May 12 2020

How Community Colleges Solve Remote Learning Challenges

Pandemic response requires planning, creativity and a strong dedication to students.

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the U.S., and it became clear that it would require a massive shift in day-to-day life, higher education responded quickly. Most colleges and universities quickly extended spring breaks, evaluated the options for educational continuity and, ultimately, transitioned the majority of instruction online for the remainder of the spring semester.

Making such a rapid and massive shift wasn’t easy for anyone. For community colleges, however, it was an especially challenging undertaking. Many community college students do not have access to laptops at home, or they might rely on their colleges for Wi-Fi access.

“Community colleges serve the majority of underrepresented students in the United States,” says Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges. In addition to technology inequities, students may also be balancing coursework with jobs and caregiving responsibilities — an ordeal complicated further by social distancing measures.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Colleges See Equity Success With Adaptive Learning Systems

Additionally, of the 12 million students served by community colleges, five million are studying in career and technical education programs that are difficult to replicate online, like allied health and nursing, Parham adds. 

These schools also play a unique role in their communities. 

“Hundreds of our allied health programs have donated PPE and ventilators that they can’t use due to the closure to their local medical facilities,” notes Parham. She’s also seen member colleges converting dormitories into medical facilities and arranging to deliver meals to students.

That community colleges have been able to make this transition on short notice, without the financial endowments enjoyed by many four-year institutions, is a testament to their dedication to a greater mission — including the work done by IT professionals to support faculty instruction and students in learning.

For Students Struggling with Remote Learning: ‘We Will Help’

Lone Star College, a system with seven campuses and 10 workforce centers, serves students in and around Houston, Texas.

“Even before the virus, we had one of the largest online enrollments in the country,” says Stephen C. Head, chancellor of Lone Star. “We had about 30,000 students online.”

Being experienced with online education was a boon, but it didn’t make the shift to fully remote learning easy.

“We offer about 9,000 sections every semester,” says Head. “We moved 97 percent of our classes online in about three weeks.” Head and his team are still formulating a plan for those workforce programs that cannot be adapted to an online format.

Lone Star offered intensive training for faculty to support them through the switch. “We’ve certified almost 3,000 faculty to teach online,” says Head. 

MORE FROM EDTECH: Community Colleges Rise to the Challenge of Supporting Diverse Learners

Head worries that the rapid shift, while necessary, has the potential to deepen the digital divide — a risk he’s trying to mitigate while preparing for whatever fall 2020 may hold.

“We are moving ahead to purchase 5,000 laptops for our students,” says Head. “Eleven to 12 percent of our entering students are going to need help with either a computer or internet.” The HP laptops will be loaded with the software students need and loaned out like library books. Lone Star has also provided some employees with large HP monitors and is accelerating its digital textbooks program.

Ultimately, Head and his team are staying nimble and trying to ensure that students feel cared for and supported. “We’re reaching out, we’re recruiting, we’re sending out postcards and putting ads in the paper,” says Head.

“The message is: We will help you. Don’t give up,” he adds.

Tips for Innovating the Remote Learning Experience

Stanly Community College in Albemarle, N.C., was able to bring all but three classes online as the pandemic loomed. John Enamait, president of the college, credits innovative and creative faculty with the breadth of programming that is now being offered remotely.

For example, he cites collision repair courses. 

MORE FROM EDTECH: Students Are Embracing More Tech-Savvy Community Colleges

“Our program head recorded himself taking a car apart and putting it back together so our students could have the experience of seeing what that would look like,” Enamait says. Faculty members have been able to leverage the college’s existing inventory of GoPro cameras and a mobile-friendly learning management system to rapidly get this type of content to students.

Throughout the transition, Enamait has relied heavily on the college’s technology staff to keep instruction flowing.

“We have a really strong IT staff,” notes Enamait. “We’ve got several different departments touching technology. We’ve got the instructional IT faculty who are teaching IT. We’ve got an e-learning department that is training our faculty on how to use technology. And, of course, we’ve got the IT staffers who are supporting the networks and facilitating virtual private network access.”

20%. The enrollment increase expected by community colleges for the fall 2020 term.


The IT department also rapidly repurposed and deployed laptops for faculty and staff to use to support remote work, purchased and configured 40 Chromebooks for student use and continues to operate a full-service remote help desk. For students who need college Wi-Fi access, parking lots became connectivity hotspots.

Stanly’s budget was also adapted to support a massive shift to online learning, with $60,000 in funding reallocated to increase server capacity in the college’s data center.

Enamait stressed the importance of caring for the whole student during this crisis. 

“We have three licensed counselors on our staff,” says Enamait. “Mental health is a significant concern for us, so we continue to communicate to our students that we have counselors available. We can help if you need help.”

For Community Colleges, an Uncertain Online Future

Parham calls the movement of hundreds of thousands of courses online in such short order “miraculous,” but cautions that it’s a stopgap measure.

“We have to be careful,” says Parham. “We’re trying to be mindful of how this is going to impact students, in particular transfer students and students who are in classes that can’t be done virtually.”

At Stanly, Enamait is already hearing from some students that the online education experience only underscores their desire to attend in-person classes on campus. 

“We’ll see a new normal come out of this,” he says. “We’ll see a nice balance of how higher educational institutions can meet the needs of students,” whether online or on campus.

At Lone Star, Head sees the pandemic response as accelerating many changes that were already underway, but stresses the need to support students through the transition. “Technology is, at least for us, going to the save the day,” he says. “If we can hold on to our students and keep the region moving forward and help our economy get going again, technology is going to be the key driver.”

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