Flattening the online learning curve
When strolling the neighborhood near her Bend home, Jennifer McCabe often pauses to examine plants and trees in fine detail — the delicate, pale-blue flower of a maiden blue-eyed Mary, the saw-toothed leaf of a birch. Sometimes she'll use a botany app on her phone for quick reference. For the biology student at Central Oregon Community College (COCC), it's a way to stay connected with her studies and put learning into action. It's also a daily reward she gives herself for buckling down with her books.
"Tactics for keeping me on track include making a game out of how efficiently I can finish my work to give me plenty of time to walk outside, enjoy hobbies or connect with family," she said of adapting to the virtual classroom. "Just taking a few minutes to take in some sun outside helps me to absorb the information."
When the coronavirus became a worldwide reality, "flattening the curve" quickly grew into a household phrase. At the same time, another curve began to rise rapidly: the learning curve for a new era of education.At COCC, classrooms and labs largely shifted to home-based schooling within two weeks. While nearly every academic program was able to set up in the virtual space — with instructors and staff pivoting to live teleconferencing and video instruction — students, like McCabe, found themselves not only needing a new format to engage with learning, but a mindset that required adaptability.
"Like many, I learn better in the classroom," shared Stacy Shaw, an engineering student. "And I utilize the tutoring center often, so switching to all online was unfamiliar and left me feeling unsure and nervous." But classes for Shaw have mostly felt closer than she imagined. "Dr. Russell has an effective teaching ability online, which is extremely helpful," she said, describing a class taught by humanities associate professor Tony Russell. "He is familiar with Zoom and is able to put us in groups to work together. He tries to give us as much of a visual or in-classroom effect as possible, while keeping the energy cheeringly comical."
A working single mom to three young daughters, Shaw, a second-year student, quickly mapped out a daily pattern to help steer life on the home front. Like many, she needed a new itinerary for a new world. "One thing that worked for my children and myself was organizing a new routine and schedule, but also keeping a lot of familiarity to our schedule," explained the Redmond resident. Family meetings are part of the morning ritual, helping to anchor the day. And something less structured, but equally cornerstone-worthy, she notes, is putting an emphasis on connection with others. "Building emotional support between family and friends is very important."
For this problem-solver, who's aiming to be dual-enrolled with Oregon State University-Cascades' engineering program by next year, systems and checklists are vital.
Geology student Rachel Hargrove, also of Redmond, admits to having some early concerns with virtual studies. "The biggest challenge for me with remote learning is motivation and focus," she said. "When I have a class to go to, I feel a certain accountability to my professor and fellow students to show up and engage. When I'm studying at home, it feels a lot easier to do the bare minimum."So she developed new habits to compensate. She now completes schoolwork in the early hours of the day when she's most fresh. She uses exercise breaks to make constant screen time more palatable. She even downloaded a "focusing" app that helps spark productivity, making her feel more accountable.
"Before classes started, I didn't expect to glean much value from a live lecture versus a recorded video, but synchronous learning is definitely more engaging," she said, while also crediting her geology professor with continually refreshing the fieldtrip content. "It's preserved a lot of the integrity of the learning experience and kept it more personal than if he had just been posting YouTube videos to Blackboard."
Looking ahead, Hargrove hopes to transfer to Central Washington University to pursue a bachelor's degree in geology. "I would love to eventually work in the field, and the ultimate dream would be to eventually get my master's," she said.
In a time of remote learning, former cattle rancher Anna Bond of Paisley — 130 miles from the Bend campus — is perhaps more remote than most. Returning to school after a 35-year intermission, the exploratory student, now in her second term, is mulling an office assistant certificate through the business program. She hopes to launch a fulfilling second career."I try to treat this like a job," she said of her approach to online learning. Staying connected with faculty has helped. "They are understanding and patient, reorganizing their syllabus as needed and being available through Zoom office hours and responding quickly to any emails sent."
Persevering with their education is important to these and many other COCC students. In a time of economic uncertainty and health anxiety, their studies offer a reliable focus.
Back in Jennifer McCabe's neighborhood, her "fieldtrip" is over and she's home again, participating in a psychology class discussion, led by Matthew Novak, Ph.D. It's Zoom time once again. Though not her preferred path to attaining a degree, it's working. "I don't feel that I am missing out except that I don't get to make as many classroom friends," she summarized. For now, she's trained on moving forward with her studies. "I'm investing in myself, to help the community in the future."
COCC's summer term registration for new students is now underway. Fall term registration begins July 2. Get started at cocc.edu or by calling 541-383-7700.
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