When Blackfeet Com-munity College (BCC) welcomed students back for the fall 2020 semester, nobody knew quite what to expect.
“At first, it was like, oh my gosh, I don’t know if this is going to work or even if students are going to want to come back,” said Professor Angela Johnson, the Human Services Division Chair at BCC.
The BCC administration had made the decision to transition to an all-online fall semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a “conservative plan,” said Dr. Karla Bird, president of BCC, but one that college faculty and officials came to recognize as the correct one.
Bolstered by the CARES Act, the federal coronavirus relief bill, BCC received emergency funds that it used to provide “incentives” for students to come back, according to Bird.
Those incentives included providing 50 percent off tuition for all students, purchasing and distributing laptops for students, providing a down payment for an Internet connection, and forgiving all student debt.
“Going completely online, we knew that it might be a challenging semester and uncharted territory for us,” Bird said, explaining the justification for the incentives. “We really tried to reduce any type of barrier that students might have seeking online education.”
Despite Johnson’s early concern, students have come back, and in high numbers.
In fall of 2019, enrollment sat around 359 students. This fall, that number has grown to 409 students.
One of the new students is Nina Rock, who is returning to BCC as a student for the third time – after two other attempts in 2003 and 2007.
Rock has wanted to go to college “for quite some time,” but there were always obstacles.
“When my kids were younger, it was because of childcare. Then when I tried to go back later, it was because of money,” she said.
Rock decided to come back to school this fall because of the debt forgiveness and reduction in tuition.
“I was finally – finally – able to go back,” she said.
Majoring in pre-engineering, Rock in projected to graduate with an associate’s degree in the spring of 2022. From there, she hopes to transfer to Montana State University and major in electrical engineering.
Rock is one of many students who have responded to the incentives offered by BCC. For Johnson, it has translated into a large increase of students in the Human Services Division at BCC, which includes programs such as human services, criminal justice, psychology, social work, behavioral services and addiction studies.
“We were close to 100 students, and I really think it has to do with the pandemic and the stress and anxiety people are feeling,” Johnson explained. “I think people are wanting to know about behavioral health issues.”
Jennifer Biegler, of Cut Bank, is one of those students. She started the addiction studies program this fall and will be a licensed addiction counselor at the end of a two-year program.
Finishing college has always been on Biegler’s to-do list, but because of the responsibilities of raising a family and working fulltime, coupled with lack of access to a nearby college, she had not been able to do it, until now.
“When COVID hit and everybody went online, it suddenly opened up some doors, so that was really my driving force,” said Biegler.
Biegler said she is the only one of her siblings who does not have a college degree, and it’s always bothered her a bit. She remembers her mother, too, who went back to school and earned a master’s degree when she was in her late forties.
Biegler, 51, works full-time, owns a business, and helps care for her grandchildren several nights a week. Commuting back and forth to Browning for classes wasn’t an option, so the online option works well.
“There’s no way I could drive back and forth,” she said.
Online education is nothing new to college students in Montana. According to Joe Thiel, the Director of Academic Policy and Research at the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, the number of students taking college classes online has grown steadily.
Over the past 10 years, the overall proportion of college students in the Montana University System attending classes fully online has gone from 6 to 10 percent. The number of students who are taking at least one class online has gone from 20 to over 30 percent, he said.
Even with that growth, Thiel said that it’s estimated about 5,000 Montana residents take online classes at out-of-state schools.
Before COVID-19 forced colleges to switch virtually overnight to online learning last spring, Thiel said the increase in online offerings was happening “slowly and intentionally.” New online offerings were often offered by faculty who “had some prior experience” with online teaching, another factor that limited growth.
Thiel compares the new emphasis on online learning to an unstoppered bottle. Now, he says, all instructors have experience teaching online, “so we’re working really diligently to try to leverage that experience.”
The switch to online teaching last spring led faculty at the University of Montana to UMOnline and its staff and executive director, Maricel Lawrence. UMOnline helps faculty develop courses that are fully online or blended, meaning they are partly online and partly taught in-person.
Lawrence said an early challenge was helping instructors who had planned to teach a course entirely in-person to have to switch immediately to an online modality. Usually, she said, “an instructor would take a whole semester to design” a course before teaching it. The process of tying learning objectives and assessment to instruction has to be reimagined in an online-only or partially online situation, she said.
The student population was different, too. Typically, students who enroll in online courses do so because attending classes in-person is less convenient or impossible. Last spring, students who wanted to be on campus taking classes had to go online, too. That created another challenge – making sure instructors and students could connect in the virtual classroom.
All these challenges were the case at BCC. Some faculty members took a six-week online teaching course offered through the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.
Faculty also worried about connecting with students.
“We were a little nervous, some of us, about how we would build those relationships, because relationship-building is super important when you teach students and advise them,” Johnson explained. She said she’s been pleasantly surprised that those relationships seem to be solidifying, even in a video conference format.
Some students are now able to take classes because of the online format, Johnson added.
“Barriers we faced in the past are lack of childcare, lack of transportation,” she said.
While those barriers are gone for online learners, others appear, including poor or no Internet connectivity.
Some students don’t have Internet at home, or some live out of town with unreliable Internet connections.
Johnson said a line of cars sometimes appears near the library, which has wifi access. Students do their schoolwork in their cars. Stay-at-home orders has limited that somewhat.
Conducting the lab work that is required for some science and nursing classes has been difficult. Strict rules were put in place to keep students safe in the lab environment, Bird explained. But labs were paused altogether when COVID cases started to climb again.
Other students thrive in the online learning environment, including Rock, who said the online environment fits her learning style better.
“I’ve always been an on-my-own-terms kind of learner, so this has been working out really great for me,” she said.
Some existing and recently funded new online programs have been designed to provide additional training for job placement. At Great Falls College Montana State University, for example, the surgical technologist program is taught as a hybrid model that includes students from Great Falls College MSU, City College in Billings, and Gallatin College in Bozeman, according to Professor Daisy Gibson, the surgical technologist program director at Great Falls College MSU.
Students at all three schools attend classes on campus. Gibson lectures in person to students in Great Falls and via video to students in Billings and Bozeman. The students at all three campuses attend labs taught by an instructor in their respective city. They do clinical rotations close to home, too.
There’s a need for surgical techs across the state, Gibson explained. With the program’s instruction stretched over three cities, more students can take advantage of the program, which accepts up to 25 students each year. Hospitals have responded as well, working with the program and donating equipment or supplies.
“They’re the ones in need of these students,” said Gibson, who is originally from Shelby.
There are other candidates for programs similar to the surgical tech distance program Gibson oversees. Recently, the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education allotted $2.2 million to two-year and community colleges around the state to develop programs to support workforce needs. The programs are as varied as K-12 remote training for teachers and computer technology to hybrid electric vehicle training and remote welding.
Thiel considers programs like these an area of potential growth for Montana education, and for Montanans who want to increase their skills or retrain for new jobs. Most of these programs will be hybrid programs, “where most is online but you travel to the campus hosting the program for a short intensive,” Thiel said.
Such programs can help Montana meet its workforce needs.
“This is kind of the perpetual problem in Montana. We have communities that have particular workforce needs,” he said. But any number of reasons, including family or work obligations may prevent potential students from relocating to attend a specific program.
The demand for a particular trade or occupation in any one city may not be high enough to keep an in-person-only program running, either, so a collaboration such as the surgical tech program Gibson oversees helps with enrollment numbers.
Lawrence said distance graduate education has long helped people across the state expand their skills. But a growing area is certificate programs that are not traditional college programs.
“For example, you might see a lot of students say, ‘I really want to get into cyber security because there’s a lot of labor demand.’ Instead of jumping into an undergraduate degree or even a master’s, you’re looking for certificates or things you can do for short periods of time,” Lawrence explained.
These alternative credentials are useful for people who want to re-skill or upskill, both ways to become more competitive in the job market and increase earnings. Perhaps one of the best-known alternative credential opportunity is coding boot camps that teach students how to write computer code in a three- or four-month course.
As the fall semester winds down, Rock is looking forward to her future.
In her past two attempts at attending BCC, she said she didn’t make it to midterm.
“Now, I’m excited to get past midterm and have all A’s,” Rock said.
Biegler is thinking about the benefits for others, too.
Online learning “might open doors to people who don’t have gas money or have little kids and don’t have daycare,” she offered. “I’m hoping for at least those who are low- to middle-income that maybe it will open up some doors for them.”
One thing seems to be for sure – the trend of increased online options for higher education will likely long outlast the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bird already has ideas, including offering remote Blackfeet language classes.
“I think we’re on the tip of trying to figure out what’s possible and that’s exciting,” she said.
Lawrence expects to see continued growth in online education, including in alternative credential programs.
While Bird is quick to acknowledge the past few months have been “stressful” for BCC, “we are resilient and have always been resilient. We just have to push through these challenging times.”
For more information
To browse online courses offered within the Montana University System, visit www.applymontana.org. To learn more about Blackfeet Community College, including its programs and to apply, visit www.bfcc.edu.