Last SPRING St. Cloud State University joined schools around the world transitioning to alternative ways of teaching students sheltering in place – rising to the challenge of embracing and humanizing technology and online education for learners coping with a world in chaos.
Making the transition
When the global pandemic struck, St. Cloud State was prepared to mobilize. University leadership, faculty and staff worked together – stepping up to ensure that teaching and learning were tailored to meet the needs of students accessing classes and studying in a variety of off-campus living situations.
Professors tell about students who moved easily into online learning, enthusiastically pivoting into new opportunities to be creative and successful in their classwork.
And about others who faced obstacles that challenged their ability to move forward with the same ease. As a community, we expressed deep concern about reaching out to students to understand their varied study situations and their individual abilities to succeed in this new learning-in-quarantine environment.
Most began the transition by surveying students about their wants and needs, their hopes and their challenges. All demonstrated the flexibility and resilience that they hoped to bring out in their students. It was a challenge for all involved.
What eased the way was that St. Cloud State already was moving forward with plans to redefine how to meet students evolving needs long before the pandemic got a grip on every aspect of our lives and every corner of the world.
In her July 2019 St. Cloud Times newspaper “To a Higher Degree” column, President Robbyn Wacker wrote: “We will face these challenges and new opportunities head-on. We will continue to listen, to adapt and to build a broader education ecosystem to offer more choice, more options and more innovative ways to be the University of Choice.”
“It’s Time,” President Wacker said, adding that the university was ready to be more specific about the direction we are headed. “While other universities are
only responding to the fiscal challenges brought on by declining enrollment and COVID-19, we are, in contrast, making fundamental changes that will redefine what it means to be a Regional University.
“We are ready to build on a foundation of strength and move forward with bold, positive changes,” President Wacker said. “It’s Time.”
By March, spurred on by the need to reach students where they were sheltering in place, faculty and staff were ready to take action to ensure their students would continue their classes and secure their educational goals.
St. Cloud State had just come out of its year-long Sesquicentennial celebration, looking back on the ways our school had grown and evolved to meet the changing needs of students and our communities. There was talk about how our school had risen to the challenges of world wars, depressions and other historic circumstances.
But nothing in the school’s 150-year history prepared us for the upheaval, uncertainty and anxiety the out-of-the-blue coronavirus hurled at us all. Then the horror
and despair that soon followed when right here in Minnesota a video captured the death of George Floyd by police action, inciting anger and advocacy for justice. The world was stunned; people were changed.
When COVID-19 hit, classes became predominantly online for virtually every educational institution. While the pandemic was still ongoing and still unpredictable, many colleges and universities developed back-to-school fall plans to offer in-person, online and blended experiences. With support from the Minnesota State system, university leadership and staff, St. Cloud State faculty successfully transformed their classes.
“It was really, really impressive how quickly the education community took up the challenge to do what’s right,” said Music Professor Terry Vermillion, whose students had special challenges making the transition to alternate formats. In addition to classes, the ensembles and performance groups Vermillion directs are required to have experiences involving live performances and performance juries.
“It was an overwhelming amount of information and decision-making in just three weeks,” he said of finding a balance by learning new ways of connecting, making videos, using Zoom, and editing performances.
Vermillion said it was a concern that some students had little or no appropriate technology to fully adapt to the alternative ways of teaching, or they were going home to finish the semester sharing space and technology with their families.
“Teachers are problem solvers,” Vermillion said. “We in higher ed know that face-too-face is the best method of instruction. … But I know the future of music education is some online. All my students have to know how to make technology work.”
Dr. Chris Lehman, chair of the Department of Ethnic, Gender and Women’s Studies, incorporated videos of his speaking engagements for his book “Slavery’s Reach” to use as online lectures.
Criminal Justice Professor John Baker, pre-law advisor and 1999 St. Cloud State graduate, said, “I think the university before COVID-19 was really good about getting information out on putting classes on D2L and Zoom,” Baker said. “I was good at these platforms. Anytime I needed it, I had help. I think that gave me a leg up in the transition.”
But Baker continued to be concerned about the challenges students face.
“The frustrating part is I could see my students online – knew they were doing the work – but I worried if they were okay,” he said.
When first COVID-19, then the news that Spring break would be extended a week, Counseling and Psychological Services – with guidance of Dr. Brent
Nielson of St. Cloud State Health Services – closed for the safety of students, said CPS psychologist Jason McCarthy. In-person appointments were replaced by appointments by phone. The American Psychological Association training was shared by all CPS faculty and staff, and in two weeks the whole department was up and running, helping students.
“It was kind of unbelievable how quickly that happened,” McCarthy said. “I don’t think we missed any days of student appointments. As we got up onto Zoom clients we had been seeing continued with us, but we also reached out to students who had worked with us earlier to make sure they knew we were still open and taking appointments to meet their needs.”
CPS office staff worked with IT to imbed a link on their website to allow students to request appointments online. This summer McCarthy said, “more than a dozen students took part in the ‘Summer of Change’ series in which Zoom groups shared a series of three two-week summer workshop sets.
“Summer of Change” was developed around coping with the pandemic, McCarthy said. “But it also adapted to include the emotions and relations related to the killing of George Floyd.”
Biology Professor Matt Julius and other science faculty worked with their own “new normal” when it came to student lab work. While he could go to campus to maintain the samples of various algae students normally help grow for use as a colorant in dietary supplements and to create nano-structural materials for medical purposes, Julius’s students were not allowed on campus for their usual hands-on lab work.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Julius said of how well his students adapted to his creative ways of helping students continue to learn.
Danielle Protivinsky, a 2013 graduate of St. Cloud State who teaches community health classes as an adjunct professor in the Department of Kinesiology, did what many instructors did when classes went online: surveyed her students about their preferences for moving forward, setting them up for success by listening to them.
“I would say it took about a week for students to get their bearings,” said Protivinsky, whose full-time job as part of the Community Leadership Team of Stearns County Public Health informs her teaching, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic.
“Now they’re doing so well, thriving just like they would in the classroom. …“It releases a lot of anxiety for students knowing their instructors care.”