Strengthening Rural Community Colleges Peer Learning Network: Reflecting on Best Practices
June 22, 2022
As the academic year comes to a close and we look forward to summer and preparing for the fall, we held our recent Peer Learning Network (PLN) discussion on June 1, 2022. The end of the school year is a perfect time for reflection and evaluation before beginning planning and goal setting. Therefore, our topic for this PLN discussion was Reflecting on Best Practices. During the conversation we were able to bring together rural community college leaders to learn about some of the best practices that they have learned and implemented as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, every institution had to quickly transition to a remote learning environment for all of their students and programs. It was a shift that took place almost over night for many. However, due to the innovative responses, institutions were able to adjust and continue to provide course instruction. Rural community colleges already face many challenges, such as broadband and infrastructure, so this shift to remote was a significant hurdle. Prior to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, rural communities already faced lack of access to high-speed internet. Coupled with going remote, rural institutions faced the challenge of ensuring students would still be able to connect for their courses. While rural institutions were able to provide innovative solutions to access high-speed internet, like centralizing Wi-Fi hotspots in parking lots, these were only temporary solutions.
During the PLN discussion, rural community college leaders
indicated that there institutions already had established Learning Management
Systems (LMS) to help with their course delivery. An LMS is a software
application or web-based technology used to plan, implement, and assess a
specific learning process. Instructors are able to plan out their courses from
week to week, provide necessary resources within the LMS, and even allow
students to upload their assignments and receive their grades through an LMS.
While rural community college leaders stated they are using a LMS for both
credit and non-credit programs, a lingering concern is how they are utilized
differently across each campus.
These rural community colleges stated that having all
courses on the LMS was not mandated which caused the switch to remote learning
to be very difficult during the pandemic. For example, one course with three
different sections could have different means of utilizing an LMS. One section
of the course could be fully immersed in the LMS which allowed the students to
follow week to week, stay engaged with the class, and turn in assignments that
are due. Another section might use it just for uploading assignments and the
third might not use it at all. This lack of consistency can impact the student
experience and could potentially cause confusion on where to go for certain
course materials and where to submit their assignments. Additionally, due to
the size of rural community colleges a concern that was echoed is the ability
to provide opportunities to troubleshoot LMS issues that students and faculty
face. Currently, some institutions do not have the capacity to support LMS technical
assistance and troubleshooting efforts.
On the horizon, rural community colleges indicated that they
will be looking into how to streamline these systems while supporting training
for faculty, staff, and students on utilizing their LMS. Creating the necessary
infrastructure, policies, and procedures for an LMS can ensure consistency and
better overall student experience.
Student Support Services
Student wrap-around support services have been critical
throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Various student support services had to be
modified to ensure students were still able to have their needs met and able to
stay engaged in their studies. When it came to advising students, rural
community college leaders stated that they began to cross-train additional
staff to help support students. Some institutions even directly called their
students to check-in on them. These conversations with students improved the
student experience and allowed staff to form connections and help students
through difficult times. While these institutions called their students, others
decided to leverage Zoom and other similar online platforms to create
designated spaces that were continuously open for students. Within these spaces
students could speak directly with an advisor to obtain the necessary supports
that they needed.
Other institutions were determined to create a centralized
“one stop shop” for students where there were staff that were cross trained on
admissions, enrollment services, financial aid, registrar, and student
services. This created additional bandwidth for teams and allowed these rural
institutions to strengthen previously underutilized areas that were now in high
Many institutional operations which supported students were
impacted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as bookstore operations
(including purchasing books and course materials), mental health services, and
technology services. A growing concern that rural community college leaders
noted was food security. Rural community colleges that have food pantries saw
that sustaining these were essential and critical for students. To ensure
students were able to access the food pantry, rural institutions shifted the
hours and operations of their food pantries to safely accommodate their
students. By creating drive thru pickup locations and designated pickup times,
students were able to access these services.
Challenges and Innovation
As the rural community college leaders reflected, they noted
that there have been many challenges to shifting to a remote setting but
remained hopeful at the innovation that they were able to witness and be a part
of at their institution. As institutions went to remote learning and eventually
began transitioning to hybrid and in person instruction, it became apparent
that classroom functionality in hybrid environments was scattered. An
instructor that would be teaching a hybrid course would have students in the
classroom and online at the same time. Some instructors were able to balance
this environment, while others were only able to focus on the students that
were directly in the classroom.
Additionally, as numerous individuals have transitioned to
new jobs and opportunities over the last two plus years, the same can be said
for rural community colleges. Individuals in the PLN discussion even stated
that they had transitioned to a new role at a different rural institution
recently. It was also noted that there are more than 100 presidential searches currently
underway at community colleges. This transition in leadership has caused many
to pause certain efforts at their institutions and made it difficult to
launch/implement new initiatives.
However, one of the biggest takeaways from the PLN discussion is the level of innovation that has occurred at rural community colleges over the course of the pandemic. Things that seemed they were not possible prior to the pandemic suddenly became a reality. Projects that were nice to have or waiting for multiple levels of approval, were finally able to get implemented. The nice to have projects or ideas now became something essential that was needed to support students, faculty, and staff. The conversations shifted from “is this possible for us” to “how can we get this done this week/month”. Prioritizing what was truly needed by students, faculty, and staff allowed for great successful innovation to take place. Whether it was implementing a new technology, providing a new/revamped service, or taking a moment to reflect, rural community colleges, like others within education, were able to be agile to provide wholistic student support services for their students.
Sean Robins is the Policy Associate at the Association of Community College Trustees leading the Strengthening Rural Community Colleges Initiative to convene rural community college leaders while providing technical support, assistance, and resources on federal policy and advocacy. This initiative builds on ACCT’s prior work through the Strengthening Rural Community Colleges report that engaged rural community college presidents and trustees to gather information about the challenges faced by these institutions.