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 demand.

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.

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