Photo of three people chatting online

Blue Ridge Community College students adapt to online environment

Blue Ridge Community College was not immune to the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak. While it remains open, as an essential organization within our community, the College prudently took steps to ensure the safety and well-being of its students, staff and faculty.

Like many, if not all, colleges and universities, one measure Blue Ridge quickly enacted was moving all instruction possible online. This was not without its challenges, but it was a move that Blue Ridge was well-poised to make.

Starting last fall, Blue Ridge required that all classes use its online classroom technology, commonly referred to as a learning management system (LMS). According to Jason Ford, Director of Distance Education, this requirement “allowed our ability to ramp up fairly quickly with faculty.” Similarly, Ford continues, the widespread use of the LMS also meant “students more than likely had some degree of familiarity with it,” thus easing their transition as well.

Though better equipped than some to move online, the transition wasn’t necessarily easy. Moving online isn’t just flipping a switch; as Ford explains, “Going online requires a different mindset and so the challenge for many is how to continue the social, teaching and cognitive presence that supports a strong community of inquiry in a new format.” Thankfully, “the entire Distance Education group has been impressed by the faculty’s willingness and ambition toward transitioning, in midstream, to this needed method of delivery,” says Instructional Designer, Kevin Kvalvik.

Blue Ridge’s Distance Education team acted swiftly, providing much-needed just-in-time training by meeting faculty at every level of knowledge and skill. Kvalvik set up an Online Transition Toolkit to help simplify what a faculty member new to online had to know regarding the tools of our LMS. And despite the challenge of being a team of three, Ford notes, “We’ve got a pretty amazing team offering virtual one-on-one support, creating tutorials, helping faculty test their virtual classrooms and, in some cases, attending sessions to make sure they are going smoothly.”

“One wonderful outcome of Blue Ridge’s shifting courses online is the growth it has instigated. I, for one, have developed new skills as an instructor, though I am not new to online education, having taught online courses for over 13 years. For example, I recently learned to use Camtasia, a robust screencasting software that allows me to create highly professional video lectures for my students that work well for walking them through a complex essay or providing them instruction on the use of unfamiliar software. Perhaps more importantly, I have learned to use a new tool within our LMS. This tool, called Collaborate, allows me to lead synchronous class sessions, sharing audio and video with my students. We can view and discuss important course resources in real time, and the sessions are recorded so that students can review them. Not only does this allow for coverage of important course material, but in this time of social distancing, it maintains the human connection that could have been lost when we moved online,” Hardy said. “I am not alone in such successes; Blue Ridge has many faculty learning and implementing new skills to serve our students.”

When asked about the success of the College’s move online, Ford notes “the resilience and flexibility of faculty to step up and do what has to be done to continue our students’ educational goals.” He continues, “I have been thoroughly impressed with the measures faculty have gone through to quickly adapt to this situation and learn new skills in a short amount of time.”

Likewise, these successes are not limited to the faculty. Students, too, are rising to the challenge and participating in these online synchronous classrooms, Zooms, or Google Meets; they are commenting in asynchronous discussion forums; or they are working their way through online lessons, many for the first time ever. Other students are overcoming technological challenges by borrowing Blue Ridge’s laptops or wireless hotspots, using enhanced wireless coverage in campus parking lots, or even visiting its student-only computer labs, proper social distancing maintained, of course. Despite not having chosen an online course, great trepidation over the move, and the challenges it presents, these students are working diligently to reach their goals.

Blue Ridge Community College remains committed to serving its community. It will do this by providing meaningful educational opportunities to students online until it can safely transition back to its full reach of instructional delivery. Importantly, the Blue Ridge community will learn and grow from this experience. When asked about a key take away from the situation, Kvalvik states, “the quality of our staff, the support of administration, and the flexibility of our student body has been rather impressive, and I feel that instead of being an educational halt, it has been an instructional success.”