Crisis Forces Higher Education to Take Virtual Learning to the Next Level

Phase one of COVID-19 prep at area colleges and universities was relatively easy: These higher-education institutions largely were teaching classes online, so the pivot to 100 percent virtual learning took hours to complete.

Phase two, now is progress at many of Michigan’s schools, is more complex. This step includes developing students’ soft skills, communicating in new ways, establishing virtual meeting spaces and developing online experts who can interview, work and thrive in this new environment, local higher-ed specialists say.

Cleary University, Davenport University and Walsh College all are in the midst of responding to the changes that came about because of coronavirus, mass quarantines and the new needs of students. Each one is coming to this situation in different ways, but one thing is common: Students, faculty and staff are working together to make the best of a challenging situation and this group will be uniquely situated to take on tomorrow’s workforce challenges as a result.

“We’re helping students navigate and understand that we can still get things done,” said Patti Swanson, vice president and chief marketing and enrollment officer at Walsh College.

Cleary University
Cleary University describes itself as a business school that is the only four-year degree-granting institution in Livingston County. Based in Howell, Cleary also has a Detroit-based education center on Woodward Avenue. The private university was founded in 1883.

Emily Barnes, provost and Interim President, said Cleary was able to shift to all online learning with one meeting and within two hours primarily because it designs and develops all of its courses to be taught online as well as “on the ground,” or in the classroom. These classes had a thoughtful selection of videos, texts and resources that were available virtually and offered inclusive information and images, Barnes said.

Cleary’s instructors were ready to teach online, as well, because of this preparation, Barnes said. She added that she was proud of Cleary’s “amazing” faculty for this nimbleness and ability to quickly create additional content for students learning online, some for the first time.

“We don’t want our students to have to choose (between online and on the ground). It was important to me as an adult student in the past; I know what it is like to juggle,” Barnes said. “We don’t need barrier to learning when we have every technology at our fingertips.”

With this new system, Cleary wants to produce students who are “independent thinkers who can self-teach,” Barnes said, creating the kind of employees who are self-starters and able to figure things out on their own. “This is critical to everyday life and work,” Barnes said.

Davenport University
Founded in 1866, Davenport University says it has grown to become the second-largest private, non-profit institution of higher education in Michigan. The Grand Rapids-based university has 11 campuses serving nearly 8,000 students across Michigan.

Brian Miller, dean of the global campus at Davenport, said online learning has been a core part of the university for the past two decades. Because it has campuses across the state, students are able to quickly convert to all-virtual learning.

“We’ve prioritized the student experience so they can get what they’ve come to get, which is preparation for a career using the tools and the type of work you’ll do in your career,” Miller said.

One thing that was needed additionally was a kind of virtual experience where online students felt connected to not only Davenport itself but to one another. To develop this, Davenport created VirBELA, a software platform that mimics a traditional college campus classroom experience through an online community.

VirBELA lets students create a personal avatar to walk around the online world, participate in virtual learning or job fairs, watch a presenter using a slide presentation, hang sticky notes on the virtual wall and interact with fellow students. The pilot program is expanding beyond its first use and will be rolled out further, especially in light of these new COVID-19 related changes, Miller said.

Davenport also is working on soft skills for its students who learn online, helping them learn the best practices for video conferences and the like. “We’re proud of what we’re doing,” Miller said.

Walsh College
Established in 1922, Walsh College describes itself as a leading, all-business college and Michigan’s third largest business school. Walsh is based in Troy and has locations in Novi, Clinton Township and Port Huron.

Walsh had a well-established online learning routine, said Patti Swanson, vice president and chief marketing and enrollment officer. But now the world has jumped on board, showing how important it is to have experienced online instructors and classroom management.

To prepare for the impact of the coronavirus, Swanson said Walsh flipped its spring semester classes from on the ground and virtual to completely online. Once those classes were ready to go, the whole college was prepared to start learning and moving forward.

Walsh also has made a point to reach out to students and highlight the online support services it offers, such as Zoom meetings with instructors, online tutoring labs and one-on-one virtual tutoring as well as email and telephone support. Walsh also is doing online recruiting for future students as well as boosting emergency assistance in terms of funding for those who need it, she said.

“We know we have a lot of adult learners who are also parents, and they’re trying to navigate work, school and kids,” Swanson said. “We are working with everyone to say engaged and connected.”

Ultimately, these kinds of experiences will strengthen students and higher-educational institutions. Moreover, it is the kind of lessons, training and resourcefulness these students will show as they enter the workforce, which needs these talents more than ever, Swanson added.

“This is a real case study on how to navigate a crisis,” Swanson said.