A virus could have ended 108 years of uninterrupted classes. Faculty and staff mobilized to keep students on track.
The spring 2020 term began with a focus on Industry 4.0. Legislators and business leaders gathered in NWTC’s Trades and Engineering Technologies center to see the potential of 3D printing, artificial intelligence and machine learning in Northeast Wisconsin. Faculty, students, and guest speakers provided lab demonstrations of Industry 4.0 impacts on manufacturing, logistics, healthcare, and more.
In other areas of the College, leaders met to discuss the next year’s budget. A new sign was installed on Packerland Drive. NWTC received a grant to help low-income students in and outside school. We held open houses, arranged internships, awarded scholarships. Thousands of college students and working adults made movies, found malware, climbed power poles, practiced blood draws, analyzed chemicals, machined parts, built walls, fought fires and learned teaching techniques.
In early March, it all stopped.
And then it all changed.
In response to the COVID-19 epidemic, NWTC closed all buildings to the public. Employees had two weeks to find ways to deliver classes and student services remotely. That flexibility would require more than propping camera phones in front of presenters. Labs and clinical experiences had to be provided. Large events had to be reimagined so prospective students could still find the right program “fit.” Staff considered options ranging from high-tech simulations to video chat to exchanging packets of paper by mail. About 300 laptop computers were gathered from throughout the College and checked out to students with no computer access at home.
“I am so impressed with our staff and faculty,” said NWTC President Dr. Jeff Rafn. “We are all thinking creatively and doing everything we can to ensure our students continue to receive an education.”
Instruction: Learning while teaching
When the Safer at Home order came, instructors found ways to continue teaching remotely, even in hands-on programs.
“I’m used to interacting with the students face to face,” said Kevin Weigman as he prepared to teach second-and third-year construction electricity apprentices. He was organizing materials at a multimedia command center in an empty classroom. He said some students have poor internet service at home, so they turn off the video during class and just listen to him talk. So when Weigman is about to share visuals, he reminds them to turn on their cameras.
“I have to stretch myself a little bit,” he said, even with years of teaching experience. “I use the document cam and I invert it so they can see me talking, so they can see me, but I find myself looking at the screen rather than the camera, because I want to see their faces.”
He said distance learning is working better than he expected, but it’s not easy for instructors or students. “It takes more prep, and it’s a lot harder to keep students engaged because there are external things going on. You’ve got the kids in there, they’ve got the dog, the cat, something catches their eye out the window… It’s just human nature.”
As he got used to the technology, he found he could move around the room while teaching again. “I write stuff on the board, then I come over here and write for the document camera, then I flip it down, so I’ve learned to be a little bit better with the technology. I’m not perfect yet, but…I’m not afraid of it. Like anything, you practice, you use it and you get better.”
Student Services: Already on it
“For us it was very easy,” said Cindy Dahlman, longtime Admissions Advisor. “We communicate regularly with students through email, phone, and text already.”
While staff work from home, calls to Student Services are automatically forwarded to cell phones, “an awesome thing to be able to do. Students call our office number and we don’t skip a beat. It’s like we are right in the office.”
In-person meetings were changed to web conferences. “Thankfully, with applications like Zoom and WebEx, those students that want to meet face to face with us still can.”
”The events were the tricky part. Some of our programs have info sessions that are mandatory. For me, our Electrical Power and Gas Utility programs have well-attended and highly-anticipated in-person program orientations.” Faculty, staff and administrators will turn the two large events into videoconferences, serving students and parents.
Moving complicated information like orientation online demands more of presenters, Dahlman said.
“With all of our events, we have to be thorough in the explanations and communications beforehand. Having a solid understanding of technology is also important. My team has talked to a lot of students over the last couple of weeks and all have been very appreciative of us moving to virtual delivery.”
Completion: Prioritizing the cap and gown
NWTC’s May graduation involves about 700 students walking across the stage while cheers echo through a mostly-full Resch Center. Some colleges will hold virtual ceremonies this spring, but NWTC chose to reschedule the all-college commencement for June 26 in Green Bay.
Dr. Rafn has placed a high priority on recognizing the students’ achievements with an in-person graduation if possible, since many are beating the odds by completing a college credential. About 40 percent of NWTC students are low-income. Many are working, caring for children, coping with family illnesses or attending college with disabilities. Some are preparing to be the first college graduates in their families.
“Graduation is an important celebration of a significant milestone for our students and their families,” Rafn said. “For many of them, this is the first time they will walk across a stage and receive a college diploma. We want them to have that experience.”
Students: Attending classes, missing classrooms
In some programs, hands-on activities will have to be resumed after quarantine is over. Kelly Stewart, Law Enforcement Associate Degree student, works as part of NWTC’s building security team but misses the opportunity to practice new skills in class.
“With Law Enforcement, our career is more hands-on, so [social distancing means] not doing the hands-on scenarios.”
She laughed about wearing pajama pants to attend online lectures, but said online classes have their own challenges. “Since you’re at home, you have food, and TV, and there are other people in the background, so it’s hard to stay motivated and pay attention to the instructors.”
She said she looks forward to the day she can get back to practicing scenarios and learning on campus. “I learn better with hands-on.”
NWTC Community: Pulling together
Since the start of social distancing, Dr. Rafn has emphasized that everyone feels uncertain amid so many changes, but our priorities haven’t changed.
“All of us at NWTC remain focused on the success of our students. We will get through this together.”