MCHENRY — When the coronavirus forced colleges and universities online midway through the spring semester, Garrett College was determined to finish.
This fall, GC is determined to flourish.
“With virtually no warning or time to prepare, our faculty simply wanted to make sure we could help students complete an academically rigorous spring semester,” said Qing Yuan, dean of academic affairs and chief academic officer. “And they did that, with strong support from our IT staff.
“With the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, the Department of Education made available funds to help colleges create the necessary infrastructure to expand distance learning platforms,” said Dallas Ouellette, dean of business and finance who oversees the IT department. “Institutionally, our goal was to leverage those funds to expand and improve online learning opportunities going forward.”
The college has created state-of-the-art video conferencing systems in 10 classrooms. Matt Bernard, coordinator of network systems, said the biggest challenge was “finding a cost-effective system that was easy to use and met the needs of our students and instructors.”
“The system provides studio-quality, ultra-HD video, crystal-clear voice audio with background noise suppression and RightSight auto-framing tracking technology,” said Bernard. “It’s modular and works with a wide range of video conferencing platforms. The classrooms are also equipped with interactive displays, allowing instructors to engage with students who are both in and out of the classroom.”
Lucy Manley, associate dean of academic affairs, said creation of the high-tech classrooms addresses current challenges while providing future opportunities.
“GC students are parents, full-time employees and involved in a variety of campus and community activities,” said Manley. “Flexible learning gives students multiple options to attend class and interact with their professors and classmates.”
Carolyn Deniker, professor of biology, said the system has a number of exciting features.
“I like the recording capability and especially the captioning capability,” said Deniker. “The recording capability will be so beneficial to our students who have jobs and other responsibilities outside of class as well as those students who just want to review the lectures. The captioning capability will be a great tool for all students, but especially for those requiring accommodations.”
Manley said the biggest challenge is the speed with which the college needed to implement the expanded learning options.
“Like all new technology, it’s exciting — but there’s a learning curve,” said Manley. “The biggest challenge is we’re running so many classes with multiple modalities due to COVID. Ideally, we’d pilot one or two classes with this technology before a full roll-out — but, again, with COVID, we’re rolling with it!”
Bernard said the project required cross-divisional partnerships with academics, facilities and distance learning to succeed.
“The facilities staff has played a very important role in reconfiguring the classrooms for a synchronous learning environment,” said Bernard. “They provided innovative and creative solutions for converting the rooms into virtual classrooms.
Kathy Meagher, the college’s director of campus facilities and security, said the facilities staff “has really shown an ability to work through challenges and figure things out.”
The classroom technology is a critical tool in GC’s plan to offer four modalities of learning:
• Traditional face-to-face class sections with lower enrollment caps and redesigned physical space.
• Traditional asynchronous online course sections.
• Synchronous remote course sections, with students and faculty meeting virtually on the days and times for which the class is scheduled.
• Face-to-face “switch” sections in which each class member attends in person one day a week and online one day a week.
Garrett College is enrolling students for the fall semester, which begins Sept. 9.