STCC invests in digital literacy skills during pandemic
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Springfield Technical Community College had a long-term plan to ramp up online and digital learning.
But then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced instructional designers working as part of STCC’s Center for Online and Digital Learning to move faster than they ever imagined.
To maintain the safety of students, faculty and staff, STCC moved classes to remote instruction in March 2020. Instructional designers worked with faculty over the summer to prepare for fully online teaching in the 2020-21 academic year. STCC will continue to offer mostly online instruction through the spring semester, which begins Jan. 25.
Faculty and administrators acknowledge the abrupt change to remote learning created great challenges and, for some, led to a less-than-ideal learning environment last spring. The sudden need to vacate campus resulted in the use of a slew of digital tools to communicate with students including email, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, teleconferencing by phone and Zoom.
“Many faculty had been using online tools for the delivery of their face-to face classes. However, for those faculty who were not familiar with the digital space or whose courses required hands-on instruction, the ‘lift’ to online was great,” said Geraldine de Berly, vice president of Academic Affairs at STCC. “Since the summer, STCC invested in tools and training to assist faculty in developing the best truly online experience possible, including the hiring of a third instructional designer. Today, all online instruction occurs in a single platform, supplemented by class discussions using tools such as Zoom.”
The college anticipates spending nearly $800,000 through May 2021 in helping faculty develop hundreds of online classes and labs, de Berly said. Today, more than 80 percent of the credits are offered online, a jump from 12 percent prior to the pandemic. Over the coming year, STCC also expects to expand its online-only options in addition to its existing in-person and hybrid degree programs.
STCC will return to face-to-face, on-campus instruction when it’s safe to do so, but will continue to offer online options and apply digital tools to enhance the classroom experience, de Berly said.
Online development team helps faculty make transition
The Center for Online and Digital Learning at STCC includes instructional designers Kyle Kraus, Marisha Marks and Mary Wiseman, with help from Scott Lambert, system administrator for online learning, and Andy Curto, senior technical specialist.
It’s a robust team compared to many other community colleges, which in some cases only have one person dedicated to instructional design. As the only technical community college in Massachusetts, the “T” in STCC’s name runs through every program and extends to online development.
“We support faculty in translating their courses into the online environment,” Wiseman said.
Wiseman said the pandemic has forced faculty and students to hone their digital literacy skills. Nearly a year after the pandemic moved students and faculty away from an “on-ground” or on-campus classroom experience, students and faculty are growing more comfortable with working at home behind their computers.
“While many of the faculty and students might have preferred an on-ground learning and teaching experience, the pandemic has given us the opportunity to really work on furthering and expanding our digital literacy skills,” Wiseman said.
STCC students and faculty use a learning management system called Blackboard which opens the door for multimedia learning and teaching experiences. Students and faculty use the digital tool to post and access articles, assignments, videos and more.
“For students who have been able to move forward during the pandemic, they have really invested in themselves and invested in their education and their futures,” Wiseman said.
Online learning at STCC is accessible to students facing challenges
STCC faculty who have gone through the online development program are encouraged to participate in additional professional development to gain insight into course accessibility, said Marks, who noted that 19 percent of undergraduate students nationwide have a diagnosed disability.
Learning disabilities are the most common, followed by visual and hearing impairments.
“With digital content, visual and hearing impairments are the areas that are most likely to create barriers,” Marks said.
Instructional designers are informing faculty about the types of disabilities they may encounter among students and offer help about presenting content in a manner that would be most beneficial to all learners.
Kraus, another instructional designer, applauded the faculty for their work.
“They have created hundreds of videos for students to interact and engage. They hold office hours virtually,” Kraus said. “I think people have really pulled together and have done the best they could to present to their classes virtually when they weren’t anticipating doing this anytime in the near future.”
To the students who are also continuing to take classes online amidst the pandemic, we can brag about it to the future generations and our grandkids that even a pandemic couldn’t stop us from getting our education.Aminah Bergeron, STCC student, mechanical engineering technology
STCC English Professor Denise “Daisy” Flaim has years of experience teaching students on campus in classrooms, so converting to the online experience was a big adjustment. But she worked closely with the online team at STCC to prepare for the transition. She feels confident going into the spring semester.
“Kyle Kraus has been amazing, helping me through all of this,” Flaim said.
“We’re learning technology, just as the students are learning technology,” Flaim added. “They have the COVID-related stresses, and this is so hard for them.
Dan Misco, an STCC alumnus and faculty member in the Digital Media Production program, considers himself well-versed in the online teaching world. Today, he teaches most of his classes online, but misses the face-to-face interactions with students in a classroom.
“I considered myself a face-to-face instructor,” Misco said. “I always excelled in the classroom. I liked being there with students to build a rapport with them.”
Misco said he empathizes with the students, some of whom have had difficulty getting through the online experience.
“I try to get in the heads of the students, and understand their worries and the parts they’re struggling with,” Misco said. “Some have struggled. I try to say, ‘OK, if I were in that position what would I be feeling and how do I make things a little bit easier for them?’”
Students adapt to online experience
One of Misco’s students, Jason Williams of Springfield, says it’s not easy balancing family responsibilities (he has two young children) and college work whether it’s face-to-face or online learning.
“I definitely miss being in rooms with my professors and other students,” Williams said. “It’s more difficult when you can’t see a presentation in person and have them come over to you and answer a question.”
But Williams sees the online experience as a learning opportunity. He studies digital audio broadcasting, where strong digital skills are critical to be successful.
STCC student Kimberly Quiñonez, a Springfield resident studying social work, expressed gratitude to the support from faculty over the past year.
“My experience as an online learner has really been amazing, although there were times I felt like quitting,” she said. “During those times my professors would reach out and check in with the class. In the very beginning I must admit that it was quite challenging transferring from an actual classroom to a computer. The classroom brought security to most students because questions were answered immediately. With online learning you may have to wait for a response through email.”
Quiñonez said the shift to online learning has sharpened her learning skills. “Most things that I didn't believe I could do I did,” Quiñonez said. “Through following certain steps I realize that I can learn just by reading and not just by sound. Online learning has encouraged me to never stop believing in myself no matter how difficult it seems.”
Aminah Bergeron of Westfield, a mechanical engineering technology student at STCC, said she found benefits to online learning, noting she has “gotten the hang of it” after a year of studying from home.
“It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. It was for sure different but a ‘good’ different,” Bergeron said. “I didn’t have to worry about getting ready, or making sure my house doors are locked or even thinking in the back of my head, ‘Did I leave the faucet running?’ I just had to open my laptop and start my schoolwork whether at my own pace or scheduled Zoom meetings. I also had much more time to research and not worry about calculating the time I’d lose on commuting to one location to another.
“I am looking forward to the upcoming semester in just a few weeks,” Bergeron added. “To the students who are also continuing to take classes online amidst the pandemic, we can brag about it to the future generations and our grandkids that even a pandemic couldn’t stop us from getting our education.”
(Click here to see a video featuring STCC's amazing team of instructional designers working at the Center for Online and Digital Learning. They explain how STCC has made a significant investment in digital literacy skills during the pandemic.)
Interested in applying to STCC? Visit stcc.edu/apply or call Admissions at (413) 755-3333.
About Springfield Technical Community College
STCC, the Commonwealth's only technical community college, continues the pioneering legacy of the Springfield Armory with comprehensive and technical education in manufacturing, STEM, healthcare, business, social services, and the liberal arts. STCC's highly regarded workforce, certificate, degree, and transfer programs are the most affordable in Springfield and provide unequalled opportunity for the vitality of Western Massachusetts. Founded in 1967, the college – a designated Hispanic Serving Institution – seeks to close achievement gaps among students who traditionally face societal barriers. STCC supports students as they transform their lives through intellectual, cultural, and economic engagement while becoming thoughtful, committed and socially responsible graduates.
Jim Danko, (413) 755-4812, email@example.com