Institutional transformation stories: How the evolution of online teaching and learning at Indian River State College prepared it for Covid-19


Over the last decade, Indian River State College in Florida has built up its digital infrastructure to ramp up the number of online degrees it offers.

Recently, higher education author and expert Jeff Selingo caught up with Kendall St. Hilaire, the assistant dean of Indian River’s virtual campus, and Paul O’Brien, the college’s vice president of institutional technology and chief information officer, to see how the college’s experience in online education helped the institution manage the pivot to remote learning in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

How did your focus on online education over the last decade help in this moment?

O’Brien: Given the nature of Florida with hurricanes, over the last half a dozen years we've been steadily migrating everything on campus to the cloud. That allows us in a pandemic, when we have to make all kinds of switches to remote teaching and work, to set that up pretty quickly. Our move to the cloud allowed our employees to completely handle any type of work without coming on campus.

In 2011, we started to see the uptick in virtual learning at Indian River. Our students needed to work, and online learning allowed them to work and go to school at the same time. So, we put a working group in place to take a look at what was happening in the space of online learning and recommend best practices.

Several recommendations came out of that. First was online quality. We brought in instructional designers with graduate-level degrees and ultimately adopted Quality Matters standards.

Second—and something that really helped when COVID-19 hit—was that we focused on putting entire degree programs online rather than just courses. We became much more purposeful. By the time the pandemic hit, we had 15 degrees online.

Finally, we put seven years of effort into really trying to ensure that our faculty felt comfortable and knew some of the best practices for teaching online. All that has enabled us to close the gap in graduation rates between face-to-face and online over the last seven years. It used to be that the graduation rate for face-to-face students was 10 percentage points higher than online; today, it’s a difference of two points.

St. Hilaire: We’ve also been thinking about mobile first for several years. Three quarters of our students access our Learning Management System (LMS) through a mobile device — a phone, tablet, or some other device where they’re not tethered to one location.

We’ve been working with faculty to encourage them to think about the way they create their content and the way the courses are laid out. That's been helpful during the pandemic, too, as students have had to adjust to new environments. They don’t have to be in one place all the time.

After the quick pivot in the spring, what will the fall look like in terms of remote learning?

St. Hilaire: In the spring, with the courses that had never run online before, we created a loose template. It was the bare bones of what needs to be in an online course. A good example is a discussion board we created. As students work through the content and get to the discussion board, they have to pause and give some reflection for that module’s assessment. The instructor may not have necessarily thought of doing that in a face-to-face environment because the dialogue exists in the classroom. This is a way to try to mirror what they would potentially do to try to draw out their students verbally.

For the fall, it's a heavy lift to design online courses the way we would normally do over a year. Instead, we’re having opportunities for faculty to come together and reflect: they’ve joined book clubs, they’ve come in virtually for professional development, and they’re learning and sharing ideas. The hope is that they will then go back and try something new in their online class based on something they've heard from their colleagues.

O'Brien: One thing that might be different at Indian River compared to other institutions is the level to which the faculty have accepted and adopted online learning. More than 200 of our 265 faculty have achieved certification in Quality Matters, and at one point we had 100 percent of them renew it. That means they see value in learning how to design and teach in the online environment.

There is now expertise in individual departments around how to design online classes, and we’re seeing our faculty start to mentor their colleagues who are not as experienced. I think with faculty, having another faculty member tell you what works is what speeds up their desire to try something or adopt something different. The strongest voice is one of their peers.

What was the engagement of your students like during the move to all online learning this spring?  

O'Brien: When the pandemic hit, 73 percent of our students were already enrolled in at least one online course. Also, in Florida, as part of our graduation requirements, students need to complete at least one online course to graduate. So, while 5,000 of our students weren’t enrolled in an online course this spring, many of them had experience in one. One thing we did for face-to-face classes is that we moved them to synchronous format to maintain the interactivity of them. Essentially, we were just modeling a standard classroom.

Overall, however, given the experience students had in online classes, we didn’t really see a spike in requests to the help desk.

St. Hilaire: When we returned from spring break, we had about 400 students who had not logged into an online class. We broke those down by division and sent the information to the deans and advisors so they could try to reach out to those students. In most cases, they were able to get those students on board. In some cases, they found out that the students didn't have the resources they needed. Some of the students didn't realize that there were resources we had on campus that we could provide to them.

O'Brien: We ultimately loaned out approximately 200 laptops and probably 50 hotspots. What we didn't realize is that even in the case of some of our online students they were dependent on our wi-fi service on campuses or maybe our computer labs.

What hasn’t worked?

O’Brien: We certainly saw that some faculty needed more help than others did. There was a learning curve there, and I think they struggled to get up to speed. And sometimes we learn about it from students calling the help desk. At first, you might blame the technology, but then we realized some of our faculty are a little more familiar with this stuff than others. Close to 40 percent of our courses are taught by adjunct faculty, and in certain areas, they struggled with getting up to speed.

For students, if they had a face-to-face class, some found it difficult to log into their class synchronously because at the same time our K-12 schools were out and maybe they had kids at home.

All that said, our summer enrollment is flat. That surprised us. We expected a decline with no face-to-face classes since some things don't lend themselves easily to the online environment.

We have a lot of career and technical education programs, for instance. Some of our faculty really surprised us and have developed very unique ways to do things — streaming live video demonstrations from classrooms, for example.

Given the situation we’re in, I think there's widespread acceptance of online learning as a viable modality for students. But I still think there's going to be some students, this is not going to necessarily be their preferred way and given a choice, they’re going to probably wait it out. Will more students go part-time or maybe full-time because they’re stuck at home? We’ll circle back at the end of the summer and take a look at all those data points.

What don’t you know from the data that you wish you knew?

St. Hilaire: In the past there's always been face-to-face, hybrid, and online courses. Now we’re starting to see this branching of types of online classes. I’m very curious to hear from our students about what they thought of remote learning or what we’re calling other distance mode, which is usually synchronous.

If we continue to offer these different options, how many students switch from synchronous online to an asynchronous distance mode? Before too long, schools will be expected to define what these different branches are, how we define them, and what we expect of them.

O'Brien: I'm trying to give some thought to what the other side of COVID-19 looks like. We already had a working group looking at Indian River in 2030, trying to determine the impact of things like artificial intelligence, growth in online, the maturity in the different technologies, and how do we better support students who were already online.

What I'm really interested in is how many of these changes become permanent.

For example, as more and more students and faculty become comfortable with online, what if our standard enrollment online goes from 30 percent of students to more like 50 percent? Do I still think about really investing heavily in a physical plant, or do I start thinking about what technologies we need to put in place to better support students wherever they learn?

We did a zip code analysis of our summer enrollment, and we’re now attracting students from around the state and outside the state of Florida, so that’s another shift. Has the definition of community gotten larger? It’s likely many of those students couldn’t set foot on their local campuses, so they found us because we were already online in a big way. The question is, does that change after COVID?

We’re also interested in what our offerings look like after COVID. Unemployment of maybe 20 percent is being floated in Florida, so do we have a need now for more short-term training type opportunities?

St. Hilaire: We’re going to need flexibility in all aspects of what we do. Not only do we have to look at what degrees or certificates we're building out, but also think about the way we design them because we could be working with a very different type of student who is just possibly rebounding, trying to get a few credits in to go back to the workforce, a stronger, more viable employee. There's a lot that we're going to have to learn and be flexible in the way we do our business.