Montgomery College tackles challenges of remote learning

Dr. Michael Mills, Vice President, E-Learning, Innovation and Teaching Excellence, Montgomery College

Dr. Michael Mills, Vice President, E-Learning, Innovation and Teaching Excellence, Montgomery College

As schools throughout the country prepare for the fall semester, the success of students will hinge in part on the preparedness of the faculty. Specifically, pedagogical and technological preparedness.

Montgomery College, a two-year community college in Montgomery County, Maryland, was impacted like every other educational institution by COVID-19 beginning in March. Faculty who historically had not used various online tools had to scramble to move into a remote environment. It was the Wild West of online teaching.  Whatever worked to keep students engaged was fair game: video, email, telephone, texting apps, learning management system and even traditional snail mail.

Jeff Selingo, in a July 16 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, said that instead of institutions worrying about Plexiglass and other virus barriers, leaders should turn their attention to embracing remote learning. “If colleges continue to succumb to shortsightedness and have nothing to offer next semester but another diminished online educational experience, the repercussions could be felt for years to come,” Selingo wrote.

Playing to its strength of agility and realizing that an unfocused approach could not continue into the summer and fall, Montgomery College decided in the spring that summer and fall classes would be fully online or in a remote setting. The College embarked on a Herculean task of training all faculty who never taught online for remote teaching. As a result, a seven-week required Structured Remote Teaching (SRT) training was developed by a team of faculty, staff and administrators and offered to about 700 full-time and part-time faculty using CARES Act funding.  Participants received instruction rooted in best practices and guidance from a team of instructional designers and 31 faculty mentors.

This training, offered by the Office of E-learning, Innovation and Teaching Excellence (ELITE), combined synchronous and asynchronous components to focus on pedagogy and technology. Course design and training were centered around student engagement, with participants being reminded throughout that students would be coming to classes with the pandemic and social unrest playing out in the world around them.

• Blackboard Essentials

• Collaborate Ultra and Zoom

• Text Editor

• Assessments

• Grade Center

• Communication Tools

• Embedded Support Resources

• Discipline-based Best Practice

While the training was not prescriptive in nature, each section or module did require participants to complete a quiz.  A capstone project had to be developed that included learning modules, communication tools and assessments. Only after completion and successful review by an instructional designer was the faculty approved to teach in the upcoming semesters.

It was important for college leadership to emphasize that while faculty were not expected to have a cookie-cutter template for each course, students would benefit from having courses that were easy to navigate.  This common student experience is expected to aid in course retention and completion.

The faculty at Montgomery College responded in incredible ways.  While they acknowledged the training was intense, they also understood the pedagogical transformation within their courses.  One part-time faculty recently stated that he compared the course he created this summer with his emergency remote course, and the contrast was numbing. Another participant stated, “SRT training has taken face-to-face teaching to a new and higher level. Professors, even professors who would have been considered well organized in a traditional classroom setting, must think through every “move” to weave classes seamlessly so that student interest is maintained, especially in long evening classes.” And yet another said, “No one likes change, but (this training has) done an incredible job at facilitating an unbelievable pivot to the future in the midst of a very trying time.”

While this initial training has been successful, we realize that if we are to meet the complex needs of our students moving forward, we will have to continue to re-imagine education. SRT 2.0 will include an even stronger focus on the academic disciplines and the content faculties deliver.  Program advising will be take center stage. Online support services such as tutoring and embedded coaching will be enhanced.

Montgomery College has leaned into remote learning. Post-COVID we will be an institution that will be able to boast about even stronger academics and support services.

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