Germanna Community College’s classes will go almost entirely online this fall, enabling students’ education to advance while they stay safe at home, the school says.
As many U.S. colleges worry about enrollment because of public concerns about COVID-19 and economic uncertainties, Germanna has seen its summer enrollment rise by 30 percent over last year.
It’s too early to be sure, but early numbers indicate fall enrollment may follow that upward trend, President Janet Gullickson said in an interview Friday.
In hard economic times, community colleges usually see class sign-ups rise because they are more affordable and accessible, Germanna officials said.
“We love our students and our community,” Gullickson said. “Our decision for fall is based, first and foremost, on the health and safety of our community. We’re committed to providing a safe and smart option for our students to keep working toward their goals and a brighter future.”
Germanna is better prepared than many schools because it has been in the business of online education for more than a decade, she said.
“This year, faculty have devoted untold hours in professional development and course development to further their experience and excellence,” Gullickson said. “We have invested thousands of dollars in technological enhancements to make online education exceptional for Germanna’s students.”
She noted that a 2019 WalletHub survey ranked Germanna as Virginia’s top community college.
“We know that our students have come to expect only the best,” Gullickson said. “We will deliver nothing less.”
In addition to students seeking safety, a big reason for this summer’s enrollment increase is affordability, the president said she believes.
“We can provide a debt-free path to a college diploma,” Gullickson said. “Our cost will always be one-third the cost of our Virginia public four-year college and university partners. And most credits earned transfer seamlessly toward a four-year degree. Students save more by staying home while pursuing their degree.”
To increase access for low-income students, Germanna just launched free “Summer Skill Up” classes, she said.
The college is offering free laptop computers to students in financial need and social-distanced use of its on-campus computer labs and WiFi network, Gullickson announced. Germanna’s campus parking lots are being turned into WiFi hotspots.
Most of Germanna’s classes already are completely virtual.
Chemistry professor Shawn Shields, co-chair of Germanna’s science department, said all chemistry courses are online, with lots of videos and tutorials.
Most laboratory classes will go online, too, with a small but essential amount of hands-on work done in socially-distanced labs for transfer students working toward bachelor’s degree.
Dr. Shields said adaptive online homework helps make students’ online lessons work.
“Software uses each student’s responses to identify where the student understands the concepts or who might be struggling with a particular concept,” she said.
Germanna’s homework system adapts to each individual, and provides extra instruction or shorter assignments as needed, Shields said.
“I always tell students it is like having an individual tutor,” she said. “If students are struggling with the math part, it will also provide brief math lessons where appropriate. It really is a form of artificial intelligence, and generally students find it very helpful, especially in an online environment.
“That gives students just the amount of practice they need,” Shields said, “and with Zoom office hours, they can meet with us at just about any reasonable time they need to for extra help.”
Counterintuitively, students in online classes often get more one-on-one time than students in traditional classes, faculty members said.
“They get tons of support,” Shields said.
“Although this is different than how we thought we would be serving our students, we work hard to provide an awesome experience for them,” said Anita Newhouse, Germanna’s assistant director of enrollment services, who lives in Culpeper County. “Our goal is to make sure our students know that we are still there to help them with anything they may need, just in a different way, virtually. Helping students virtually has helped us identify ways we can do things more student friendly when we do get back on campus.”
All of Germanna’s student support, including tutoring, advising, career planning and military services, is available through one-on-one virtual appointments, Germanna Vice President for Student Services Tiffany Ray said.
Faculty member Cheryl Huff, who teaches English, humanities and philosophy, said taking classes online allows students great flexibility.
Some classes require students and instructors to be online at set times, just as in-person courses do, she said. Others allow students to watch recorded classes when it’s convenient.
“I became excited about teaching online when I realized I had a lot of students who worked and took the classes online after they put their children to bed,” Huff said.
For the first time, Germanna is offering $500 scholarships for local residents to pursue career training in five in-demand fields: automotive repair, business, early childhood education, engineering, health care, and information technology.