With a month before students start returning to college, Howard Community College faculty and staff are preparing for its mostly online learning model this fall.
However, distance learning isn’t a new concept to the Columbia-based community college.
“HCC has had distance learning for a really long time,” said Megan Myers, director of eLearning at the college. “HCC even used to ship VHS tapes to students back in the 1990s.”
Howard Community College students won’t be learning via VHS tapes when the semester starts Aug. 22 — and that’s probably for the best, as many of its students may not know what they are.
“No, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of [VHS tapes],” said Amani Pressley, who will be attending Howard Community College in the fall. “Maybe when I was really young my parents had them.”
Howard Community College, like many colleges and K-12 schools across the country, has been forced to adjust how it teaches students amid the coronavirus pandemic. This includes instituting online or hybrid learning models and handling an increasing enrollment as many families are dealing with the uncertainty brought on by the virus.
“We have students who know HCC has done online learning for a long time. Remote classes aren’t anything new for us,” said Lorianna Mapps, the college’s associate vice president of enrollment services. “I would say the familiarity with students and our high-caliber classes and faculty is what seems to be very desirable for students.”
Mapps said enrollment was up about 15% in the summer and expects a similar increase in the fall. Enrollment increased 10% in the first summer term from late May to mid-July and nearly 20% in the second term from mid-June to early August. While enrollment is down for the fall so far, Mapps said many of the summer students registered late and she believes that will happen again in the coming months. In fiscal 2019, Howard Community College had about 14,000 credit students and nearly 16,000 noncredit students.
“We’re preparing for an enrollment like we had for the summer. We’re focused on preparing to handle an influx of students in the fall,” Mapps said. “We’re starting to see more and more students who are abandoning their original college plan and coming to HCC this summer and this fall. I think what happens is you have students who know HCC classes can transfer to their four-year school, so they can take the class from home and it’s safer for them.”
Pressley, who graduated from Reservoir High School in June, said COVID-19 played a part in her choosing Howard Community College in April. In addition to being interested in the college because of its women’s basketball team and location, Pressley said she wasn’t able to go on any college visits in March or April due to the pandemic.
“COVID was definitely part of the decision,” she said. “I’m definitely happy I chose HCC. I don’t think it’s necessary for people to go to an out-of-state school when classes are online. I felt like it was the smart decision, the better decision, the more effective way to go to college right now.”
In mid-June, Howard Community College unveiled its learning plan for the fall semester, which included three different learning models — hybrid, scheduled remote and flexible online — that vary in instruction type.
Hybrid classes will be held both on campus and online for labs and other types of instruction that require hands-on learning. Scheduled remote classes will be conducted solely online with specific times of instruction using the Zoom videoconferencing app. Flexible online classes will allow students to learn and complete assignments on their own time while utilizing Zoom and other platforms for recorded lectures.
“I was a little bit iffy at first, but I feel like it’ll work out,” said Darryl Jeffries, president of the college’s Student Government Association and a 2018 Wilde Lake High School graduate. “You want to make sure not too many people are on campus. It’s the best option to have online and in-person classes. As long as I’m able to stay in contact with my teachers, I’m not too worried about it.”
While Pressley is excited to start her college career this fall, she said she’s also anxious about taking her first college classes in an online environment.
“My online learning in the spring at Reservoir wasn’t all that great. They gave work and didn’t explain it,” Pressley said. “It’ll be harder since I’ll be a freshman in college. But I reached out to my coach and counselor and [they] signed me up for tutors.”
After schools around Maryland closed March 13, the Howard County Public School System took more than a month to launch its virtual learning program, which was criticized by some as not having enough content instruction. The school system decided earlier this month that it will start the 2020-21 academic year with completely online instruction through at least January that will “more closely resemble the traditional levels” of instruction in Howard County primary and secondary schools, schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said July 16.
Myers, who just finished her seventh year at Howard Community College, teaches online history classes, which she did even before the pandemic, and also leads the community college’s eLearning efforts. She believes the college is better positioned for the current climate due to its experience with distance learning.
“We have a strong tradition of online courses and faculty. We have about 250 online faculty who are teaching at any given time,” Myers said. “… I think that’s something that has helped us since we had that infrastructure in place for when we had to welcome more people into it very quickly.”
A lot of the discussion about schools shifting to an online model has been about what students are losing from not being able to learn in person. While the benefits of face-to-face learning are clear, Myers said there are benefits to virtual learning for college students, too.
“Online learning does require a certain skillset,” Myers said. “For example, you’ve got time management. If you’re going to school in person, you don’t have to think about when that time is coming out of your schedule. But if you have these courses and they’re not scheduled for you, it’s up to you. That’s a skill students have to develop with online learning.”
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