For years now, it has been said that educators are preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist as technology and innovation change at exponential rates. At the same time, education has been criticized for moving slowly and maintaining traditional approaches and practices (Newton, 2019). The COVID-19 pandemic changed the world and prompted swift change at an incredible rate that proved education could be adaptive and agile when necessary. This essay will describe one college’s experience and lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic using a participant observation methodology.
Chippewa Valley Technical College (CVTC) is in west central Wisconsin and serves a district consisting of 11 different counties. The College boasts offering over 120 unique programs and has a powerful reputation for its engaging and hands-on approach to learning (Chippewa Valley Technical College, 2021). The mission of CVTC post-pandemic states that “CVTC delivers innovative, applied, and flexible education that supports a diverse community of learners, improves the lives of students, and adds value to our communities.” The words “flexible” and “diverse community of learners” were not part of the pre-pandemic mission statement.
The pandemic became real to CVTC on St. Patrick’s Day in 2020. It was on that day, the Friday when Spring Break was starting, that the governor declared a “Safer at Home Order.” This meant that the College would be closed to its students and employees. The remainder of this essay will focus on the Business, Arts, Sciences and Academic Initiatives division of the College through the lens of the division’s academic leaders. The division includes all general education, business, and applied services such as cosmetology and culinary management courses, in addition to High School Academies that serve K12 school districts.
The division’s executive dean serves on the Emergency Operations Command team and has experience with risk scenario case studies. During Fall 2019 the full division had reviewed, and updated business continuity plans as part of its charge from the liability insurance carrier. The dean carried these plans in her work tote for easy accessibility recognizing that it was a matter of time before the headlines of the gloomy outlook of the pandemic came to the CVTC region. Prior to the Safer at Home order, the division’s full administrative staff participated in a crash course to learn how to use Microsoft Teams technology and One Drive to access files when not directly connected to the college’s network. With the onset of the Safer at Home order naturally there was uneasiness, and there was never a more crucial time for the division’s administration to lead.
Several fortunate coincidences allowed for a fast pivot in the Business, Arts, Sciences, and Academic Initiatives division to allow quality education to continue throughout the pandemic. The year prior, the College had invested in a new Learning Management System (LMS) and all courses were required to have a course shell built in the LMS while many courses had transitioned to offering online sections, including a pilot for a science lab course. Living in Wisconsin and navigating challenging winters with dangerous travel conditions had provided opportunities to flip instruction, sometimes for extended periods, to alternate delivery when weather conditions required the change. The Dean had developed a practice of sending communications that included video updates to the division’s faculty on a weekly basis and divisional leadership emphasized the words of applied, flexible, and innovative regularly in those communications. These words were instrumental in creating the mindset of being able to adapt.
Quickly it was discovered that the business continuity plans were of little use. Risk scenario case study exercises were no match for the reality of the situation. Variables such as access to the college, classroom resources, and face-to-face delivery were “off the table.” The leadership team gathered and grounded itself in the college’s mission statement while they decided to divide out the workload of creating alternative delivery options for each of its programs. In the division there were several courses that could easily switch to fully online delivery. Other areas such as Science, Cosmetology, and Culinary Management required more thought. Several ideas were shared including flipping content to only include lecture-based work as many other sister colleges were doing. The faculty team, however, was committed to the mission of applied learning and focused on innovation. All three areas opted to develop resource kits for students to have at home so that the applied learning that is CVTC could continue. With the College closed and off limits, flexibility was key. Culinary relied on a local partner that created meal kits to help with its distribution. Science expanded its pilot and contracted with a lab in a box company to have kits delivered to students’ homes or developed labs consisting of common at-home materials. Cosmetology assembled and distributed kits to their students from one of the faculty member’s home doorsteps. Students could remain engaged in the type of education they had come to expect! The academic leaders provided the resources to the faculty to carry out these plans. Despite the challenges that faced learning, the disruption for CVTC’s students was minimized.
Following the initial continuance plans, priorities shifted. Back-up plans for all faculty were developed two deep for each course to cover when, and if, individual faculty members became ill with COVID. With courses continuing and coverage plans in place, the divisional leaders felt that the COVID operating procedures for the team had been established. The leadership team met daily via Teams for situation updates and to stay connected with one another. The team realized that the personal relationships among the divisional members and engagement with students needed to be a priority to keep spirits high and maintain the drive for continuing. Uncertainties facing students and divisional staff were evident, so personal connection with leadership was critical.
Several ideas were presented and trialed, and ultimately some core engagement strategies emerged. Each Monday, the leadership team would present a reflective prompt to the division that focused on instruction and demonstrated innovative technology for enhanced collaborative practices. Examples included using Padlet, Google forms, and Kami. The intent was that faculty would learn an innovative approach they could replicate to engage students, and faculty would stay connected with their colleagues. Each Thursday afternoon, divisional leaders would host a Teams chat session for 15 minutes with the division’s Program Directors and Department Chairs. This forum allowed for regular updates, asking questions, and modeling live chat sessions. Every Friday, the Dean would send a weekly communication and video recorded on the College’s LMS, and she would wear a t-shirt representing a favorite destination previously traveled to. The idea behind this was to have regular communication, a personal connection via video, and encourage the mind to remember times of travel for those who were struggling to be at home. The leadership team modeled engagement strategies so that they could demonstrate that connectivity and relationships were still possible even during challenging and distant times.
The brand and quality of courses and events that CVTC had developed a reputation for continued. The BASA team was known for its professionalism and its commitment to building community with its faculty. Birthday cards that were previously sent to faculty and staff, shifted to electronic cards during the pandemic. Faculty team building events that had occurred during regular operations shifted to virtual events including recipe sharing and dress up days at home. The faculty were sent college swag including coffee mugs to use during their online live classes to connect with the college brand and virtual backgrounds were used with pictures from the college classrooms and other landmarks for the same purpose. Eventually the academic year ended, and it was deemed a success. Every faculty member persevered to the end and course and program completion rates were higher than during pre-pandemic times (Chippewa Valley Technical College, 2021). The faculty, together with the students, had learned to help and support one another and stay focused on successful outcomes.
The time eventually came when the buildings reopened, and things could return to normal operations. While some faculty and staff longed to return to the prior normal, not everyone embraced returning to old ways. Innovative approaches and preferences had been tried and the world of work and education would have lasting changes. The college prioritized returning to face-to-face classes with a rationale that matched the student preferences.
Sustainable practices that continue in the division today include the increase in online and MyChoice delivery methods based on student preference. In addition, the College moved away from telepresence delivery methods that equipped faculty to reach students at multiple on-campus locations to Online Live delivery utilizing MS Teams and Zoom. Feedback from both faculty and students indicated that engagement with Online Live courses was higher than telepresence and increased course success rates was another position indicator, (Chippewa Valley Technical College, 2021). CVTC continues to utilize enhanced technology including a robust camera system with video recording features in Cosmetology to accommodate students in-person and at a distance. At-home lab kits for the Science Department have expanded and a new position was created to manage the kits and distribution process. Divisional leaders continue to connect with program directors and department chairs weekly using MS Teams chats to maintain accessibility. CVTC’s district includes campuses across five different communities, and campus meetings remain virtual using Zoom or Teams to better reach faculty at the various campuses in a more equitable way.
The college also changed. It adopted a Weekly communication and video series called “The Weekly” that it shares with the entire college community, and the BASA division maintains their weekly communique with updates and celebrations at that level. The college has expanded its meeting rooms to accommodate virtual attendees, which has increased program advisory committee participation. CVTC’s open campus remote work practices now expand beyond faculty ranks and these lasting changes prompted an updated mission statement to include the word of flexibility and diverse community of learners, (Chippewa Valley Technical College, 2021).
The emphasis and modeling of a collaborative culture has always been important to the BASA division, so much so that norms and collective commitments are established and regularly communicated and referred to in conversations with faculty and staff. These norms include seeking to understand the “why,” offering viable options, focusing on the student experience, and recognizing that everyone has a voice. These agreed upon norms were foundational prior to the pandemic and continue to ground the division’s work post-pandemic.
During unprecedented times, when there was a great deal of uncertainty, CVTC’s Business, Arts, Sciences, and Academic Initiatives Division used their tools and ability to focus and exercised creative thinking, innovation and unlearning of old ways. Assumptions of needing to maintain traditional ways were overcome. Notions that professional and academic work and relationships could only be accomplished inside brick and mortar, were proven wrong. The fact was that the Division maintained enrollments and student success and completion remained stable (Chippewa Valley Technical College, 2021). The period of the great disengagement turned out to be an opportunity to reengage and offer options for engagement (McClure &Fryar, 2022). Unintentionally, the college’s equity work for connecting and belonging was propelled. Both students and staff now have options to best meet their needs and preferences for engagement, and choice has become a new norm.
As a learning college, Chippewa Valley Technical College and the Business, Arts and Sciences division continue to reflect and adjust. Post-pandemic, the college has unmistakable evidence of living its mission of delivering innovative, applied, and flexible education that supports a diverse community of learners, improves the lives of students, and adds value to our communities. The lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is evident, and students and staff together continue to develop the best practices that shape the future of work and education through application of this ongoing case study.
- 2022 CVTC Fact Book. (n.d.). Retrieved July 12, 2022, from https://issuu.com/chippewavalleytechnicalcollege/docs/cvtc_fact_book_2022?fr=sNzM3NzI2Mjc5MTM
- Chippewa Valley Technical College. (2021) Student Success Report. Unpublished internal company document.
- McClure, K. R., & Fryar, A. H. (2022, July 12). Opinion: The great faculty disengagement. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved July 2, 2022, from https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-great-faculty-disengagement
- Newton, D. (2019, January 2). The myth of jobs that don’t exist yet. Forbes. Retrieved July 2, 2022, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/dereknewton/2018/12/28/the-myth-of-jobs-that-dont-exist-yet/?sh=bf6e64570ec0