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Companion blog for Voices, a Landmark College student publication

Landmark College’s Institutional Adaptability Put To the Test

From ‘normal’ to digital, and back—How did we get here?

by Lucas Sillars

When the pandemic struck, teachers at Landmark became students, as they were forced to adapt to totally remote operation over the course of just fourteen days. While students enjoyed an extra week off, Landmark’s teaching staff was hard at work, undergoing their own training for what wound up being the rest of the semester at hand.

For some, it was a well-received training that was probably already needed before COVID provided the urgency to make it happen as suddenly as it did.

Headshot of Geoff Burgess“We told students to take their books home with them, but we didn’t think it was going to get as bad as quickly as it did,” said Geoff Burgess, Dean of Professional Studies & Science (pictured right). “The school made the decision to extend spring break to two weeks, with an original plan to have online teaching training for the faculty in person … by Wednesday of the first week, we decided we were going to be going fully online.”

“We now knew we were going to have to totally shut the campus down,” Burgess said. “There were still a lot of unknowns about how it was spread and who was vulnerable, so the college acted prudently. The first thing that happened is I created a Canvas site starting on Wednesday, [March 18th] and I had it done by Friday [March 20th], to train faculty how to teach online.”

“That last week, the week students didn’t come back, they were putting together modules to teach us more [about Canvas models],” said Rebecca Matte, Associate Professor of Core Education.

“While we all used Canvas to some degree … this training gave us some good models. Suddenly I got what I wanted in terms of Canvas training,” she continued.

Faculty members who were already more technologically inclined faced more basic logistical roadblocks. Contrary to what Comcast might want you to think, not all home internet connections are created equal. Dr. Tamara Stenn, Associate Professor of Business Studies, indicated that her largest challenge was slow internet at her home.

“I [had to use] my father-in-law’s apartment in Brattleboro for my video work,” said Stenn, who also commented that her teaching style has been permanently modified by the ordeal. “I will continue to make and use tutorial videos for students to use as references and for clarifying readings and lessons … I love the structure of the Modules – it makes it easier for me to plan and deliver materials.”

Once students “returned,” the real trials and tribulations began. A sudden switch to remote work would be challenging for anyone, but such a situation thrust upon a subset of students who have a wide range of learning differences and attentional problems adds an additional layer of complexity.

“I worked very hard to help my students be successful, I was determined that no one would fall through the cracks,” said Lee Crocker, COMEL Professor and Chairperson of the Professional Studies Department. “I made great efforts to reach out to students who were struggling. I tried to be as flexible as I could.”

Crocker said she made a point to maintain her previously high standards and to hold her students accountable for the work that needed to be completed in order for them to complete their courses satisfactorily or better.

The infrastructure in place was excellent and made for a rather seamless transition, especially for the students who were “already inclined,” according to Matte. “Class was as good or better than it had been … we were more efficient in our Teams meetings, the document sharing was fantastic. For students who were ready to step into that level, it was great.”

In such a brief time, with the help of Geoff Burgess and his team, the faculty had realized their newfound skill of being able to teach from the comfort of their own homes. However, such convenience on the surface did not necessarily translate to a preferable situation.

“I’m a pretty physical person, and suddenly I was sitting all the time,” said Matte. “I mean, I was at my computer from seven in the morning, prepping my classes … and I was in synchronous meetings from 10 AM to 6 PM. It wears you down.”

For students who were less “inclined” and more susceptible to falling through the cracks, the virtual barrier presented additional complexities to what ordinarily would be rather simple problems. Rebecca Matte said she makes a point to keep an eye out for students who missed her classes, and (gently) confronting them about it before things get out of hand.

“I do have a habit of skulking in some corners on campus to run into them. It’s part of how I do my job, I want to make them feel comfortable and say ‘Hey, I didn’t see you,’ and I couldn’t do that,” she said.

“If they didn’t come to me, I really couldn’t go seek them out and sort of pin them down on the quad by the picnic tables,” she continued. “There is a subset of students who needed that level of attention from me that could not get it. That was hard for me.”

Dr. Stenn also noted difficulty communicating with her students, though this was luckily not too much of a hindrance.

“My students did a fantastic job keeping motivated, engaged, and completing the semester well,” she said.

Burgess, looking back on the immense amount of work it took to get all the faculty online, cites the sometimes 12-hour days it required as one of the things he is most proud of.

“We were under the crunch. It was a national crisis. It was a college crisis. And everyone was pitching in and getting support.” he said. “I kind of had it mapped out for [the faculty], ‘this is what you do on day one, this is what you do on day two, and day three, and so on.’”

Burgess credited Glen Powers from I.T. and Denise Jaffe, Director of Online Learning, who were there as faculty were working on their sites, for helping faculty troubleshoot and for giving them coaching via demonstrations using shared screens. He also acknowledges “about 10 out of the 60” faculty who were already experienced with online teaching rose to the occasion to instruct their colleagues.

Burgess attributes his ability to lead the charge in going full digital in such a short period of time to his background in online teaching. Holding a master’s degree in teaching with internet technology from Marlboro College, Burgess’s skills in this realm, which he had not utilized in about ten years, had suddenly come to the fore.

“It became apparent that when we were deciding to pivot online … [that] I’m the only one who knew what I was doing.” he said. “Nobody said to me, ‘Geoff, you should be doing this,’ I just realized ‘Geoff, you should be doing this.’”

In general, professors seemed to exhibit a preference towards being back in person for the Fall 2020 semester, albeit with cautious optimism.

“For the moment, I feel safe,” said Crocker. “I think the college has done a wonderful job creating a [safe] community. Will that change? I worry. I have family that I care for who CANNOT get COVID. They will likely die if they get sick. How does anyone deal with this? It’s serious.”

“The decision to return to campus, like so many decisions during this pandemic is fraught with uncertainties,” said Dr. Gyuri Kepes, Assistant Professor of Communications. “However, I think the college is prepared to successfully manage the risks, given the protocols and procedures in place. Its small size and rural setting give it a real advantage.”

As of the writing of this article, there has been one reported COVID case discovered during initial move-in testing at the end of August, and two more one month later in the second round of tests, during which an additional four tests came back “inconclusive.”

For the most up to date information on COVID safety and off-campus travel, students are instructed to check with Student Affairs for the most recent guidelines.

Originally published in Fall 2020, Volume 2, Issue 1

Photos by Todd Miller

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