Wilkes recognized for distance learning efforts

Educate to Career, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping students make informed decisions about their education and careers, has named Wilkes University a tier one institution for distance learning efforts amid COVID-19.

Tier one institutions rank the highest of four tiers, with the capability of providing classes either in-person or online, with at least three years of online experience. 

According to Educate to Career’s website, this ranking recognizes Wilkes as an institution that “has the systems required to deliver a full curriculum online and in-classroom.”

According to University president Dr. Greg Cant, “When Wilkes made the necessary decision to transition to remote learning in March 2020, our faculty and staff responded in a collaborative way that allowed us to continue to deliver on our educational promise to students as seamlessly as possible.”

This seamless transition was not possible without a significant amount of effort from students, faculty, staff and campus offices, especially the Office of Technology for Teaching and Learning (OTTL).

Dr. Megan Youmans, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, expressed her appreciation for OTTL. 

“As we all got to know last semester, the OTTL staff is amazing. I was familiar with Bongo virtual classroom because OTTL had demonstrated it for me a few hours earlier. I was able to share my knowledge with colleagues, who, in turn, explained how question pools work for quizzes.”

OTTL’s first hurdle, however, was the faculty’s ability to move online.

“That was my initial concern, ‘Do we have the capacity to help everybody?’” said Dr. Kristine Pruett, director of OTTL. “I think once we started talking about it, we started realizing that a lot of people aren’t going to need hand-holding. They’re going to figure it out if we put the resources out there. 

“We have a lot of self-starters in terms of our faculty. They come to us when they need it, but they don’t need us to show them every single thing.”

The faculty’s motivation to try new methods of teaching was evident during the spring semester. 

Dr. Mischelle Anthony praised the faculty in the English department, as well as OTTL on the remote transition during the spring.

“Here in the English department, every single faculty member – full-time, part-time and emeritus – transitioned to remote instruction with a class-specific synchronous and asynchronous mix,” said Anthony. “A handful of us sought help from the Office of Technology for Teaching and Learning’s in-person trainings or online modules. The vast majority of our English faculty, though, were self-taught in their innovations to course delivery. 

“I was humbled and honored as a department chair to see our English faculty work harder than ever to deliver a rigorous, engaged curriculum.”

Similar to the English Department, the School of Business and Leadership also continued discussions about new methods of course delivery well after the spring semester’s conclusion. 

“We knew that at some point, we need to pay extra attention to the online teaching model and discussed that faculty should learn more about how to maintain a high-quality online course in the Jay S. Sidhu School of Business & Leadership,” said Lee.

Lee has worked to make a new plan to structure his courses for the fall.

“In fall 2020, I have decided to adopt a HyFlex teaching model in my classes. This teaching model allows students to choose to attend face-to-face, synchronous class sessions or complete learning activities fully online without attending class,” explained Lee.

While OTTL had concerns about faculty during their transition, the students ranked as their primary concern. According to Pruett, “As an institution of higher learning, we all value the student experience on campus. We don’t want to see that go away. We wanted to change the culture. We wanted to give students options for completing assignments, so it’s not always on paper. Let them create videos and do more creative activities. 

“Balancing the incorporation of technology and the convenience that it offers students who have to work and have other responsibilities to deal with – that’s a very real thing for a lot of our students.”

Lt. Col. Mark Kaster expressed his appreciation for the students throughout this transition. The Director of Veterans Affairs also serves as a teacher in the environmental engineering and earth sciences department.

“I’m very proud of the way our students adjusted to this difficult challenge,” said Kaster. “I saw my students adapt every day to do what was needed, to complete their assignments, write papers, deliver briefings and take exams. To work hard for their education. To complete their mission. Working together professionally: students, faculty and staff, the Wilkes team delivered under extreme conditions.”

The OTTL is planning on distributing a student survey, which will allow students to share their experience with online learning during the spring semester and what they would like to see in the future.