Carl Sandburg College: Embracing Change and Ensuring Learning Continuity in Rural America

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Illinois, United states

Carl Sandburg College is a public community college with a main campus in Galesburg, Illinois, United States. Founded in 1966, the College serves the west-central Illinois region, with a mission to provide all students with opportunities for success. Today, the College enrolls 1,600 students and has a branch campus in Carthage, Illinois and an off-campus site in downtown Galesburg, Illinois. 

At Sandburg, the spring 2020 semester started out like any normal year, with in-person classes anywhere from 15-20 students per class. When the pandemic started in March 2020, the College was in spring break and made the swift decision to extend the break a week, in order to give instructors enough time to transition all their content online. 

Until then, the institution had approximately 30% of its course offering online. By fall 2020, the College went from having 154 online courses to 285, an 85% increase due to the pandemic, and a testament to the staff’s commitment to continue teaching and learning despite the challenges brought on by lockdown. Sandburg currently uses Open LMS EDU as its main learning management system, with approximately 2,000 active users.

E-Learn had the opportunity to speak to the institution to find out how they transitioned successfully.

Meet the Interviewees 

Robert Stevensis the Director of Technology and Information Security at Carl Sandburg College.

Cindy K. Arthur is the Coordinator of Instructional Technology at the Faculty Teaching Learning Center at Carl Sandburg College.

What did 2020 look like for you in terms of in-person and online courses due to COVID-19?

R.S: January and February 2020 started out like a normal year. We had anywhere from 15-20 students in a classroom. Then the pandemic started as the College was in spring break. We decided not to have any in-person classes as the state went into shutdown, so the College extended the spring break a week to give instructors the time to move their content to an online format. With the assistance of the Faculty Teaching and Learning Center, Cindy and our colleague Gail did tremendous work and put in many hours in assisting instructors to move their content into Open LMS EDU

One of the ways we were prepared for online learning is that, whether a class was offered online or an instructor used Open LMS or not, we always uploaded every class into the platform anyway. So all of our classes were already there—it was just a matter of instructors uploading content into them. 

At this point, we went into a fully online format. Everyone worked from home if they could, and that’s how the remaining spring semester played out. In the first week of July, we started opening the college back up for staff to come in, but keeping it at a minimum. 

At the beginning of the fall semester, with the mitigation factors that we had in place if any class could be held online, it was done that way. If an instructor wanted to teach in person and they had more than the allowed number of students per classroom, we set up Bluetooth classrooms while they played catch up as all the labs were closed. This impacted a number of classes like welding, which were put on hold. We were playing a lot of catch up when we opened up again in July, trying to get the students from the spring semester into the labs.

In November, the college implemented the secondary mitigation factors where we again pushed everything online. Today, we’re still holding lab sessions but with no more than 10 students per lab, including the instructor(s) necessary to instruct.

C.K.A: We also asked all teachers, even before going completely online, that they utilize the Open LMS EDU course shell. Whether they included content or not, we asked at a minimum a course syllabus was available in the course. The use of the Gradebook and Attendance module were also strong encouraged. By having this in place, instructors  had a basic knowledge of Open LMS EDU and so did our students. This helped us as far as moving instructors to the online format when COVID-19 hit.

Can you share Sandburg’s path to digital transformation?

Under the leadership of directors going back through the years, we’ve been included for awards for tech-savvy community colleges. There was one publication on tech-savvy community colleges around the country and we got first place for that award. 

So we’ve always tried to be forward-facing and to use technology. Anywhere from using the LMS, ensuring that our internet wireless connection at the college reached all corners, encouraging Bring Your Own Device for students, and utilization of telepresence robots. Recently, we began implementing VR technology. We have many instructors that aren’t afraid to use technology, and if Cindy finds something that she feels is valuable for the classroom, she will find an instructor that wants to pilot it. Often, it will take off and other instructors will see what an instructor is doing and it has a snowball effect.

Do you have any recommendations for institutions just starting their path to digital transformation?

Research internally and externally. Talk to your stakeholders. Find out what it is that they’re looking for and what they’re wanting to try to do, because different LMSs have different functionalities and features. Do your research internally and find out what the individual students, faculty, and staff are trying to accomplish. It’s also a good idea to reach out to other colleges of a similar size and see what they’re using, and use that research to figure out which LMS would work best for you. 

Most recently, for example, we did that with course survey software. We brought in all the stakeholders and talked to them and showed them different alternatives. It’s a process. You need to make sure that you get all your information first.

The College always took the stance that it needs stakeholder support in any type of big initiative. In our case, faculty, students, and the administration had a voice and worked together so everyone had buy-in. We’ve always been fortunate in that we all worked together. There is no ego in this at all—everyone just works together as a team to do what’s best for the students. That’s always been the focus.

When the pandemic hit, it was common to hear many recommendations on which tech tools to use, which I think was overwhelming. You can just start simple. For instance, use your LMS. Try to use the tools that are within it. Don’t complicate it when you probably already have the tools you need to get you started.

What are some of the tools within your LMS that you find very useful and do you have plans to adopt any more?

One of the tools we have found very helpful, as far as bringing in some third-party software, is the LTI integration. For instance, our college has focused on the syllabus—that it is consistent across the board— but we needed a way to make that happen. So we found a good product called Concourse that could be integrated with the external LTI tool. With the Open LMS EDU tool integration, it didn’t have to turn into a huge process. We could implement it fairly quickly, it’s easy for teachers to use, and it does what we need. 

We are a Microsoft school. Any integration the LMS offers us for this product line is helpful. For instance, a student can click a button and upload from OneDrive. Also, the recent Teams meeting integration for synchronous class sessions or virtual office hours has been very helpful for instructors.

And then the one I’m most excited about is the Instilled Learning Experience Platform, because we have such a need for easy creation of video content. We are doing some workarounds for video at the moment, but if we can have a product that is already in the LMS, that is easy to use for teachers, and down the road for students, to me that would be a huge game-changer for us.

The quiz and assignment resource in Open LMS EDU have also been very helpful.

Have you had to provide any additional training to staff to get up to speed with the teaching and learning component of eLearning?

At Sandburg, we have what we call “Tech Connect”, which we have at least once a year. Even during 2020 with the pandemic, we still held it virtually. It’s a three-quarter to a full-day event for faculty or adjuncts to attend, and some of the time is always spent on Open LMS EDU to teach instructors how to use new tools. 

This year, because everything was virtual anyway, Sandburg had an Open LMS team member join in to explain some functionalities. We had some sessions on the Personalized Learning Designer and some of the other advanced tools to show how they work.

Tech Connect is an event that once a year brings tech to the focus of faculty and is spent discussing the LMS, and any other tech tools that we want to highlight. We also always offer time to instructors to work on developing or reworking content. We make ourselves available to answer questions or offer suggestions during the work times. Instructors will also share best practices. The collaboration between our instructors is encouraged. I think this peer-to-peer experience is really important. 

I’m still a believer in one-on-one sessions as probably the best way to help instructors. Our team would set up virtual sessions with instructors to talk through needs. In many instances we could demonstrate during the virtual meeting exactly what they needed to do. Our instructors trusted us enough, that I think they were willing to work with us and not feel vulnerable.

We also created a number of micro-videos answering faculty frequently asked questions and uploaded those into an LMS page that we called the “Faculty Moodle Orientation Course”. It is an area to find just in time information. The course is available to all instructors every semester.We also try to bring in individuals from other community colleges that are innovative. It’s always valuable to hear from colleagues.

How have students responded to going fully online?

Sandburg has always offered a combination of three different learning models: in-person, blended learning, and the fully online format. When students sign up for classes, they get to choose the modality. 

Every student has their own personality and knows which way they learn best. Some students know themselves well enough to know which modality to choose for their success. The college is working to ensure that students know what kind of class they’re signing up for in advance, so students are comfortable with the class they will be taking.

What were some of the biggest challenges you overcame in 2020?

Being a rural community, the span of our district covers several counties and 90% of that is rural, farm communities. Accessibility to the internet has been extremely challenging. Here at the college, the president and I have had several conversations on this. It’s nothing that we can solve overnight; there’s a lot of infrastructure that needs to be put in place to allow some of these rural places to have good, decent internet access. 

One of the things the State’s Online Community College Board did was to reach out to every college asking for a list of known hotspots areas in their communities and generated a massive interactive map that they put out to all community colleges in the state of Illinois. This represented a great undertaking for them. Even in the early spring when everything was closed down, our branch campus located about 80 miles from us in Carthage, Illinois, doesn’t have a lot of hotspots. So, I solved that by turning our internet access points up all the way for students who needed internet access from outside. Students could pull into the parking lot if they needed to get internet access.

One thing our college did prior to the pandemic to help students was to checkout  devices for two weeks at a time through our library. We had chromebooks, laptops and iPads available. When COVID-19 hit, we had several students who simply didn’t have the means to purchase a device, so the college was able to provide them. Also, we had teachers who needed web cameras, document cameras, and internet hotspots. The college was able to purchase and loan out to faculty.

The device loan program continued during the fall.  When I talked to the students and they would say, ‘All I have is my phone’, I would point them to the library and tell them they could have a laptop for the semester. Being able to tell that to a student is huge. I talked to many colleges that couldn’t offer this service. They didn’t have enough devices in inventory and purchasing when the pandemic started was impossible; you just couldn’t find them. Having the device loan program in place prior to the pandemic, therefore, was huge!

We also worked with our community on the internet access challenge. We have students that live in rural areas or they just don’t have the means financially to have network access, so that was a tough one. How do you study if you can’t get on the internet? The community stepped up to provide places around town with internet access. And even though we were not offering face to face courses (except for some labs), students could still come out to campus and access our network. We continued to offer resources and services.

What are some of the opportunities 2020 uncovered for the College?

I would say that last year showed the flexibility and the persistence of our instructors to continue to provide a great learning experience, even though it can’t be in person.

The mindset, focus, and willingness of our faculty to try. We had to do something different. We had to make a change. You had to jump and go for it, which in a way helped everyone feel less afraid of trying. I had so many instructors come back to me and say, ‘Cindy, I don’t know why I didn’t do this a year or two ago’.

Also, I keep telling all of our instructors, ‘I know that it seems like a lot of work and it is. If we’re going to create online content, however, let’s do it so it’s not just to get us by for the pandemic. Let’s think about how this online content will help post pandemic. Having some assessments online and shareable video content for students to view multiple times for understanding are effective teaching practices. To me, the biggest opportunity is that faculty are very receptive to try new or different things right now.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We cannot say enough good about the Open LMS team that supports us. If I email them about something, even if they don’t have the answer, I will receive a response from someone within hours to help us. To me, that’s extraordinary, especially when you think about the volume of customers that they are covering. That’s an amazing type of support, and to know that you have that kind of support is so reassuring, especially during these times. Even the support ticket response times have been amazing. It’s never, ‘Sorry, I can’t do that for you’. It’s always, ‘Here are some things that you might try… here are some options’. 

I feel that support is such a big piece and the Open LMS team has been amazing.

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