The Way Forward in Higher Education

Six months ago, St. Petersburg College operated quite differently. Our ten campuses and learning sites were bustling with students hurrying from classroom to classroom while faculty prepared for vast numbers of in-person lectures and labs.

COVID-19 and tragic occurrences of racial injustice have changed everything. Not only for us, but for people and institutions around the world. As a community college family, we have been tested. We have had to become smarter and more intuitive. We have had to re-evaluate some long-standing procedures and protocols and make necessary changes to address the immediate, sometimes personal, needs of those we serve.

When the pandemic hit in mid-March, we closed our campuses and quickly transferred more than 1,800 courses from classrooms to online. Because more than 75 percent of our students were already taking at least one online class, the transfer for most students went smoothly. Those without access to a computer were provided with laptops thanks to money we received from the federal CARES ACT. As a result, when spring term ended in May, we were pleased to learn our student success rate had not changed from the previous semester.  In fact, among our African American male students, our success rate had actually increased.

During this time of instructional change, we worked with faculty to make sure they were equipped to deliver online instruction. Where needed, courses were redesigned and made more accessible. Faculty were encouraged to incorporate a variety of activities and innovative teaching techniques into their lesson plans. Our faculty embraced the opportunities and led the way toward our new strategy of “Learning Forward.”

For example, one of our science instructors adapted a biology laboratory to an online format. She ordered home dissection kits for herself and each student, installed an overhead camera in her own home and led her students successfully through the process.

We discovered that Zoom was a learning tool our students embraced and we shifted many classes to that format as the term progressed. Faculty also endorsed Zoom as a way to record and capture their lectures for later use by their students. Many of our students have jobs and families to support. Some lack reliable transportation to our campuses. This new, online format was a way for many students to continue toward their personal and education goals at their own pace and at a time that fit their schedule.

Early on, we learned it was important to clearly lay out our policies and timelines for grading and feedback. Around-the-clock tutoring opportunities as well as academic advising and library resources were also needed and their availability needed to be successfully and frequently communicated to our students. Our faculty and staff embraced these tasks.

The summer brought additional challenges to our college and community.  The deeply disturbing violent acts that resulted in the deaths of Black men and women in cities across our country affected us all. As college president, I immediately reached out to our students and staff to advise them counseling was available at any time they felt overwhelmed. I also assured them our college intended to be a part of the solution and that I intended to join them as we worked tirelessly to find ways to move our country toward equality and inclusion for all.

Community colleges are in a unique position to do this. We can be the voice for marginalized and disenfranchised individuals by acting as a convener for respectful discourse that will bring about change. This will happen at St. Petersburg College.

So, what’s next? As the fall semester approaches, we are prepared to reopen our campuses for some in-person classes. Our classrooms have been thoroughly cleaned and sanitized. For those students, faculty, and staff returning to campus, we will enforce social distancing and require everyone to wear a mask. However, most of our classes will remain online. We have learned technology is not something to be feared but that it can make learning more engaging in all forms of instruction.

The past six months have taught us that the key to student success is not the method used to deliver instruction but in well-designed courses, frequent faculty engagement, and an encompassing community of care that responds to the basic needs of those we serve.

Today we have emerged as a different, but in many ways, stronger college. Our old ways of teaching and communicating have evolved and together, as a team, we have embraced the changes. Along the way, we have critically assessed our teaching methods and have provided clearer pathways for student success. As a college whose students and their families live and work among us, we know our community. We know what works and are ready to move forward for those we serve.