DANVILLE – More than 40 Danville Area Community College faculty members found themselves back in the classroom last week to learn how to teach the remainder of the spring semester in virtual classrooms online.
DACC officials made the decision to transition to eLearning last week after Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker shut down schools and colleges statewide for two weeks, effective March 16. On March 20, that initial shutdown was extended to April 7 in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“By locking all campus buildings and the Hoopeston Higher Education Center, we’re in total compliance with the governor’s shelter-in-place order,” DACC President Stephen Nacco said Monday. “Students won’t be permitted in any DACC building through April 7, or for as long as the governor’s directive is in effect.”
Nacco promised, though, that learning would continue at the college, and currently enrolled students would not lose credits and would be able to finish the semester remotely.
“We’re not going to close,” he said. “We’re not just going to stop and abandon students.”
With DACC’s classes canceled last week, it provided the opportunity for faculty to learn how to upload lessons and classroom materials in preparation to teach their students through a learning management system called Blackboard that delivers online instruction.
“During the week of March 16, more than 40 full- and part-time faculty participated in Blackboard training,” Director of Online Learning Maggie Hoover said. “DACC’s Online Learning & Services Department, as well as several seasoned faculty members, hosted training sessions focused on best practices to ensure academic continuity and accessibility through the use of the learning management system.”
“Blackboard also offers multimedia capabilities with its program, such as videos and other sharing among faculty,” Nacco added.
“It’s been an incredible week seeing the instructors finding features on Blackboard,” he said. “If they’re not quite ready, they’ll have a buffer week because we’ll go live on March 30.”
Hoover said, “Online learning was launched at DACC in 1998. All DACC instructors, both full- and part-time, have access to this system.”
“About one-third of the faculty already uses it as a complement to their regular teaching,” Nacco said.
Blackboard is designed to work two different ways: Synchronous learning with the instructor and students online at the same time, and asynchronous learning that more closely resembles independent study.
Through Blackboard “students have access to class materials, such as handouts, discussion notes, lecture slides, links and videos,” Hoover said. “Interactive tools that support communication — including discussion boards, whiteboard, email and textbook integrations — also are available.
“The system also supports assessment activities, such as quizzes, discussions and drop-box assignment submissions, as well as access to a grade book that displays individual records for each enrolled student,” she said.
Nacco said, “With synchronous learning, instructors pose a question and all the students have to answer. It forces everyone to participate, and it allows faculty to assess everyone.”
Hoover agreed. “Through the video conferencing tool inside Blackboard, instructors and students can see each other via webcam, hear and ask questions via voice or instant messaging, and share presentations and ideas using a common whiteboard or by sharing screens.
“Sessions are recorded and can be posted with other course materials in a course shell or shared outside of Blackboard as a direct link,” she said. “This method allows for more of an in-class feel with discussions and communication occurring just as it would in class.”
Adult students who are older than traditional college age students, however, do better with asynchronous learning “because they are doing it on their own time, especially if they have a job. You’re not time- or base-bound,” Nacco said.
Following this week’s spring break, all of DACC’s classes will be online, including the career-tech classes. Nacco is hopeful that once the statewide shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted, some labs and career-tech classes might still take place on campus after April 7 if class sizes can be kept to 10 or less.
“All classes will be exclusively online, including career-and-technical classes like welding, manufacturing and automotive technologies,” he said. “You’ll find that the faculty building their Blackboard pages has done a wonderful job populating the online courses with content that will complement the hands-on learning students receive in CTE classes.”
One feature of Blackboard is the ability to download video that can be used as class content. Culinary arts instructor Dana Wheeler plans to team up with Laura Hensgen, director of community education and video development, to record cooking demonstration videos for her culinary arts students.
Recognizing that some students might not have access to a computer or the Internet at home, Nacco said the college’s Information Technology department activated 22 laptop computers “with everything students need” that can be loaned to those students.
“While we won’t have computer labs available for students who don’t have access to Blackboard, the college is looking at providing other alternatives, including the lending of laptops that Mark Barnes and his staff are souping up for service,” he said. “These were a gift to the college from Old National Bank.”
Hoover and Jung Ae Merrick, online support and web technician, also will be available to provide students with training on how to use Blackboard.
“We’re going to be prepared to be online through May 14,” Nacco said. “We’re ready and nimble for whatever is on order for the day.”
Unlike some colleges in the state that have canceled commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2020, Nacco said DACC intends to have commencement later in the summer, possibly in June.
“We’re talking to the board about moving commencement and not having a truncated one, but a full one later in an air-conditioned gymnasium,” he said, referring to the installation of air conditioning for the first time in the Mary Miller Gymnasium. “They work too hard for these degrees.”
“We have to be ready for anything,” Nacco said, referring to unpredictability of the COVID-19 situation. “We have staff people who are resilient. I run the college, but I can’t do it on my own.”