Hands-On Learning in a Pandemic and the Impact on Future Instruction

Author: 
Justin Hoehn
May
2021
Volume: 
24
Number: 
5
Learning Abstracts

Like other higher education institutions, Kirkwood Community College has been on a rollercoaster ride since last spring, with unprecedented circumstances seemingly combining forces to prevent the college from educating the masses. Despite the chaos, Kirkwood’s administration, faculty, and staff needed to find a way to move forward and to help students achieve their academic goals. It would take creativity to overcome the many roadblocks—especially one of the most challenging issues facing the college: how to deliver hands-on learning in a pandemic.

It’s a near certainty that 2020 will not be looked upon favorably in the history books. On a national scale, the most demanding and stressful year in memory was filled with difficulties that, by themselves, would have been troublesome to navigate. From COVID-19 to economic turmoil to political and societal unrest, the year felt like it was just one trial after another. Unfortunately for many Iowans, they would have to endure even more hardship in a year that was already testing their limits.

In August, the most powerful windstorm in the history of the state slammed into the region. Cedar Rapids, the second largest city in Iowa and the heart of Kirkwood’s seven-county service area, took a direct hit from the most intense part of the storm. The scale of devastation was massive, and the effects predicted to be long lasting. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Schwartz, 2020), an estimated 90 percent of structures in Cedar Rapids were damaged by the storm, with more than 1,000 homes destroyed. For the educators at Kirkwood, this made an already difficult situation even more difficult. Regardless, the college trudged on in its quest to serve the people of its community—and did so successfully, albeit differently.

Pre-Pandemic to Pandemonium

Even though Kirkwood offered a robust number of distance learning courses prior to the arrival of COVID-19 in spring 2020, the majority of classes were taught in person. As news of the virus spread, plans were quickly made to move all classes online to lessen its impact in the Kirkwood community. Despite the inexperience of many faculty members, the switch to a virtual learning environment for lecture classes went relatively smoothly. However, for the classes that required hands-on learning, it was a different story.

Kirkwood held a series of meetings to determine the best way for students in hands-on learning classes to stay on track in their academic careers. With the help of the Distance Learning department, faculty for both career and technical education (CTE) and liberal arts courses transitioned many of these classes to online instruction in ways previously unthinkable. Dedicated to their students and undeterred by the global health crisis, Kirkwood faculty used the tools available to them to teach their students: Using video, the college’s online learning platform, and, in some cases, the U.S. Postal Service, students and their instructors ventured into this uncharted territory together.

Instructional Innovation

The switch to virtual learning was an easier transition for some courses than others. Such was the case for the college’s Network and System Administration and Computer Support Specialist programs. Using a remote access solution called NETLAB+, students taking courses in these programs were able to complete labs from anywhere, at any time. Since NETLAB+ was already utilized by instructors to supplement what was being taught inside the classroom, students were familiar with the system before the virus arrived on the scene.

According to Kirkwood Computer Support Specialist Professor Dr. Bryan Bennett, the transition was fairly smooth. “When the pandemic hit, we built custom content that mirrored what the students had been doing on their workstations in the classroom,” he said. He added:

This allowed for classes to continue in the same manner as they were before the transition online. Since everything was housed on college servers, students only needed a very basic computer to connect to the system. This benefited all of our students, but especially those with limited resources who needed to use a laptop provided by Kirkwood.

While these Information Technology programs experienced a relatively pain-free switch to virtual learning, other faculty had to get more creative. For instance, going online presented problems for the Diesel Technology classes at Kirkwood. Students studying in this field typically learn in a much more hands-on fashion; teaching strictly from a textbook is not an effective strategy. Luckily, Kirkwood Assistant Professor of Diesel Technology Eric Conklin had the right technology at his fingertips.

While the students were on spring break in March 2020, Conklin transformed his lessons from in-person to virtual. Using the college’s online learning management system (LMS), Talon, he first developed all new content and quizzes. He then took machinery components to his home workshop, recorded himself teaching lessons, and posted the videos to YouTube for students to access.

The video solution worked well, but it only addressed part of the issue. “Our class went from in-person, hands-on instruction to essentially a guided self-study course,” said Conklin. He continued:

All the lessons had to be completed by students on their own. They had to log in to Talon, complete the workbook chapters, and take the quizzes at the end of each week. The final, which was previously both hands-on and written, was 100 percent written out of necessity. It might have been easier for other classes to make this change, but in our case, it was a little difficult because of the subject matter. The students soon realized that it was on them to keep up with the work in order to be successful. It was an adjustment for all of us. Without being there in person, it just wasn’t the same, but we got through it.

Faculty in other programs took similar approaches to teaching hands-on courses over the spring and summer of 2020—sometimes with their own twist.

  • Welding instructors instituted a specialized welding camera, which, according to them, has furthered student learning options now and for the future. Instructional videos were created using the camera and shared with students through Talon. The students then watched the videos, learned from them, and used that knowledge to work on welding techniques in their own time. This teaching strategy was successful during quarantine and will be used after social distancing is no longer necessary as well.
  • The Kirkwood Hospitality department faculty chose a different tactic. Instead of taking materials home to create videos for the class, they put together home kits for bakery and culinary students to take home themselves. In place of an on-campus lab, learners in the Basic Cake Decorating, International Breads, and Advanced Garde Manger courses picked up the ingredients and brought the lab environment to their own home. After finishing their creations, the students uploaded videos of their work to YouTube with commentary on the learning process and end result.
  • The faculty in the Electronics Engineering Technology program mailed parts and equipment directly to students in Digital Circuits class. Once they had everything they needed, the students would then build a circuit and show their progress to instructors through videos taken on their phones. If they had trouble getting a circuit to work, the faculty and other students chimed in with suggestions on possible solutions. According to faculty, the process of having the students build the circuits remotely went very well.

Bagged bread flour take-home kits for International Breads class

Just a few weeks before the fall semester began, Kirkwood’s approach to teaching in a pandemic was about to change again. With virus protocols and social distancing in place, students would be able to choose from a handful of different learning formats, including in-person, online at any time, online at a set time, and hybrid of online and in-person instruction. The institution was excited to welcome students back to campus, but, unfortunately, mother nature had other ideas.

The severe impact of the early August storm further complicated the college’s pandemic response due to damage to the campus and surrounding region. Buildings and homes took a beating and, in some cases, were destroyed. Power and Internet access were unavailable for a majority of the area and cell phone service was spotty. These conditions remained in place over many days for most people, and others had to endure them for weeks.

Because of the sheer magnitude of the devastation, the start of the fall semester was delayed one week so college buildings could open safely following repairs. The delay also gave the college more time to help those students still dealing with the effects of the disaster by loaning them laptops and Internet hotspots.

The resumption of in-person learning following the storm was a blessing for many. The electricity and Internet issues still facing the region were less of an issue, and students were able to begin learning immediately with their instructors and fellow students. However, on-campus learning looked much different than before. In the case of studio arts courses, for example, classes were limited to no more than eight socially distanced, fully masked students at a time. Learners were given their own materials and art tools, a protocol introduced to limit sharing between students. To see the proper technique for creating whatever art form they were studying, students watched faculty-produced training videos on Talon before coming to class.

These same types of mitigation strategies were employed across the board for all in-person learning in every Kirkwood location. Now well into the 2021 spring term, the institution’s efforts have been successful in minimizing the impact of the virus on campus, while allowing students to learn in person—thus, increasing their chances of academic success.

Impact on Future Instruction

It’s fair to ask what will remain in place once the world gets past the pandemic. Will the majority of students remain online, or will they rejoin their classmates who have already come back to the classroom? Will faculty who were forced by the pandemic to transition to online teaching prefer to remain in a virtual format, or will they go back to more traditional instruction? If they do go back, what tools will they bring with them from teaching in the time of COVID-19?

To a certain extent, student preferences and choices are going to drive what the predominant classroom format will be when the health crisis is over. Like all things, the exact nature of future educational delivery remains to be seen. However, faculty now know that they are ready to teach in a virtual format, if necessary, because they’ve done it before and succeeded.

Regardless of how instruction looks in future, faculty will bring those learned lessons with them. For instance, more instructors will be utilizing the benefits of Talon. Before the pandemic, many were barely scratching the surface in terms of the LMS’s capabilities. Preferring to stick to tried and true instructional strategies, they went with what they knew was successful in the past. Now, after being forced out of their comfort zone by the virus, more faculty will tap into the benefits of Talon to move learning forward in their classes instead of using it just for posting syllabi and contact information. Learners will also be able to take advantage of study aids, discussion forums, online quizzes, and other materials used by faculty to supplement the learning experience in the classroom and positively impact student success.

In addition, more instructors will continue to use video after realizing its teaching power during the pandemic. According to some, this tool will be utilized regardless of whether the classroom is in person or virtual. Ironically, by forcing instruction to happen online, the pandemic may have increased post-virus student success levels because faculty will be using tried and true methods in combination with what worked best during COVID-19.

According to Kirkwood Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs Colette Atkins, faculty and students will benefit from the dark days of the pandemic in a few ways. “Sometimes change can be a really good thing,” said Atkins. She elaborated by noting that,

Not only did the virus help show us how beneficial these types of brilliant innovations can be for any classroom, it also gave us the experience we needed to be ready for similar challenges in the future. Whether it’s another pandemic, a weather-related disaster, or some other disruptor to educational delivery, we need to be flexible enough to continue to educate those we serve—regardless of the challenge facing us. If there is a silver lining to these troubling times, it’s that we’re more prepared now than we’ve ever been, and that’s a great place to be.

Lead image: A screenshot of a video showing Diesel Technology instruction

Justin Hoehn is Associate Director, Marketing, at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Reference

Schwartz, M. S. (2020, October 18). Iowa Derecho This August Was Most Costly Thunderstorm Event In Modern U.S. History. https://www.wgbh.org/news/national-news/2020/10/18/iowa-derecho-this-august-was-most-costly-thunderstorm-event-in-modern-u-s-history