Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the August issue of GCU Magazine. To read the digital version of the magazine, click here.
By Ashlee Larrison
One week. Just one week. That’s all the time Grand Canyon University faculty had to enact a major academic shift when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Ground students had been sent home for spring break and told that the final four weeks of the semester would be completed online. While they relaxed for a few days, faculty members feverishly made the necessary changes to nearly all in-person classes, a testament to GCU’s strong history in online education and its learning management system (LMS), LoudCloud.
“We weren’t really going into uncharted territory,” said Erin Maden, Director of the Office of Academic Records. “We had the online platform, technological infrastructures and team already in place.
“I feel very fortunate that we were so much more prepared than other institutions and companies that I have spoken to because it made the transition a lot easier.”
In fact, the transition happened six years ago when GCU required all ground students to start using LoudCloud.
“I think that part really helped,” said Kirk Dykman, Vice President of Student Operations and Student Records Management for Grand Canyon Education. “Everybody’s familiar with the online LMS system, so they just kept attending like they were there, and then we enhanced it with Zoom or other digital mediums to meet synchronously with the instructors.”
Another GCU-specific resource, LopesCloud, played a role in the transition as well. Created by the Technology Department in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology (CSET), LopesCloud is a web application that connects students to cloud-based environments that they can access from anywhere, much like how Google Docs operates.
“It allows students to interact with whichever virtual environment an assignment requires, whether it is Windows, Linux or other operating systems,” said Leo Quintero, Cloud Support Coordinator/Specialist for CSET.
Those technologies made the transition so smooth, students gave their instructors even higher marks than the previous spring in end-of-semester surveys.
“It was a lot more easily done than I had expected because we had been trained for online courses at GCU,” said Rachel Schumacher, who completed her bachelor’s degree in Theatre and Drama in the spring.
Even administrators were surprised by how smooth it was.
“I still marvel at how we were able to, with a week, basically get things into a position where we could have a very successful finish, which is in fact what we did, and I think that every dean would echo that,” said Claude Pensis, Dean of the College of Fine Arts and Production. “One of the reasons it worked is that everybody pitched in.”
Dr. Sherman Elliott, Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, said, “I expected a lot of complaints about grades. I expected learners to say, ‘Hey, I had an A going in my psychology class and now I have a D,’ but that just didn’t happen. I got very, very few complaints, in fact maybe even less than one gets typically at the end of the semester.”
LoudCloud also allowed deans to keep track and offer assistance to not only students who needed help with the online format, but faculty as well.
“As an administrator, it gave me access to see who was able to do the job and who wasn’t, and for those who didn’t, I was able to give them mentors or coaches to help them,” Elliott said.
That helping spirit is central to GCU’s academic rigors. In addition to the Academic and Career Excellence (ACE) Centers, where students can receive academic assistance seven days a week, instructors are required to maintain regular office hours. Also, each student is assigned a Student Services counselor who stays in touch regularly.
That didn’t change when ground classes went online. Students still could communicate with professors during virtual office hours, and they still could call or email their counselors.
“I think the part of the strategy that has really helped us continue to grow and be successful is that you’re going to have someone there by your side that calls you if you’re out of class or if you’re struggling,” Dykman said. “It’s expensive to have people doing that, but it’s made a difference for our students, it’s made a difference for the University.”
The spring success is a key reason why University leaders are so confident they can help ground students, both returning and incoming, thrive in the online environment for the first three weeks of the fall semester.
And administrators are equally sure that students will take just as easily to blended learning, which will be the norm in most classes when students move onto campus. Dykman and Maden have been working with their teams on adjustments to LoudCloud to assist students and faculty with scheduling who will be physically in class and who will be online each day.
The way they have attacked the challenge typifies the attitude of faculty and administrators. This has been a learning experience for them, too — one they have relished.
“The pandemic has impacted all of us,” Maden said, “but we’ve made lemonade out of lemons as we’ve worked together effectively to find solutions. I think we have become stronger because of it.”
Contact Ashlee Larrison at (602) 639-8488 or [email protected]