Using the summer to sharpen online delivery

By Ernie Greenslade

A Massachusetts college is investing in long-term online learning solutions.

In mid-June, well before most colleges and universities, Northern Essex Community College (NECC) in Massachusetts announced that the fall semester would be offered 90 percent online.

By making a decision early, the college had time to focus on making the online experience equal to what students could experience in a face-to-face classroom, said Bill Heineman, vice president of academic and student affairs.

“When we had to transition to remote learning in March due to the pandemic, we didn’t have the luxury of making sure those courses adhered to our strict online guidelines,” he said. “Now, with months to prepare, we could create high-quality online courses across all disciplines.”

Investment in faculty training

NECC decided to invest $500,000 to help faculty transition courses to online delivery over the summer. That money is funding faculty stipends for developing online courses and a team of “buddies” — nine faculty members who have taught online successfully in the past and can now mentor and coach those who are new to online.

Key to all of this is the college’s Center for Instructional Technology (CIT), which includes: Melba Acevedo, director of instructional technology and online learning; Sue Tashjian, coordinator of instructional technology; Christina Gardner-Burns, part-time instructional technologist; and Rick Lizotte, instructional coach and professor of English as a second language.

CIT has helped faculty develop online courses for 20 years, most recently using a six-week online training module that they’ve developed called iTeach.

While Northern Essex has a proven process for transitioning courses to online delivery, it had never been done on this scale. Typically, 15 to 20 courses might be developed in one year. This summer, 150 faculty members are developing 200 courses, a more than ten-fold increase.

To put things in perspective, NECC last fall offered 23 percent of its courses in an online format. This fall, 90 percent will be online with only courses like health and science labs offered face-to-face.

Online doesn’t mean second rate

Faculty members new to online learning are most concerned that students get the same knowledge as they would in a face-to-face course, said CIT’s Acevedo, who assures them that they can.

“When designed well, online classes keep the best characteristics of face-to-face courses. In iTeach, faculty learn how to create engagement, interaction and social presence in their online classes. It’s more about pedagogy than technology, which initially surprises some faculty.”

Doug Leaffer, who teaches engineering and is currently enrolled in iTeach, was skeptical at first.

“Initially, I viewed online engineering course delivery as challenging. I wasn’t convinced that students could make the transition from ‘bench-top’ learning in one of our instructor-led engineering labs to desktop learning on their own computer,” he said.

What Leaffer soon found was that software simulation programs could replicate the engineering benchtop environment.

“While not tactile activities, they are useful substitutes, fun to use and visually appealing,” he said.

Leaffer is now looking forward to the fall. He plans to beta test his online engineering cohort and use what he learns to refine the online engineering curriculum.

More STEM opportunities

While preparations this summer have clearly been a lot of work for college faculty and staff, Heineman says Northern Essex is better prepared to compete in the online learning arena, which is likely to grow as the public gets comfortable with working and learning remotely.

In the past, the college had few online options in health and STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) but as of this fall that will no longer be the case.

“This is a long-term investment in online learning,” Acevedo said. “It’s an exciting opportunity for an institution that has always been promoted as a good value to improve our flexibility.”

This article originally appeared in CC Daily.

Ernie Greenslade

is director of public relations at Northern Essex Community College in Massachusetts.