When Spring Semester classes began on Jan. 13 at Otero Junior College, students were walking down hallways with backpacks in tow, sipping their favorite drink at the Venom Pit Coffee Shop and catching up with classmates after the long winter break. In that setting, who could have predicted those same students would spend their last five weeks of Spring Semester completing their classes from a remote location and the halls of OJC would be totally silent.
When Otero Junior College began to offer classes remotely on March 26 due to COVID-19 safety precautions, the landscape of Rattler Nation suddenly changed. At the time of the announcement, students were on an extended week of Spring Break. Not being able to return to campus meant that residence hall students still had most of their belongings in their rooms, athletic events were being cancelled and for the sophomore students, their dreams of walking across the stage at McDivitt Center Gym to receive their graduation diplomas were dashed.
For many OJC students, the first week of going remote was a little rocky, but as the days and weeks passed, most settled into a routine, made friends with the technology and discovered they really did have the capacity to be a successful student in this new reality of learning.
For family members and the rest of the outside world, new words were being spoken and new pressures were being experienced. Questions like, "What is this WebEx you keep talking about? Is Zoom a toy, is it a cereal, or is it a new social media? Why does our internet keep crashing - and - we need to draw straws to see who gets to use the laptop computer first today."
Fortunately for the OJC campus community, the infrastructure to tackle this new landscape had been put in place over the past several years, making the transition to remote learning less of a leap than it would have been even three years ago.
Dr. Chelsea Herasingh, director of institutional research and initiatives at OJC, has had a birds-eye view of the trials and successes students and faculty have experienced over the past five weeks. Herasingh, who oversees several of the online learning platforms used by students and faculty, said that the technology OJC already had in place played a major role in the College's academic preparedness for this event.
"For several years, OJC has offered students the option to take certain classes in a Hybrid format, meaning that the class would meet a few times in person on campus, but the rest of the course was delivered through online instruction. Many of our students had taken advantage of this format, thus were accustomed to working independently without the format of an in-person class," she explained.
Herasingh stated that two other pieces of technology were in place at just the right time to ensure students' success and continuity of communication.
"We use an online learning platform named Desire2Learn or D2L. Over the past three years, almost all of our faculty members had started utilizing all, or some, features within D2L to assist with teaching. Students were familiar with how to access the platform and upload papers, read posted resources, review lectures and even take test in D2L. When we went to full remote-learning on March 30, the use of D2L and conducting face-to-face class meeting by using the WebEx platform became the norm," she said.
"Our faculty stepped up to the plate on so many levels," said Herasingh. "We saw some amazingly creative projects develop over the past five weeks that included things like a virtual debate in English Class, a synchronized jazz performance in music class, nursing faculty holding WebEx office hours and study groups, and live WebEx science lectures for students who could not attend at the scheduled time."
The next challenge for OJC was the ability to continue supporting and communicating with students, as well as offering them a safe way to get enrolled for upcoming semesters.
"In addition to daily online interactions with their faculty, students continued to receive tutoring support from our professional tutors. During the second week of April all of our advisors, coaches and several staff members began making phone calls to students, just checking in to see how they were doing and offering support any way we could," said Herasingh.
"The platform also allowed students to make a phone or email connection with their advisor to discuss their academic progress and receive advising for enrollment in either Summer or Fall semester," said Herasingh. "Had it not been for Navigate, we would be struggling to get students re-enrolled from a distance."
For students at OJC, their experience has been varied. The top concerns cited by students has been the ability to stay focused and motivated, the lack of social interaction with classmates, internet/wifi speed or availability, and understanding the material in online format.
On the positive side, students report being able to spend more time with their family, finding new ways to remain socially connected, exploring or honing hobbies and recreation pursuits. And while final grades will not be posted for a few more days, early indicators show that students may be succeeding at a higher rate than at this time last year. Dr. Herasingh, who manages data collection and analysis for OJC, reports that the pass rate at the 11-week grade check was 81.65 percent. Last year, the pass rate at the 11-week grade check was 79.23 percent.
"As disruptive as this transition had been, we have many students who are succeeding. We've seen students continue to utilize our professional tutors and reaching out to their class faculty members to assist with difficult assignments and concepts," she said.
For faculty and staff who have been working from home, their challenges have been similar. Todd Werner, director of the TRiO Student Support Services at OJC is working from home with his four teenage children.
"Our internet bandwidth has been challenged with so many of us trying to gain access for work, homework and recreation. To make this all work, we've had to establish schedules and spaces for everyone to work that is efficient. It was rough at first, but as the weeks have gone on, we've settled in very well with the routines," said Werner.
Emily and Cassidy Litle, both faculty members in the Arts and Humanities Department, have seen a little different challenge as they have both maintained their teaching schedules while caring for their three-year-old son.
"As a working mom, it's nothing new to feel conflicted about how much time you're giving your work life vs. your home life, but now with my work life and home life intertwined, it's even more chaotic," said Emily Litle. "Thankfully, my students are understanding and seem to enjoy it when my son stumbles into a WebEx meeting. I'm lucky to have a supportive partner, and we worked out a family schedule of parenting time and teaching time. I've missed my students very much, but being comfortable with video technology has made it easier to do my job well," she said.
Cassidy Litle said the couple learned early that both of them sitting at the dining room table was not going to work. "Like a lot of people, we weren't sure how long we'd be away from campus. I've been taking a music class at OJC, and it shocked me how quickly I forgot about the course when work, family, and other responsibilities needed my attention. When I had to get caught up for the course, it gave me a greater understanding about my students and how they are going through some struggles," he said.
For Samme Ormiston, business faculty at OJC, she and her husband, an agriculture education teacher at Fowler High School, have been managing their teaching responsibilities from home as well as homeschooling their two elementary school children.
"I am proud of the perseverance of our students and have been amazed with the effort made during this challenging time. There are moments when I have my iPad, laptop, desktop and phone all going at the same time talking to different students, handling schoolwork, while also checking my nine-year-old daughter's match problems. Students will find a way to succeed if they care, and that has been prevalent over the last few weeks. My students have taught me more ways to communicate than I would have known otherwise. I know that out great faculty and staff have remained dedicated to the success of those in the classroom," said Ormiston.
Ormiston said it has also been a wonderful opportunity to be involved in her own children's education and appreciates the involvement her children's teachers have had with her family. "They have been amazing from the beginning and I am so appreciative of how they continue to care about my kids' progress throughout this experience," she said.
Th questions on everyone's mind right now is how long will this last and is remote education a new reality? For OJC, the fully remote model will continue into Summer Semester which will begin on June 1. As plans are being made for Fall Semester, the current uncertainty of restrictions is prompting the College's administrator to make adaptations to programs that require a hands-on experience while developing other classes in the hybrid model, thus allowing students some in-person experiences on campus with the bulk of their coursework being delivered online.
"We are currently looking at the Safer at Home guidelines for higher education that were recently provided to us by Governor Polis," said Dr. Calandra Lockhart, vice president of academic and student affairs at OJC.
"Our intent is to bring students back to campus next fall who are enrolled in our Career and Technical Education programs that require hands-on practices. We will closely follow the in-person guidelines that will create a safe learning and working environment for those students. For many of our other programs of study, we will be developing a combination of in-person, hybrid, and fully online teaching formats to minimize the risk to students, faculty and staff. OJC prides itself with the personal attention our students receive from faculty and we want to ensure we continue to build those strong relationships that foster the sense of belonging, importance and ultimately academic success," said Lockhart.
"Fall semester begins on Aug. 17, and I assure you, we will be ready with a model that will be serve students as well as conform to any continued precautions surrounding COVID-19," she said.