With more than two weeks of online learning under their belts, some Northeast Community College students and faculty said they are getting used to the isolating virtual instruction.
But the online courses are still missing something crucial: hands-on education.
“A lot of other divisions have a structured schedule, and they have their books and they have their assignments,” said Brad Ranslem, associate dean for applied technology. “But ours, a lot of projects are hands-on. It’s completely two different worlds.”
Like most Nebraska schools, Northeast moved all classes online on March 23 to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The majority of students moved home, except a select few — fewer than a dozen — who were allowed to stay because of extenuating circumstances.
In Northeast’s applied technology division, students participate in three hours of lab time for every hour of instruction, Ranslem said.
Several of the college’s interactive degrees, such as career-technical majors and science programs like physical therapy or nursing, are equipment-heavy and students work mostly in lab settings.
Now those students are without the equipment and workspace that is normally used to learn critical skills. But instructors are getting creative to find other ways to teach.
Lynnette Frey, a drafting instructor, said she had to lease about 35 desktop computers to her students to run special software to teach 3D modeling. Only four of her students’ personal computers were able to run the programs.
“We are definitely doing our best to make our experience close to the face-to-face experience as best as we can,” Frey said. “Since students can share their screen with me (in Zoom), I can even request control, and with my mouse, I can show them exactly what they need to do.”
Ranslem said he ordered three GoPro cameras so instructors could perform tasks in the lab and students can follow along with a better perspective.
Steve Wagner, a machining and manufacturing automation instructor, asked the college to buy a new simulator for his curriculum, he said. Students send him code, and when he enters it into the simulator, it virtually creates the assigned part.
Wagner said he doesn’t think the shift to online learning will set his students back much. But if this happened in December, it would have been a different story.
For him, the move online has created more work than he had before with campus classes, he said.
“It's been interesting because people out in the general public will ask the same question: ‘What are you doing with all of your free time now?’ ” Wagner said. “Um, no, there is no free time because you’re really bearing down and trying to make this effective. Everybody’s focused on making this effective, making this count, so the students walk away with the technical basis they need to be successful in their jobs once they leave here.”
Freshman Jenna Williams said her courses as a physical therapist assistant (PTA) major have been challenging without practicing with the college’s regular health equipment, such as a simulation hospital room.
“It's quite a transition to go from living on campus to having to move home,” Williams said. “My family also owns a ranch, so my dad is always looking for help. That’s a struggle, having to say no to them and knowing when to say no, and manage your time.”
Tere Karella, PTA instructor, encourages students to have someone serve as a patient in their home and then use Zoom to contact Karella if they have questions as they conduct treatment, she said.
Karella said students would probably still have to come back to Northeast whenever classes resume on campus to complete their tests.
This will be hard for sophomores, who are still scheduled to graduate in May. So far, Northeast doesn’t have an official plan for graduation.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do yet for sophomores,” Karella said. “We’re trying our best to get them done. If they take an incomplete, our plan is as soon as we can get back on campus, we will hold workshops and intense lab days to finish that as fast as we can. We would love to go back to normal life as fast as possible.”
Students might have the opportunity to return in the summer — or once Northeast can have campus classes — for workshop sessions to evaluate learning, Ranslem said. It would be a type of “check-in” so students can make up learning they missed.
Sophomore Kelsey Bigelow, a broadcast media major, said she feels lucky she’s transferring from Northeast to a four-year university.
Bigelow’s classes haven’t been able to incorporate much broadcasting without any equipment. While she wants to go into sports broadcasting, she won’t be able to practice as all Northeast sports are canceled for the season.
“If I were to enter into the workforce right now, I would be more behind as far as broadcasting spring season sports,” she said. “With winter and fall sports, I had two seasons, but with baseball and softball, I only had that one shot as a freshman.”
While some sophomores might now be nervous to go into the workforce, most of Wagner’s students are already working.
Wagner encouraged his students who didn’t have jobs to start looking after Northeast moved to online learning. His students can use what they’re doing at work as part of their college assignments. Some supervisors can even sign off on tasks completed for the curriculum.
Even without hands-on learning, his students are finding ways to be engaged, he said. Two of his students are also truck drivers and park at rest stops to participate in Zoom classes.
“Employers understand that the students aren’t coming out of here totally proficient,” Wagner said. “They are familiar with all of these things. The real learning takes place once they get on the job.”