Adjustments made necessary by the pandemic brought new understanding about how Cal Lutheran can better serve students and increase its outreach in the future.
By Michele Willer-Allred
The COVID-19 pandemic caught most people off guard, including Cal Lutheran faculty challenged with continuing their programs virtually during stay-at-home restrictions.
Lessons were learned, and some unexpected silver linings emerged: By forging new ways of doing things and embracing technology, many departments increased their outreach. While offering most classes and activities in person is key to the engaging and personal Cal Lutheran experience, there are a few areas where retaining virtual options can better serve students and the extended community.
“Moving forward out of this pandemic, faculty and staff are more comfortable using technology as an instructional tool and able to spearhead exploring endless possibilities on how to improve learning engagement for student success,” said Ada Crutchfield, learning technology coordinator with Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and Cal Lutheran’s Digital Learning Department.
The School of Management had a head start moving to the virtual realm, having offered some courses specifically developed for online delivery, with adapted teaching methods that leverage technology, since 2009. While it plans to return to its pre-pandemic mix of in-person and online courses in fall, Dean Gerhard Apfelthaler said faculty members will accelerate the long-term development of more fully online courses.
“What that means is, we’re not just preparing for another emergency situation. We’re actually developing fully online courses that are also fully built with all the technological assets, so it’s much easier to flip the switch,” Apfelthaler said.
They will be not only refreshing courses in programs like the online MBA but also creating plans for new online summer classes, which have been popular. The option to take all traditional undergraduate summer classes virtually in 2020 and 2021 resulted in record enrollment.
“It’s a matter of catering to student demands,” Apfelthaler said.
While faculty members had been reluctant to offer online summer session courses before the pandemic, this year more offered than could be accommodated, said Provost Leanne Neilson. Post pandemic, half of summer session courses might be in person and half online.
PROVIDING A ‘LIFELINE’
When the pandemic hit, Cal Lutheran’s School for Professional & Continuing Studies had to postpone its inaugural Fifty and Better courses, which were to be offered in person for older adults wanting to take university-level classes without grades. Dean Lisa Buono, MS ’04, EdD ’11, said being the first such program in the area to make the pivot to virtual, faculty didn’t know if they could teach over Zoom or if students would respond positively.
“But, we tried it. And, holy cow, it worked, and we’ve been virtual ever since,” she said.
Going virtual tripled enrollment, from 90 students in the first session to 280 students in spring 2021, Buono said. Many students called the program a “lifeline” during the pandemic. People with disabilities said going virtual allows them to attend classes when they can’t come in person.
“Knowing that by shifting virtually we impacted people positively that way made it all worthwhile,” Buono said.
Going virtual also allowed the program to gain an audience it otherwise wouldn’t have reached, with 40% of the students from outside Ventura County.
To continue providing everyone with the opportunity to attend when Fifty and Better plans to finally offer in-person classes in fall, the two face-to-face courses will have a remote option and the rest will be fully online. The plan is to continue offering many online courses beyond fall.
The fall in-person courses will be in the HyFlex format used for traditional undergraduate classes during the pandemic. Technology tools in classrooms like 360-degree cameras and digital whiteboards that capture written content in real time enable faculty to teach students attending in person and over Zoom at the same time.
The Bachelor’s Degree for Professionals program, which offered some online classes pre-pandemic, plans to offer all of its courses in the HyFlex format for the next couple of years, pending approval from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, to increase accessibility for those hit hard by the pandemic. Most students are working adults and many are caring for children and other family members.
“For some students, if they can’t take their courses virtually, they’re not going to be able to continue, so we found that the HyFlex model would be really important for that population to provide access and make sure they continue on their journey toward degree completion,” Buono said.
The university’s art galleries also benefited from technology, providing virtual exhibits for the first time during the pandemic.
“Now I can’t imagine that we would have an exhibit in the future that doesn’t have a virtual component,” said Rachel Schmid, curator of collections and exhibitions at Cal Lutheran. “It increased our audience reach to London, Cairo and Sydney, among others, and offered us a platform for global exchange of ideas.”
Schmid said pre-pandemic, cost and logistics limited the speakers and exhibits she could bring to the galleries. In a virtual world, those restraints were lifted, and Schmid said it left more funds to invest in artists.
However, even she admitted that “some art can only be experienced in person.”
NO GOING BACK
Mirwais Azizi, Cal Lutheran’s director of digital learning, said that while the response to the pandemic was successful, work still needs to be done so that pedagogy adapts to changing technological realities. Kaitlin Hodgdon, lecture capture specialist with the digital learning team, said that as the pandemic hopefully nears its end, education as a whole doesn’t just walk away like nothing happened.
“I think we’ve learned this past year so much about inequalities with students, whether from learning disabilities, access to online learning and technology, the lack of Wi-Fi we assumed was available to all … and we addressed those issues. We absolutely don’t want to revert back to where everything was before this,” she said.
Michele Willer-Allred is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Ventura County Star, Malibu Surfside News and Central Coast Farm & Ranch magazine. She lives in Moorpark, California.