Starting - but not ending - this semester at Dickinson State University, students will be able to access almost every class in person and virtually.
“The reason we had to make that possible is of course when people, either students or instructors, test positive for COVID or are otherwise asked to quarantine … they’re going to have to be able to attend classes remotely,” said Stephen Easton, president of Dickinson State. “What we’re hoping to do at Dickinson is basically stay in that … hybrid flex mode … so that we’re teaching in both those delivery methods simultaneously. We’re trying to turn that reality … into an opportunity … to get some interesting new students in the future.”
One-time federal funding through the CARES Act has enabled the university to install two cameras in every classroom and to hire distance learning specialists from Learning Corps to help the university’s professors be more effective at teaching online.
“We’re in the process of putting a camera at the front of every classroom and a camera in the back of every classroom,” Easton said. “The one in the back of the classroom focuses on the instructor; the one in the front of the classroom focuses on the class.”
Easton said he thinks the change will help meet an important part of the university’s mission - accessibility.
“We’re in sort of a transition semester right now, but we think there’s a lot of opportunity out here. It’s a core to our mission to be accessible, and part of being accessible is low cost tuition … this is another way for us to meet that part of our mission,” he said.
Easton said the change brings new possibilities to the region and the university.
“We hope that we will have some additional students who might not get to our campus very often, if ever, but will still be able to pursue an education pretty close to what the students on campus will be receiving,” he said. “The two groups of people that we think who will be particularly interested in that will be those (with) some credit but not a degree … and those who want to get started on a college degree, but also high school seniors who want to get a head start on their college education.”
The university currently has about 40 students from Dickinson High School taking classes on campus. With the new online capabilities, Easton is hoping to expand this to other schools as well.
“We are hopeful we can market this option more widely in Western North Dakota and perhaps in Montana to high school students who couldn’t get here physically but who could take classes remotely from Bowman or Beulah or Watford City (for example),” he said.
Easton hopes that opening up the campus virtually may bring more students of various backgrounds.
“It will increase diversity of our students in a class. For example, some of the people who might be accessing classes, they could be well past the traditional age of college students and have a lot of life experience,” he said. “Because my degree is in accounting from Dickinson State, I think about maybe there are some people who are in bookkeeping departments of some organization … maybe it would be a hassle for those people to get from their work place to our campus but less of a hassle for them to access an accounting course remotely from a conference room at their workplace.”
Those non-traditional students, Easton said, could be a benefit to the university’s traditionally younger students.
“I’m excited about what those remote students could bring in terms of life experience and a diversity of experiences to our students who are traditional students who are here face-to-face,” he said. “When some issue comes up with accounting … ‘You know, I was just dealing with an issue like that a couple weeks ago.’”
The dual teaching methods will be more work for faculty members, Easton knows, but he’s confident in their ability to make it work.
“At the end of the day, an effective teacher can be effective in more than one environment, and we have some pretty darn good teachers here, so I’m confident that they’re going to be able to be effective in both of these environments,” he said.
In the meantime, the team at Learning Corps is helping the staff strengthen their online teaching skills.
Liz Simpson, who has a doctorate in educational psychology, is also a managing partner of Learning Corps.
“What we do is mostly about helping people build the capacity to use the tools that they have available to them … The first thing we do is build an online class that covers best practices for teaching online and in a blended environment, and it covers all sorts of things such as how to do an instructional video and how to build relationships with your students, the ones that aren’t right in front of you.”
Simpson said their team is a responsive one.
“We come in and we respond to what the faculty’s needs are, and we bring all of our skill sets to help them build the best learning environment that they can using all the tools they have available,” she said.
They have interactive sessions with the faculty as well as individual consultations.
The team members come from a variety of backgrounds.
“My specialty is how people learn in different learning environments, so I can tell you … If you say, ‘My students just aren’t engaged. I don’t know what’s happening here. They’re not showing up. They’re not responding.’ I can help you with that because I can see what part of your learning environment is not connecting to them,” Simpson said.
Maggi Murdock, who has a doctorate in political science, is also a managing partner of Learning Corps.
She said their team works on capacity, communication, compassion and community.
Communication is an important aspect of building community, especially for those students who are quarantined and attending classes virtually.
“The first thing I learned … when I first started in distance education … was if you’re going to do high-tech, do high-touch, and that means that you are in contact with every single student as often as you possibly can be … It really is doing what the faculty know how to do, just in a different kind of way,” Murdock said.
“The faculty here are so dedicated. We can tell. They really want to help their students,” she said.