Excelling Through a Pandemic

WSU Vancouver is committed to providing high-quality education in a changing environment.

After planning to offer some in-person instruction this fall, in late July WSU Vancouver made the decision to provide all fall courses via distance delivery. The decision was made to protect the health and safety of our community as the number of COVID-19 cases grew in Clark County, the state of Washington and the nation.

Distancing Learning is in our DNA

WSU Vancouver took distance learning seriously long before COVID-19 arrived. In fact, the university was a pioneer in this method. In the beginning, WSU Vancouver used video conferencing to access classes delivered from other campuses in the WSU system. Today the technology is better, and faculty have been trained to develop courses specifically for online and hybrid delivery.

“When we had to change to distance delivery in March, we were well prepared, and we will be even better prepared for fall. I am confident we will deliver a high-quality education experience with personal contact between faculty and students this fall like every fall,” said Chancellor Mel Netzhammer in a message to faculty, staff and students in July.

Making Online Work

There’s a genius behind WSU Vancouver’s distance courses. Director of Blended and Networked Learning Mike Caulfield strives to make educational technology work. With more than two decades of experience with online and hybrid instructional design working with institutions from Columbia and MIT to state institutions of varying sizes, Caulfield aims to share best practices with faculty. He develops and leads workshops and hosts support sessions to prepare faculty for distance learning. Caulfield helps them understand how making improvements to asynchronous course delivery benefits the broadest range of students by taking into account accessibility, privacy and technology access issues.

“Successful teachers realize their students are whole people, of which we only see the tiniest sliver. That doesn’t mean we have to be the student’s therapist or life coach,” said Caulfield. “But it does mean we must structure our instruction around the complex lives of our students.”

Student lives have become infinitely more complex since COVID-19 resulted in Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order last spring. Many students are dealing with the sickness or death of a loved one. Many have lost their jobs, resulting in food and housing insecurity. Since public schools switched to distance delivery, students may find themselves tutoring younger siblings or being home-school teachers to their own children. And many homes are full to overflowing with parents and children all working from home— often sharing computers. It’s no wonder we see regular reports of anxiety levels rising to unmanageable levels, making it difficult for some to focus or function.

A Summer of Preparation

Caulfield, in cooperation with the Academic Services Team in Vancouver IT and WSU's Learning Innovations, spent the summer training faculty to help make using technology a positive and engaging experience for faculty and students. More than 50 faculty participated in two of his cohorts to prepare for fall over 14 weeks, co-taught with Theron Derosier. Another 100 faculty are taking a short course on teaching remotely. Still others take advantage of one-on-one support. Caulfield and the Academic Services team present on topics such as instructor presence, alternative assessment and improving your Zoom look, as well as nuts-and-bolts instruction on specific teaching technologies.

Training was available to students, too. Workshops, online student forums and a Cougar Guide to Academic Success during COVID-19 were offered during summer to help them prepare for fall.

Making Technology Available

Students cannot be successful with distance delivery courses if they don’t have the technology required to participate. A student survey conducted over the summer revealed that 13% of WSU Vancouver students have unreliable or no access to Wi-Fi. WSU has a systemwide program in place to loan Wi-Fi mobile hotspots and Chromebooks to students who need them. Locally, the Loaner Laptop program, paid for by the Student Technology Fee and donor support, and accessed through the library, lets students check out laptop computers for up to a semester. Wi-Fi is available outdoors on campus, including four parking lots.

Resources Beyond Technology

WSU Vancouver has been on a campaign to help students understand that although campus is physically open on a limited basis, resources are still available. The library is open during limited hours and available online. The Student Wellness Center is offering counseling, health and access services. Tutoring is available through the Writing Center and Quantitative Skills Center. The Cougar Food Pantry is available to help students who experience food insecurity. The Center for Intercultural Learning and Affirmation is offering programming on self-care, cultural and gender identity development, power, privilege and difference. Veteran Peer Mentors and the Veterans Club are available to veterans and dependents of veterans.

“Successful teachers realize their students are whole people, of which we only see the tiniest sliver. That doesn’t mean we have to be the student’s therapist or life coach. But it does mean we must structure our instruction around the complex lives of our students.” —MIKE CAULFIELD

Engagement Outside of Class

The college experience isn’t all about classroom learning. Being involved on campus through student government, a club or attending events makes learning community more engaging and relevant. The Office of Student Involvement partners with students to provide opportunities for leadership, challenges and responsibilities that help them develop as active citizens, and stewards of the campus community and the community at large.

“I am passionate about facilitating student growth outside of the classroom. It is important for the WSU Vancouver to be healthy in all aspects of their life,” said Recreation Coordinator Cambri Shanahan.

Though the COVID environment has changed how students engage, it has not stopped them from engaging. The Office of Student Involvement kicked off the year with a virtual Week of Welcome, including bingo, a social media challenge, an online student government social and a session about how to stay involved over the course of the semester.

Spring and Beyond

Protecting the health and safety of the Cougar family remains paramount. WSU continues to work with state and local authorities as plans are made to emerge from the COVID-19 environment. Whatever spring holds for WSU Vancouver, the essence of the VanCoug experience will remain the same. ■

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