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How California’s Largest Community College District Is Making the Switch to Teach Online in Response to COVID-19: “Do Your Best at This Moment”

By Mikhail Zinshteyn | March 27, 2020

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One of the nation’s largest community college systems is navigating through a chaotic two weeks before it unexpectedly but with paramount necessity transitions to a fully online set of institutions.

Just a few scenes from its preparations:

  • A video creation team films science instructors conducting lab experiments. The resulting video will then be posted online for students to view on-demand.
  • Professors comfortable with virtual instruction volunteer as teachers’ aides to their less seasoned colleagues to help declutter the jumble of digital bells and whistles when online classes start in less than two weeks.
  • Instructors versed in the digital dashboard that will house much of the online instruction students will receive have been teaching their colleagues how to use the program in jam-packed sessions. Some are imploring their colleagues to hit the mute button as ambient discord disrupts the digital video lessons that dozens of tuned-in instructors are viewing to become ready to teach online, many for the first time.

The Los Angeles Community College District, with nearly a quarter million students, will go to an entirely online learning platform by the end of the month — a response to the dual mandate of educating its students while keeping the public safe from the sometimes lethal effects of the fast-spreading novel coronavirus.

“I think that we’re doing the best we can right now,” said Wendy Bass, a distance education coordinator at Pierce College, one of the nine that makes up LACCD. “Everyone’s really doing this because we want to benefit the students and we don’t want them to lose a semester of college.”

Bass is among the numerous members of faculty familiar with online education that the district has depended on to teach its legion of instructors the basics of online learning before classes resume next week.

“We’re all working like 15-hour days right now,” Bass said last week.

The district’s board mid-month approved an order to move classes online by March 30 and push up spring break, originally set for mid-April, to the last week of March so that the system could have more time to prepare for the switch to virtual instruction. Complicating the transition online was the quick succession of orders from the community college district and state leadership that increasingly limited how many people could be in one room, culminating with California’s governor issuing a statewide stay-at-home order March 19.

Plans to show instructors in-person how to teach with Canvas, the online learning platform that much of the state’s community colleges use, were scrapped. Instead, LACCD began posting daily online trainings organized by different facets of using Canvas, such as how to build course chapters, post announcements for students, load assignments and assess student learning through quizzes and graded discussions.

“That’s where things got a little clumsy,” said Albert D. Ybarra, a faculty member of library and information sciences at Mission College, also part of LACCD. Ybarra is also Mission’s distance learning coordinator. He got word that the in-person trainings for Monday, March 16, were canceled Saturday night, prompting him to collect his team Sunday to redesign the lessons so they’d spread out online across five days.

Other colleges had similar ideas.The district’s online schedule merged individual campus plans, resulting in the same topics being taught multiple times a day last week through Zoom, the video conferencing platform that’s become ubiquitous since the pandemic shut down schools and businesses.

One early online Zoom session that The 74 observed was hamstrung by several participants who didn’t know how to mute their video feeds. So many faculty members were logged into the Zoom conference — about 60 — that the instructor of the training couldn’t identify where the noise was coming from. But the faculty were still grateful, despite the strained ears, thanking the instructor repeatedly for her lesson.

Later, instructors muted all participants before beginning their lessons, bringing more calm to the sessions. Some instructors taught in pairs, with one leading the show-and-tell portion of teaching how to use Canvas while another answered faculty questions in the chat feature that was visible to participants. Sometimes the participants crowd-sourced answers to questions from their peers, such as the best person to contact for specific IT help.

On several occasions, an instructor’s smart device would activate, interrupting the lessons. Some faculty members implored their instructors to slow down, not unlike a student in a class trying to keep up with note-taking. One instructor briefly pulled away from his lesson to address childcare duties. And the grim reality that instructors were teaching through a pandemic was at times front and center.

“Excuse me one moment,” one instructor said toward the end of a nearly five-hour lesson. “I have my window open and emergency services are flying by. Hopefully they’re OK.”

But given the circumstances, faculty interviewed for this story believe that the district’s response is going as well as it can so that students can continue learning.

“I think a lot of us were really worried that this would be disastrous and maybe my optimism is making me speak too soon, but I think just given what I’ve seen this week, people are not only engaged, they’re really interested and taking on the challenge well,” said L. Jacob Skelton, a faculty member at Mission College who teaches English as a second language. Skelton also led some of the online trainings last week.

His students may be affected by the shift to online instruction more than others. Some students who are learning English may struggle with the student-focused tutorials on how to use Canvas, which are offered in English. (A student-focused link on the district’s website for frequently asked questions in Spanish was empty when checked the evening of March 24.)

But Skelton feels that his students may be more prepared. Unlike some other faculty, Skelton already uses Canvas for in-person instruction, meaning his students should be familiar with the tool once classes start next week. “But this is definitely a larger scale of operation,” he said.

Before in-person classes were cancelled, Shelton was able to meet with his students, who voiced their worries about learning online. “One of the biggest concerns was that they’ll have children at home,” he said. “They won’t necessarily be able to focus in a synchronous type of environment.”

He and other faculty guiding others on how to teach online say synchronous — a term that means to teach in real-time — is the ideal but may be too big a transition for both faculty and students new to online instruction. Faculty The 74 spoke with say teachers should decide whether their courses really demand live instruction. If not, on-demand lessons — which can include graded discussions, assigned readings, traditional papers and quizzes of various formats — can suffice.

Shelton will offer live instruction through Zoom for the students who can make it. He says he’ll record his lessons and post them to Canvas for others to view on-demand. An instruction tool allows him to see how long students spent on the Canvas lessons to ensure they’re putting in the time.

A small share of classes that can’t realistically be taught online, such as stage production and lighting classes, are being postponed until May, a district announcement sent March 24 said.

New systemwide rules allow students to withdraw from classes without academic penalty and with refunds, according to statements released last week by the office of Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the 115 colleges that comprise the California Community Colleges. In its rationale, Oakley’s office wrote that “not all students will have the same access to courses converted to online instruction.”

But some requirements are outside the college system’s control. Oakley’s office formally asked the state body that oversees nursing in California to reduce from 75 percent to 50 percent the amount of clinical hours nursing students must spend on patient care. That’s in response to medical facilities limiting the amount of people who can be present because of coronavirus fears.

Gov. Gavin Newsom seemed amenable to this idea in a press briefing Tuesday, where he said “we believe the ability to get fourth-year medical students into the system in that fourth year, getting someone’s almost finished getting a nursing degree, get them license earlier” can increase the number of health workers needed to respond to the demands of COVID-19.

Certified Nursing Assistants close to graduating are in a similar predicament. They need patient hours in certified facilities but access to those is limited because of heightened coronavirus protocols.

“It’s nobody’s fault, obviously, but it is what it is,” said Parvaneh Mohammadian, who teaches anatomy and physiology at Mission College and overseas its Allied Health programs, including those for CNAs and pharmacy technicians. Her colleagues have pressed the state’s public health department, which oversees CNA certification, for guidance.

To continue teaching science courses, Mission College will record lab experiments so that students can watch them on-demand, said Ybarra.

Mohammadian said she’ll have students discuss the problems in their manuals after watching recorded videos. The entire college system also plans to purchase access to Labster, an online lab tool that simulates real-world outcomes. “We all are trying to be creative,” Mohammadian said.

For students with hearing impairments, Bass at Pierce College is helping to oversee the development of student-focused Canvas training videos that include a sign-language interpreter. That’s in addition to already available Canvas training videos that make use of closed captioning.

Last week’s Zoom trainings for instructors included numerous tips on how to personalize the Canvas dashboard for individual students. One instructor showed viewers how to give students with disabilities one set of time on quizzes while the rest of the class received a different amount to complete the assessment. Another instructor demonstrated how to offer different due dates on assignments for individual students. The district is leading training on teaching students with disabilities this week. Another suggestion was to develop course content gradually, such as one or two weeks in advance, rather than feeling the pressure to have the entire semester planned and loaded to Canvas at the start.

Faculty conscientiousness also focused on preventing student misdeeds. Several instructors teaching faculty how to use Canvas offered lessons on thwarting cheating. For certain assessments, some recommended shuffling the questions. Another tip was to instruct Canvas to show only one question at a time and then prevent students from seeing their answers once they submitted them — steps instructors said could reduce instances of students taking the assessment earlier in the day and sharing answers with others.

For graded discussions, one instructor recommended keeping students from viewing what others have written until they posted responses themselves, helping to ensure students write out replies based on their readings rather than summarizing what their peers had already written.

Because Mohammadian is comfortable with Canvas — she taught sessions on how to use it last week — she’s volunteered as an aide to several other colleagues new to online instruction. Ybarra said he’s seeing many experienced faculty “buddying up” with those who could use the help. “It’s a true collective college effort right now,” he said, who added that he’s working on video wellness workshops as a service to faculty experiencing anxiety about the transition to online.

Skelton reminds faculty that this rapid shift to online requires “realistic expectations,” he said. Last week his college was distributing webcams to some faculty so that they’d be ready to teach from home. “Don’t feel like you have to go and try to impress everybody. Do your best at this moment.”

But that doesn’t mean faculty new to Canvas and online instruction can coast for the remainder of this spring break, Mohammadian said. “This week is really for the faculty to take some time to work on Canvas, to try it, you really have to try it and make mistakes.”

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