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Teaching ‘outside the box’

Iowa Central transitions to virtual classrooms

The Iowa Central Community College campus may be devoid of students now that the college has moved to virtual learning for the rest of the spring semester, but that doesn’t mean classes are over.

With virtual learning, Iowa Central’s instructors are still holding class at the same times and on the same days as they did when students were on campus. They’re just holding them via the video conferencing site Zoom or through the Microsoft Teams program.

“They’re still getting that face-to-face interaction with all of their students,” said Stacy Mentzer, vice president of instruction for Iowa Central. “It’s working out great. We’re getting some great feedback from students and faculty.”

The administration at Iowa Central has been working hard since before spring break earlier this month to prepare the college’s move to virtual learning – a move that, at the time, was meant to be temporary – to help curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. On Sunday, Iowa Central announced that it would continue with the virtual classes through the end of the spring semester.

“We really have tried to think outside of the box and figure out the best way to get information to every student despite the barriers that might be in the way,” Mentzer said.

In previous years, if a situation like this had happened, many of the college’s students would face the technology barrier of not being able to complete their classes because they lacked a computer or tablet device. Starting in the fall 2019 semester – long before anyone could have predicted a global virus pandemic shutting down the campus – the college started giving all students a Microsoft SurfaceGO tablet to use during the school year.

“That decision that was made last year to do that with our students, in my opinion, was the best decision that we could have made, especially given the circumstances,” Mentzer said. “Every day right now, I’m thankful that we did. It took away one more barrier that our students could encounter.”

Mentzer said that the college has had some concerns with internet access, as not everyone has internet in their home. So Iowa Central has put more Wi-Fi hotspots in different locations across campus and near parking lots.

“I know it’s not ideal, but they can sit in their car and access our internet,” Mentzer said.

She said that even for students who don’t have internet at home and can’t drive to the Iowa Central campus, if they have a smartphone, they can still watch and participate in their classes on Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

Mentzer said that just two weeks into the virtual classroom setup, it’s working out “great.”

She said that faculty members have “really stepped up to the plate” during this time.

Because of the social distancing practices, many Iowa Central classes have had to modify and adapt learning that would typically be more hands-on.

The college’s nursing program is using virtual simulation for its clinicals as students can’t enter health care facilities at this time.

“With the shortage of PPE, those students are just another body that those facilities would have to provide that stuff for, so we’re just trying to work together to keep everybody safe,” Mentzer said.

Science classes with labs have also had to adjust to virtual labs and videos.

“We’re incorporating it on all levels,” Mentzer said. “We’ve got some simulations, we’ve got some instructors making videos. Some of the things the kids can still do at home.”

Mentzer said that one tool the faculty are using is one that most of the population uses to peruse funny cat videos.

“YouTube has some amazing things, believe it or not. I think most people think of YouTube just as funny stuff or music, but you can go on YouTube and find a video for just about anything,” she said. “They’re really just pulling every resource that they can right now to get the best learning possible, given the situation.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench in the spring 2020 semester, Iowa Central has been rolling with the punches and doing what it can to maintain its high academic standards.

“Given the circumstances, I think that our faculty and staff have gone above and beyond to make sure that we are still there for our students,” she said.

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