Last March when Northeast Wisconsin Technical College joined other education institutions in moving its programs online due to the pandemic, faculty and staff had two weeks to prepare. While a lot can be done virtually, hands-on activities — an integral part of manufacturing, engineering and trades programs — are much harder to replicate.
With the fall semester a little more than a month away, technical college instructors are ready to welcome students back to campus safely while also planning for virtual classes if needed. For many programs, such as welding and automotive maintenance technician, having hands-on experience is a must in the learning process. With some classes requiring skills tests, figuring out how to continue that learning is vital.
During the second half of the spring semester, Amy Kox, dean for trades and engineering knowledge at NWTC, says faculty created how-to videos for hands-on activities. “Our IT department also created a way students could remote into the school’s system and use the same simulations or programs as if they were in class on the campus,” she says.
The region’s technical colleges began to reopen in May and June on a limited basis after putting safety protocols in place. Many students in hands-on courses then came in to complete necessary skills tests or labs.
At Moraine Park Technical College, students in courses requiring hands-on learning returned to campus in mid-May, says Fred Rice, dean of applied technology and trades. Looking forward, he says MPTC is “reimagining our courses for the fall. Students want hands-on education. We’ll keep classes smaller and rotate who is in the lab.”
For some core classes, students may be offered the option of taking the class in person or completing it all online. Some classes may be a mix of online and in-person lessons. Virtual classes are nothing new at MPTC. Rice says online courses have been offered the past few years and are designed to be interactive, including live content.
“We know a lot of students who just graduated high school received a lot of virtual education this past spring, but we want to get out the message to them that our virtual classes are different than what they’ve experienced before,” he says. “We don’t want them to not come because of any concerns over virtual classes.”
Kox says NWTC is using its summer program as a way to trial plans for the fall. Students and staff are wearing masks, and class sizes are smaller or have stayed the same but are being conducted in larger spaces.
“We are providing experiences to students, but in smaller groups. We may take that typical welding class and divide it half — half of the students in the regular classroom setting and then half in the welding booths,” she says.
Fox Valley Technical College opened in June for students needing to complete lab assignments, says Steve Straub, FVTC’s dean of manufacturing and agriculture technologies. He says many students last spring connected remotely to training devices inside the lab.
“Their learning experience provided real-world relevance, as leading companies in industry use the very same communication platform and protocol to remotely control automation devices at manufacturing plants anywhere in the world,” Straub says.
Straub says Factory I/O, a simulation software, provides a way for students to visualize how an apparatus will operate in a real-world setting.
“Students are able to create and troubleshoot programs by using the virtual environment as feedback. This allows students to learn without the risk of damaging real equipment while still providing a visual that responds close to the real world,” he says.
Coming this fall
As they plan their fall courses, colleges are putting into play the lessons they learned when classes went virtual in March. One common plan is to front-load classes with lots of hands-on activities just in case a rising number of COVID-19 cases requires schools to resume full-time online learning, Rice says.
Most NWTC classes are now eight weeks long due to its Advantage program, so students may be able to get in an entire course in September and October. The college launched the eight-week format since studies have shown students perform better in shorter courses.
“Transitioning from in-person to online classes can be a challenge for students. This spring, they had spring break and an extra week off before doing everything online,” Kox says. “With the eight-week courses, we may have a transition naturally built in.”
NWTC is also offering something new this fall: a no-risk program. Kox says students can sign up for a course or program and try it out for free the first week of class. If they don’t feel comfortable with being on campus or dislike their virtual class experience, they can withdraw without ever paying a fee.
“We know it’s a challenging time for many since there’s so much uncertainty, so why not offer them a chance to see if they like it instead of not trying it at all,” Kox says.
Rice says faculty members learned a lot during the second half of the spring semester about creating content and look forward to using some of that knowledge going forward.
“We had instructors in our automotive and culinary areas realize there were a bunch of things they could do virtually that they previously hadn’t thought about,” he says.
Technical colleges provide education and training to more than just their students — they work closely with businesses to provide training for their employees. The training can happen at the business or at the college.
Northeast Wisconsin Technical College continued its training for businesses throughout the pandemic, says Meridith Jaeger, NWTC’s dean of corporate training and economic development. “We serve a lot of essential employees, and if they needed training, we provided it.”
Training was normally held onsite at the business with protocols in place to keep workers healthy, such as fewer people in each class and mask wearing. For classes held onsite at NWTC, Jaeger says the college took additional precautions.
“We had students enter and exit from the same door,” Jaeger says. “We had touchless hand sanitizers and we sprayed down equipment between classes to keep it clean.”
The college also uses its modular units, which are easily transportable to locations for workers to get additional training.
At NWTC’s Marinette site, which trains employees for Fincantieri Marinette Marine, the college created a second shift of welding classes to keep the number of students down in each class. “Our goal is to make sure everyone involved is comfortable,” Jaeger says.
Steve Straub, dean of manufacturing and agriculture technologies at Fox Valley Technical College, says he works closely with each client to develop an appropriate safety plan prior to drafting the contract. “The safety plans vary depending on multiple factors, but we have a standard process to develop and review the safety plans,” he says.