot of remote learning, and some of them do,” McNeely said. “The faculty that I’ve talked to say that their communications with students have changed quite a bit. Now, they’re predominantly using email and messaging through the learning management system (Moodle).”

Professors in the arts and sciences department have been conducting classroom meetings through conferencing programs such as Zoom and Collaborate. Others have used less traditional programs like FlipGrid, which allows students to take videos and then send them back to the instructor, McNeely said.

McNeely said in her discussions with faculty, professors told her that the most noticeable adjustment they have had to make is in translating their classroom styles to the online setting.

The methods of instruction for each individual faculty member differ though.

“A lot of the instructors are still doing things like lectures, demonstrations and group discussions,” McNeely said, adding that faculty members have chosen to conduct both recorded and live sessions of lectures and tutorials via online programs.

“Some of these courses are run where the students all get together online as a class synchronously,” McNeely said. “Some of them are run where the instructor records things and then students watch the information later.”

Instructors also are using Moodle’s discussion forum to carry out assignments.

Daniels’ department encompasses the non-transfer areas, which involves everything from machining, cosmetology, medical assisting and welding.

“As usual, we have not taken a ‘one size fits all’ approach,” Daniels said. “Every particular area and instructor we have dealt with individually. As Ann Marie alluded to, some subjects lend themselves to online more than others.”

While most of the applied technologies courses at the college were able to continue through the in-person closure, the college suspended its machining class because “there was not an effective way of doing that class,” Daniels said.

The college should be able to continue the class either in the summer or the fall, according to Daniels.

“In some of these areas like welding, cosmetology and engineering, there is some area-specific software that has simulations that we’re able to use. A lot of these vendors have made this software available temporarily either for free or very inexpensively. That’s been a big help.”

Daniels and McNeely said they’re proud of the manner in which faculty and students have handled the transition during this unprecedented time.

“Faculty have been superstars when it comes to adjusting, but students have also,” Daniels said. “Both students and faculty members have stepped up. I’ve been amazed at how well both have done during this period.”

“This conversion has required of our faculty hours and hours of their time and creativity,” McNeely said. “Many of them have had to learn new technical skills that they didn’t know before. Our distance learning department has been excellent in providing resources, assistance and tutorials. They’ve really been on board with helping everybody make this transition.”

Access to resources

As with Burke County Public Schools, the in-person closure jeopardizes some faculty members and students’ access to computers and/or internet.

“Access for faculty is a little bit easier to navigate because through our IT they typically have access to laptops and they can work out of their offices now, in isolation,” Daniels said. “With students, it’s been more of a challenge, but not as much as I expected. Western Piedmont is going to be as understanding as flexible as we can possibly be to not penalize students.

“We know these students did not sign up for this kind of class and it’s more difficult for some students — in some cases because of their learning styles and in other cases because of access to technology.”

According to McNeely, faculty members in her department are mindful of these inequities in resources and are instituting measures to minimize these barriers for students.

“I know a few faculty members in the arts and sciences division who are collaborating with students in a lower-tech fashion, trying to get them through the material,” she said. “For example, faculty members will make photocopies of things. Some of them are communicating with students via their cellphones, because (the students) may not have internet access at home. There’s been a lot of varying ways to keep students in the course, learning and completing it.”

Moving forward

As the semester draws to a close and final exams near, instructors are still giving final exams and assigning projects in online courses.

“The formats of assessments vary widely course to course, but tests and exams can be delivered using our learning management system, Moodle,” McNeely said. “There are many different settings, such as randomized questions and time limits that can ensure testing integrity.

“In addition, our instructors typically use best practices in instruction and assessment, which include incorporating different kinds of formal and informal assessments to verify student learning and also using tests as just one of several weighted components that factor into determining a student’s final grade.”

After finals, students will begin the process of registering for either summer and/or fall classes. Summer registration begins Friday and concludes May 14.

According to Daniels, existing students will need to reach out to their advisors to set up a registration time. The college will also have student services faculty available via phone and email to assist with the advising process.

“We want new and existing students to know that ‘Yes, we are going to move on with summer,’ and now is the time to be communicating to us what they are interested in,” Daniels said. “We will help these people register for classes they may be interested in.”

New students interested in registering for courses will need to contact student services personnel. Advising and registration can take place via Zoom, phone, email or any other method needed in order to assist the student in the process.

“We anticipate the summer to be largely online,” Daniels said. “We’re cautiously optimistic that fall can be much more normal but we have to prepare for the fact that it may not be completely normal.”

“As we hear more about the governor’s restrictions and guidelines,” McNeely said. “As we move through these phases, that’s going to affect what we do with the fall semester.”

Fall registration is set to begin July 13. For information, visit www.wpcc.edu/.

Johnny Casey can be reached at jcasey@morganton.com or 828-432-8907.

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