Oct 05 2021

Delivering Quality Online Learning Experiences to Rural Students

Despite the odds, a community college in rural Michigan kept its students connected and learning.

Montcalm Community College appeared to have the odds stacked against it. Located in rural Michigan, a region where most residents lack access to fiber-optic internet, pivoting to fully online learning was a challenge in the spring of 2020.

Although rural college students tend to face significantly higher barriers to technology access than their suburban counterparts, Montcalm’s faculty, staff and IT department made online learning work for their students.

They provided mobile hotspots for faculty, staff and students, as well as wireless connections in the school’s parking lot. More important, the college made a strategic decision to revamp its infrastructure to support long-term online and hybrid learning experiences.

In a Sept. 29 CDW Tech Talk, Montcalm Community College leaders explained how they supported different teaching and learning styles for their student population, many of whom are nontraditional students.

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Technologies for Engaging Nontraditional, Rural College Students

Last year, Montcalm Community College added Logitech rally systems to most of its learning environments to improve the quality of remote lectures.

Educators also started using digital inking instead of traditional whiteboards, which allowed them to hand-write on digital devices with a stylus pen, mouse or touchpad. “That really caught on,” Kevin Wagenmaker, the college’s instructional technology consultant, said during the talk. This way, in-person and remote students could all collaborate with the instructor on the same, visually appealing whiteboard.

Montcalm also used Microsoft Whiteboard, a digital whiteboard app from the Microsoft 365 suite, and incorporated document cameras into Nearpod, Microsoft polls and other engagement software. The tools all integrated well with the online courses, which were driven by Microsoft Teams.

According to Wagenmaker, being able to automate scheduling was a game changer. “Something that really helped us this year was the Microsoft sync integration within Canvas,” Wagenmaker said. “Our teams are based on our Canvas course rosters, and it syncs when students leave or get added to the roster.”

RELATED: How is higher ed improving tech access for underserved students?

The Infrastructure for Supporting Flexible Online Learning Experiences

Above all, the college’s previous cloud investments proved critical for a smooth transition to remote learning. “We have made a large investment in cloud-based solutions over the past couple of years,” Montcalm IT Director David Kohn said at the talk.

The college took a forward-thinking approach and began planning for the students’ eventual return to campus shortly after the pandemic began. “When the pandemic hit, we took that as an opportunity to invest in our core infrastructure,” he said, which included both wired and wireless infrastructure.

This way, the college’s networks and systems were prepared to support in-person and hybrid learning, as well as synchronous and asynchronous options for nontraditional students.

IT Departments Take the Lead to Ensure Tech Usability

Before the pandemic, most of Montcalm’s management had taken place on-premises. This made it challenging to deploy new systems and hardware to remote students, faculty and staff.

To ensure good remote user experiences, the IT team started using Microsoft Endpoint Manager (formerly known as Intune), a cloud-based management tool for mobile devices that provides unified endpoint management.

According to Kohn, the endpoint manager’s Autopilot feature significantly reduced the time it took for IT staff to manage, configure and roll out devices. “We can do that in a matter of minutes to hours, versus multiple hours or upward of a day for very specific configurations,” he said.

Ultimately, both Kohn and Wagenmaker attributed their success to the dedicated instructors who were open to learning and trying new technologies.

“Our instructors have been incredibly adaptive and receptive to these different processes and trainings,” Wagenmaker said. “That’s been equally helpful, if not more, than all the different items that we have in place.”

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