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With peer development model, Butler’s COVID-19 remote delivery instruction was successful

Butler Community College's choir in a Zoom class meeting
Published: Thursday, August 6th, 2020

Fewer students dropped classes in the spring 2020 semester than spring 2019

When Butler Community College needed to pivot to virtual classes during the COVID-19 shutdown this past spring, folks like Mark Jarvis, Haylee Dass and Mary McMackin — faculty and staff who champion online instruction —led the charge to help faculty convert nearly 1,700 traditional in-person and blended delivery classes to remote-only virtual classes.

The trio, along with many others in faculty development, instructional technology and academic departments, has been part of a years-long ongoing strategy at Butler to promote online instruction and provide resources to help faculty who want to create or adapt classes to an online format, noted Lori Winningham, Butler vice president of academics.

So when in-person and blended classes needed to shift to being virtual, the college already had a framework in place, and it’s likely why student retention rates for the spring 2020 semester were even better than spring 2019 when it was business usual.

Butler has a liberal withdrawal rate, allowing students to withdraw from a class as late as three weeks before the end of the semester. Officials expected that with the quick and unexpected shift in how classes were delivered, students might take advantage of that, Winningham said.

Instead, they hung in there. The withdrawal rate for this past spring was only 5.29% compared to 7.25% in spring 2019, Winningham said.

“All of that handholding and extra attention has paid off,” said Winningham.

‘Scramble the jets’

Jarvis is an English professor who started leading Butler’s faculty development in 2012, an effort that includes improving faculty confidence in all modes of instructional delivery. Dass is director of Butler Online, which refers to Butler’s robust and expanding list of online-only offerings. Butler has been offering online courses since 1989 and this spring, it offered nearly 550 online-only classes.

As a digital support specialist, McMackin, a professor of behavioral sciences, is the designated faculty member within her department who is available for consulting — a sort of contact-a-faculty lifeline — when colleagues need help with online instruction.

“We already had a good existing framework with department leads. There’s nothing better than having someone in the discipline you can count on,” Jarvis said, calling that concept of using faculty training faculty an “organic model” of peer professional development.

“When we were in ‘scramble the jets’ mode, we put out a call to anyone with experience teaching online and developed a spreadsheet of those faculty and their expertise.” Within two days, 80 faculty stepped up, joining the list of designated departmental digital support specialists, he noted.

“It was all-hands on deck.”

For McMackin, Jarvis and Dass, things haven’t slowed down with the start of the fall semester closing in.

“I haven’t had a spring break yet,” said McMackin, in late June. She guessed that she probably spent 60 to 80 hours a week during the spring semester, sharing her expertise or setting up classes for fellow faculty. That was in addition to her own teaching load, which included four online and four in-person classes she needed to convert to remote delivery.

Even before the shutdown, McMackin had created virtual course templates that she shared with others. Faculty can populate the templates with their class specifics; another bonus is that the templates meet accessibility and other important quality criteria of an online course.

“It provides a starting point for instructors and gives a uniform format that will be familiar to students,” said McMackin.

McMackin thinks one reason students were able to adapt to virtual-only courses is that Butler uses a learning management system called Canvas. All faculty are expected to use Canvas, regardless of whether a course is a traditional classroom, blended or online-only class, to input important course information like syllabi and grades.

“The students were familiar with that,” she said.

For those faculty who needed technology to transition to remote delivery, laptops were pulled from classrooms and provided to instructors, Winningham added.

For classes where certification or accreditation standards called for hands-on instruction — such as automotive technology, fire science, emergency medical technician and welding — arrangements were made to bring those students back to campus in May for small-group instruction, Winningham said.

Planning ahead

“The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that preparation and flexibility are key to continuing the learning experience for our students,” Dass, the Butler Online director. “Training faculty has been a priority for our department and continues to be so. In addition to training faculty on the use of various technologies available, we also try to provide flexibility in how those technologies are used.”

In early July, Butler announced its fall 2020 semester plan, which includes a different semester timeline than normal with the goal of having traditional face-to-face courses as well as in-person lab classes and technical training courses. The fall semester will start Aug. 10 and finish earlier than usual on Nov. 24 with the removal of the traditional October fall break.

But thanks to work being done by Jarvis, Dass and others, Butler would be able to pivot to remote delivery.

For example, usually every summer Jarvis offers some sort of faculty development training. This summer, his team hosted a virtual weeklong “Boot Up Camp” that 50 faculty attended to sharpen their online instructional skills. The faculty development office will also continue weekly training sessions during the fall semester, just as it did when the college moved its instruction to all remote in March.

“We are poised to go completely remote again if needed for everyone’s safety,” Winningham said. “We hope that won’t be the case, but we are ready if needed.”