No industry remained untouched when the pandemic struck in March 2020, the least of which education. In just a matter of days, all educational systems immediately pivoted toward online learning to help reduce the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

While that upheaval certainly caused some strife, the pandemic also illuminated areas where systems could improve. Within higher education, many local administrators and instructors realized just how creative their faculty and staff could be as well as how resilient their students would remain in the face of constant change.

Disbelief, distance learning and disruption

Rewind the clock to more than a year ago, and you’d find administrators, staff and faculty at all the area higher education institutions — Concordia College, Minnesota State University Moorhead, North Dakota State University, MState and NDSCS — hearing news about a virus but not really believing the situation was as dire as first indicated.

Jean Hollaar, MSUM's vice president of finance and administration, recalled being in the middle of spring break when the World Health Organization declared the pandemic on March 11, 2020.

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“I remember feeling like this can’t possibly be as bad as others were making it out to be,” she said.

Yet it was.

The situation sent schools scrambling to immediately shift traditional in-person classes to completely online classes in a matter of days or weeks, depending on where the school was in its academic calendar. An entire system upended and reconfigured.

At NDSU, Dr. Carrie Anne Platt, associate professor in the Department of Communication and associate dean in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, explained the enormity of the shift that happened to move classes from face to face to online.

“We had one week to figure out how to transition all of our courses to remote, live instruction, which most instructors had little experience with,” she said.

But faculty rose to the challenge.

“People dug in and figured out how to structure classes and provide support for students,” said Dr. Susan Larson, dean of the college at Concordia College. “We focused on getting students and faculty the technology and support they needed.”

At institutions like North Dakota State College of Science and MState, their academic systems helped position them in a way that they could adapt more easily to the situation. “It was a game changer, of course,” said MState President Carrie Brimhall. “I think we were better positioned because we’re a multi-location campus so we have already had to figure out how to operate and communicate virtually with employees and students.” Meanwhile, NDSCS worked to ensure students were connected and engaged not just academically but socially, too, through regular meetings still being held through technology.

Thanks to a multi-campus setup, MState administrators felt the college was wellequipped to handle the dynamics of the pandemic. Photo courtesy of MState
Thanks to a multi-campus setup, MState administrators felt the college was wellequipped to handle the dynamics of the pandemic. Photo courtesy of MState

Adapting to a new normal

Over the course of the summer, area institutions took many steps other businesses and organizations did by implementing capacity restrictions, providing cleaning products and upgrading sanitizing strategies, upgrading technology, etc.

At MSUM, administrators began holding town hall meetings and open forums for sharing information and moved committee meetings online. Hollaar laughed during the video interview because prior to March 15, 2020, she’d never been on a Zoom meeting before. The work of the university had to continue, she said, and it did. As a plan called Dragons Care: Return to Campus was developed, administrators focused on what teleworking for employees would look like to sufficiently staff offices throughout the university with safety at the forefront for all employees and students.

These intrepid academics aimed to provide the best instruction to their students in the safest way possible while still searching for meaningful ways to connect and engage with the students and foster that connection within a virtual classroom.

MState’s biggest concern was being able to serve a diverse student population in trade, technical and healthcare courses that don’t always lend themselves to online learning. Brimhall noted that some creative instructors strapped GoPro cameras to their heads to tear apart machines in their garages so students could watch what was happening. The school also gave away 500 laptops to students who needed them, set up hot spots in parking lots to provide free wifi, kept food pantries open and stocked as well as kept campus buildings open to ensure students had resources available to them. NDSCS created a three-week, on-site Technical Skills Session that allowed certain academic departments to schedule hands-on sessions for students who missed out on instruction and experiences during the spring semester.

Feedback from students was crucial as NDSU shaped its plans for the fall semester. “As associate dean, I surveyed students to see what their main challenges were and identified small changes instructors could make to help,” Platt said. “Students shared information about what was overwhelming them, and we transformed that information into teaching tips. One example was students reporting that it was harder to keep track of everything they needed to do for each class. So we asked instructors to send out a message with reminders at the beginning of every week. It was a small thing with a big benefit for both students and instructors.”

All of the faculty and administrators who shared how their respective institutions have handled the upheaval caused by the pandemic noted the inspiring creativity of their colleagues in adapting to a changing educational environment.

At Concordia, a program meant to connect students with members of the local community instead shifted to connecting with another school in Alabama to explore how the pandemic impacted marginalized communities. Platt said at NDSU, instructors began sharing ideas for how to troubleshoot technology challenges or how to keep students engaged. She noted one creative solution involved using a shared document in which students could work simultaneously. “I plan to keep using it even post-pandemic,” she explained.

MSUM adopted an online system for allowing students to come to campus. Photo courtesy of MSUM
MSUM adopted an online system for allowing students to come to campus. Photo courtesy of MSUM

Eyes on the future

Even though the pandemic has yet to end, faculty and administrators know that this experience has changed the educational landscape irrevocably. At Concordia, collaboration across units on campus to support students was a highlight of the past year, and Larson expects that will continue to deepen in the years to come. In addition, discussions are happening about which majors and courses should retain the online learning format to optimize flexibility for students, Larson said. “We’ve always thought about what students are getting out of their education, but in these moments we are thinking about how we are preparing them to continue in life,” she said.

At MState, Brimhall is focused on how best to serve a very diverse student population and how to prepare them with the skills they need to fill crucial roles within the employment field and learning for successful transfer. “Every institution is looking at a model of how to get quality education and help students be successful when they leave,” she said. “We’re most worried about students lost in the educational system and how that affects them long-term.”

At NDSU, Platt sees a great potential in the future for the university to develop degree completion programs for non-traditional students to complete degrees in a HyFlex system. She also believes the university could create certificate programs for specialized areas to help fill specific skill gaps.

More than anything, administrators and faculty shared that the pandemic offered an opportunity to understand their students and colleagues better than they had before. “It’s made all of us more aware of the human side of education,” Platt explained. “Before, we were not as aware of the lives our students and colleagues were living outside of their roles on campus. Now that external challenges are more visible, we have a better idea of how to support one another.”

At MSUM, Hollaar echoed that thought about gaining a better understanding of students and explained how it was so evident during the spring commencement ceremony when graduates were livestreamed from their homes during the virtual event. “Seeing students walk across the stage is the culmination of what we do and is a big celebration, but I was enthralled by the virtual ceremony,” she said. “Seeing a live shot of the graduates, some sitting on the couch flanked by parents or a graduate student being hooded by her daughter while ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ played in the background was moving.” Brimhall shared that having a literal view into a student’s home “forever changed how they will teach” and “changed their understanding of the types of students” MState serves on a daily basis.

Both administrators at MSUM and NDSU noted that large-group gatherings held on a regular basis and livestreamed to attendees were quite successful, thanks to a large number of people who were able to log in and watch the presentation from wherever they were. Previously, those types of events had been held at a fixed time and a recording might be sent out later, but may not have been watched. Hollaar and Platt said those events typically drew a small crowd but the virtual, livestreamed events drew hundreds, and both suspect some type of hybrid will be adopted in the future to allow people in the audience as well as tune in virtually.

While the focus of the future of higher education is rightfully placed on students, all of the administrators expressed sincere appreciation for their colleagues and everyone who works within the educational system.

“Employees are the heart of this college,” Brimhall said about MState. “Everyone in the MState community is doing the best job we can. I have the utmost admiration and deep appreciation for our employees who dug in to serve and teach students. It continues to amaze me every day.”

Reflecting back on the year, Hollaar felt amazed as well. “Everything in our entire industry was turned upside down so quickly,” she said. “Everything we thought would not happen, could not happen, did and we’re still here. We know we have the talent and innovation skills to pivot when we need to.”

Rasmussen celebrates an achievement in 2020

The year 2020 wasn’t only about the pandemic for area institutions of higher education. In October, Rasmussen College completed its transition to Rasmussen University; the private, regionally accredited higher education institution now offers associate degrees as well as bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in various disciplines like health care, business and technology. The institution was founded in 1900 and has 23 campuses across the country, including Fargo.