August 31, 2022 | By Lisa Ganga
Montgomery College in Maryland serves 50,000 students on three campuses and has offered courses online for more than a decade. To reach their online students, the college created the Virtual Campus to bring comprehensive support services under one digital roof.
Shinta Hernandez is the founding dean of the Virtual Campus, which is scaling up its activities and will formally launch in the fall. It’s her job, with her team, to find creative ways to meet the needs of virtual students and the even-more-common hybrid students who take a mix of online and face-to-face courses at the college.
“We wanted to create a formalized infrastructure to deliver not only academically rigorous courses but also the holistic and comprehensive wraparound services that students can get in the virtual space,” Hernandez said. “Research shows that when students have this holistic experience, their experience is much more positive and more meaningful, and they become much more successful.”
Hernandez spoke to the Postsecondary Teaching with Technology Collaborative recently about her vision for the Virtual Campus. This interview has been condensed and edited.
Tell me about the Virtual Campus. Will it function like one of the physical campuses?
The Virtual Campus is highly collaborative. We work with offices across the institution to make sure we have the right services and the right mix of supports to be able to increase success for students in the virtual space. We want to make sure students still feel like a Montgomery College Raptor—that’s our mascot. We want them to be engaged. So the supports will include student clubs and activities, student leadership programs, and wraparound services like the libraries, learning centers, tutoring. All of those we put into the virtual space because of the pandemic. But through the Virtual Campus, we will continue to sustain and scale those supports, so that they’re available to all students.
Tell me a little bit about your students. Who are you serving?
Montgomery College is the most diverse community college in the continental United States. Our students are not just racially and ethnically diverse, but also socioeconomically diverse, diverse in age, diverse in terms of their complex lives. We have a lot of first-generation students, a lot of Pell Grant–eligible students, a lot of students who are working adults who are parents and elderly caretakers.
How are you addressing equity in online education? How are you trying to ensure everybody has an equally successful experience?
At the start of the pandemic, we improved and expanded our Wi-Fi so it would be in a lot of different spaces—the garage, for example, or parking lots—many different public areas across our campuses.
Moving into this Virtual Campus space, one of the ways that I think we’ll address equity is by offering a physical presence for virtual students. I know that sounds like an oxymoron. The virtual students are going to be out there somewhere taking their classes—why do you need a physical presence? But the majority of our students are actually mixed-modality students. So a student might be taking one onsite class, one remote class with Zoom sessions that same day, and an asynchronous online class that they can do on their own time. Because of that, we want to create spaces on all of our campuses so a student who has an onsite class from 10 to 10:50 and a remote class at 11 can go there and use the resources we have available for them.
Our center is looking at how teachers can teach students the skills they need to be effective learners. Is that something you explicitly try to build into your courses?
All of our general education courses are approved by the Maryland Higher Education Commission and have built-in competencies that we as an institution believe are going to prepare students for their future. Their future can include transitioning to a 4-year institution or straight into the labor market, or both. These competencies include oral and written communication, information literacy, quantitative reasoning. And in the online or remote training we provide to faculty, we embed those competencies and teach our faculty how to use technologies and tools in Blackboard, Zoom, Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, and other platforms so that they can deliver their content and also teach those general education competencies.
For example, one of the competencies is critical analysis and reasoning. One way we teach our faculty to apply this in their online courses is by providing students with ample opportunities to articulate a problem and analyze the complexity of that problem on the discussion board in Blackboard. This feature gives students the space to think about the issue at hand and to acknowledge a variety of viewpoints in the virtual classroom.
Do the technologies have tools that make it easier for the teachers to build those competencies in?
Yes, absolutely. It’s actually my office, the Office of E-Learning, Innovation, and Teaching Excellence—the acronym is ELITE—that has the instructional designers. And the professional development side of my office helps train the faculty to make sure they have the technologies and tools to help with those competencies as they teach their general education classes. The required training for faculty teaching remotely is being redesigned because one of our philosophies is we always have to maintain relevance. We have to be current. It’s not just about being current in your discipline, but also being current with the technologies in virtual teaching.
What does that training look like?
Before the pandemic, we had a whole host of trainings offered to faculty members. We had Blackboard Essentials, and then we had more sophisticated training to teach faculty how to develop their own online courses. This was for asynchronous classes. At the start of the pandemic, we realized we needed to offer interactivity inside the classroom space, Zoom space, or virtual space. So we created this training called Digital Fundamentals for Teaching and Learning. We teach your basic Blackboard, your basic Zoom, or Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, but we also teach how you can combine your discipline and the online technology to deliver the material in the most engaging way.
The objective of combining the discipline with technology in the most engaging way is to increase discipline relevance, increase student motivation and engagement, and ultimately improve overall student success. One way to do this is to use the various tools, such as Camtasia, Screencast-O-Matic, or Mentimeter, to deliver the discipline content in a way that’s unconventional and interactive.
What do you see as the most important competencies for a student learning online?
I think this can apply to both the virtual and the face-to-face modality: communication and critical thinking. In Blackboard, we have a discussion board feature, and that’s a great opportunity for students to think critically about the questions being posed. That’s also a critical piece in the face-to-face setting. If a question is being asked by the instructor or a classmate, a student will need to learn how to address that question in a professional way, in a way that suggests critical thinking and that suggests they can think on their feet. The other piece to the online environment is simply knowing how to use the different tools in Blackboard. That’s where the Blackboard orientation comes in.
What’s your favorite Blackboard feature? Do you have a favorite?
As an instructor, I must say that my favorite Blackboard feature is the discussion board. It’s amazing what brilliant thoughts can come out of offering students a space to think and reflect.