Wednesday, January 26, 2022
Jan. 26, 2022

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Clark College Pivots and Adapts to Online Learning


In mid-March 2020, Clark College abruptly pivoted in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Launching on a new path, we moved all student services and more than 2,000 classes online so that our students could remain engaged and on track in their educational pursuits.

Ten months into the pandemic, we can see how this disruption has tested our ability to adapt and innovate during a crisis.

Predominantly working from home, Clark’s faculty and staff rapidly redesigned curriculum, created new processes, and implemented new strategies to deliver education and services to students virtually. Fueled by our belief that everyone deserves access to higher education, we have worked tirelessly to ensure that our students could continue progressing toward their goals, no matter what barriers they faced.

We created new options–from online mental-health counseling to Zoom tutoring sessions. To ensure our students could complete their degrees and enter the workforce, we designed ways to safely conduct required lab classes. Recognizing that all students do not have access at home to computers and high-speed internet, we helped level the playing field by distributing hundreds of laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to our students.

Clark College Foundation began a donation campaign to fund emergency grants to help our students experiencing financial hardship. Meanwhile, our staff worked to disburse federal CARES Act funding to hundreds of students. Our Penguin Pantry, with the help our Cuisine and Professional Baking students and staff, distributed food boxes to 576 students.

The need is enormous. More than a third of our students are low income. In a typical year, these students struggle to maintain basic supports: housing, transportation, health care, childcare, and food.

The pandemic also has further highlighted the disparities that persist for BIPOC, low-income, and first-generation college student populations. These students have been affected disproportionally by the global pandemic and resulting economic crisis. They are more likely than the general population to have experienced job loss, childcare issues, and family disruption. Most distressing, they are more likely to contract and die from COVID-19.

Despite all we have done to support our students during the pandemic, I am heavyhearted that 15 percent of our students could not attend classes this fall due to their financial, family, and/or personal hardships.

At the same time, I am inspired by the stories of our students’ remarkable strength and tenacity. Despite so many difficulties, our students are completing their studies at kitchen tables, often while helping their children with their own online classes. They are mastering Zoom and creating online study groups. These resilient students are our community’s future. If you know them as I do, you will share my boundless hope for our future.

We have an obligation to be just as resilient and resourceful as our students.

Higher education has been irrevocably changed by the global pandemic. Moving forward, students will expect us to provide a wide range of teaching modalities that accommodate their schedules and needs. Now that they have become adept with online learning, many will want to continue this flexible option. Even students who opt for in-person classes may expect more access to learning through virtual reality and other digital tools.

We are ready to assist our students to be successful in their studies, their future careers, and their lives. Even before the pandemic, we mapped out fully online degree pathways for many programs. Our nursing program has adopted new A.I. and virtual simulations to ensure students fulfilled their clinical hours during the pandemic when they could not go into our local clinics and hospitals. Online teaching accelerated our faculty’s use of open educational resources (OER) instead of costly textbooks. These changes are here to stay—and they benefit our students.

Colleges will need creative solutions to bring students back to school. The U.S. Census Bureau survey in October 2020 found more than 40 percent of households nationwide report a prospective student had canceled plans to attend community college. A hopeful scenario is that, after the pandemic, students will return to community college in large numbers and enroll in more courses. A more worrisome possibility is that many of these students who opted out of completing community college will be lost permanently to higher education, with long-term economic consequences—both for them personally and for our nation at large. Students will need wrap-around supports and programs that lead to living-wage jobs and success in life.

Since our founding in 1933 during the Great Depression, Clark College has been at the center of our community’s economic recoveries. We are the trainers of tomorrow’s workforce. This was true during the Great Depression, during our last recession in 2007-08, and it remains one of our vital roles today.

After all, education is not the only industry undergoing disruptive, fundamental, and permanent change. Every industry—including retail, distribution, manufacturing, and health care—will need to evolve to meet new customer expectations, new protocols, and a nationwide call for greater equity and inclusion.

Jim Collins, author of “Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All,” writes: “There will be no ‘new normal.’ There will only be a continuous series of ‘not normal’ times.” In short, every industry must learn to adapt, to transform—and, most importantly, to create structures agile enough to allow them to transform again and again.

At Clark College, we understand our post-pandemic role in helping industry recover and transform. Our faculty already are discussing the COVID-caused changes in their respective fields. Clark College is excited about our role in providing the training that will help our community remain nimble and adaptive regardless of whatever challenges it faces.