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Thursday, 02 April 2020 22:56

LCCC Faculty Adapt to Online Courses, but Will Miss Teaching Students In-Person

Written by Kathryn Palmer, Wyoming Tribune Eagle


When Robert Benning returns to teach auto body repair classes at Laramie County Community College, the 13 students he’s taught since fall semester won’t be joining him in the lab.

Instead, they’ll be learning how to repair cars via the videoconference program called Zoom.


It’s a reality instructors across all disciplines, at colleges across the country, are adapting to this spring in an effort to practice social distancing and stop the spread of COVID-19.


LCCC’s instructors are doing their best to make it work and finish the semester, but some lessons are difficult to replicate online.


“Initially, I thought it couldn’t be done,” said Benning, who has taught in-person auto body repair courses for 13 years. “The way that I had been teaching was hands-on. … During a regular year, it’s about 70% of work in the lab and 30% in the classroom.”


Soon after COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that has killed more than 3,000 Americans, first appeared in Wyoming early last month, LCCC followed the lead of hundreds of other colleges and universities in the nation and announced it would be moving all instruction online for the remainder of the semester.


To give teachers---especially those like Benning who’ve never taught online before---a chance to adapt their courses, the college extended spring break by two weeks.


“This is the first time I’ve ever been put in a position like this,” Benning said. “I had to reimagine the entire course and come up with a way to teach them online.”


After brainstorming with a handful of other instructors, Benning has decided he will evaluate students by recording himself in the shop and requiring students to use Zoom to tell him which tools and maneuvers to use to fix the cars.


But Benning knows his course will be a “work in progress,” and said, “It’s not a replacement for what we normally do.”


Student access to the technology required to participate in an online class they didn’t sign up for emerged as one of the biggest concerns for instructors and LCCC administrators. The college sent out a technology survey soon after the school closure announcement in an attempt to identify students in need.


Several teachers, including Benning and communications instructor Holly Manning, also followed up with their own students.


“My first concern was how to troubleshoot for those students who may not have the access to be able to do what we are asking them to do,” Manning said. “We are a community college, we are open access and accept anyone, and a lot of our students don’t have the luxury of having WiFi or a computer at home.”


But Manning said the college’s response to filling those gaps has eased her concerns about inequitable access to online learning tools.


According to Kari Brown-Herbst, LCCC’s interim vice president for academic affairs, the college has prepped 250 laptops over the past week to distribute to students.


Local internet providers, like Charter, have also started offering 60 days of free WiFi to households with K-12 and college students that don’t already have it.

“Offers like that have made it so I’ll have more options with those students who didn’t have access to the internet before,” said Manning, whose goal is to prioritize flexibility during this semester.


Manning will be holding daily lessons via Zoom, and any student from any of her six classes is free to join, though it won’t be mandatory, because she’ll post the recordings online afterward.


She’s already been emailing with her students over the break to prepare them for the change. Some of them are indifferent to it, Manning said, while others have doubts.


“I have my ideal for how the class could work,” she said. For instance, in her public speaking classes, the ideal is for students to deliver a live speech. But if that’s not possible, a recording could suffice.


“There’s also 10 other ways a student could do it in these circumstances, and I’ll accept any one of those.”


Although Manning has taught online courses before, and was familiar with the technological aspects before COVID-19 ambushed higher education, there’s one thing a videoconference call can’t show her.


“What’s always been a struggle with online learning, it is always up to a student to tell me when they are struggling,” Manning said. “When a student is in front of me, and we develop rapport, it’s a lot easier to detect. I’m going to miss having that ability.”


For Benning, the auto body repair teacher who three weeks ago thought teaching his course online would be next to impossible, reformatting his course hasn’t been the hardest part of the past few weeks.


“The best part of teaching is having your students with you every day,” said Benning, who teaches the same cohort of students for 25 hours a week. “The main reason a lot of us teach is watching the students progress in their skillset and confidence level. Usually the spring semester is where you see students get that confidence.”


While many other colleges have already canceled spring graduation ceremonies, LCCC hasn’t made an official announcement yet.


But Benning suspects graduation, where he’s always been able to give his students a heartfelt sendoff, is “probably not going to happen” this year.


He’s not sure when---or if---he’ll see his students in person again.


“As close as we get as a group, my students usually stay in contact with me,” Benning said. “I’m hopeful this class does the same thing.”


We thank the Wyoming Tribune Eagle for reprint permission. 

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