College demonstrates historic resilience, benefits from technology

Grove City College’s mission to provide an excellent and affordable Christ-centered education continues as the nationwide effort to slow the spread of coronavirus has essentially closed college campuses nationwide.

Adapting to the unprecedented crisis is challenging its students, faculty and staff to transform the traditional ways they learn and work in a time of extreme social distancing and national crisis.

“These unprecedented circumstances have tested the resilience of our learning community, and I’m thankful for how quickly and effectively we’ve responded. This quick transition in just a matter of days has required extraordinary effort,” Paul J. McNulty ’80, president of the Christian liberal arts and sciences college, said. “When I think about all that was accomplished in response to this unexpected crisis, it is truly historic. I’m overwhelmed with a sense of appreciation for the can-do spirit of our campus community.”

Grove City College moved quickly to transition all courses to an online platform on Monday, March 23, transforming more than 800 traditional lecture and lab courses to remote delivery and preparing 150 faculty to this new normal in less than a week. The learning curve has been accelerated for all involved, but a few days into the new reality, the College’s learning community and students are working together in positive ways to sustain the outstanding educational experience for which Grove City College is widely known.

“The rollout of online courses has gone smoothly so far,” Dr. Peter Frank ’95, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs said. “One student commented that ‘things are going well, I just don’t know how to raise my hand.’ It is a challenge to duplicate the in-class experience through distance delivery, but faculty are working with some synchronous lectures and discussions, which are the next best alternative to the vibrant in-person community that makes Grove City College a great institution.”

“Even though we aren’t on campus, we are still a community. We’re all working through this transition together and learning what works best,” junior Anna DiStefano ’21 of Fairview, Pa., said. “In this time of distance learning there is variety in instruction as well as flexibility and grace. My professors have been very understanding and supportive, because they are going through the same changes that we are.”

While no one expected such a tectonic shift in teaching and learning, decisions made decades and just a few months ago seem now like foresight. More than 25 years ago, the College was one of the first to provide every incoming freshman with a laptop computer pre-loaded with some of the best educational software available, a program that continues to this day. That meant that every student – and professor – had the technology in hand to be on the same digital page on day one of online delivery.

“This has been the number one reason behind making this  transition to online instruction and working remotely so much easier,” according to Vice President for Enrollment Services and Registrar Dr. John Inman, who was instrumental in setting up the laptop program a generation ago. “Who knew in 1994 how this program would help us in 2020?”

In some ways, that common infrastructure – or digital unity – makes it easier to scale up the distance delivery plans developed by the College’s Information Services Technology and Graduate and Online Programs teams. “If you would have told me that we’d put the faculty and every class online in a week I’d say that’s going to be challenging, but here we are. It’s worked extremely well,” Dr. Vincent DiStasi ’88, vice president for Information Technology and chief information officer, said.

The College’s decision last year to invest in expanding the online program to enhance dual enrollment and drive Grove City College’s digital presence turned out to be “great timing,” Dr. Christy L. Crute, executive director of Graduate and Online Programs, said. As a result, the College had professional staff in place with expertise in online education, plans in place to complement the curriculum and dedicated physical space in the Hall of Arts and Letters available to facilitate a seamless, almost real-time change in educational modalities.

In addition to connecting students and faculty in the virtual classroom, offices across the College are working to continue a robust student experience despite the circumstances. For example:

  • Chapel Ministries is taking to social media to provide spiritual guidance and inspiration to the “diaspora,” Interim Chaplain Rev. Dr. D. Dean Weaver ’86 announced. In place of regular Tuesday and Thursday Chapel and Sunday vespers, the chapel team is posting devotional videos to bless and encourage students and staff. “Though we are unable to gather together for services now, we still wish to provide encouraging and edifying spiritual messages on a regular basis,” Weaver said.
  • The Career Services Office is available for virtual student appointments via Office 365 Teams continuing to deliver tutorials and presentations, using social media to connect with students  adapting programming to online delivery and consumption and working with employers to facilitate Skype interviews in place of in-person campus visits, according to Director Mandy Sposato ’00. “We’re leveraging and highlighting many of our online resources, including Handshake, and another platform called Big Interview which provides students the opportunity to practice their interviewing skills virtually,” she said.
  • The Henry Buhl Library is offering the same professional service and support online that they enjoy in person, including research assistance and access to digital materials. An enhanced web presence enables students to connect virtually.
  • Student support services, including tutoring via Teams, accommodations for disabled students taking online classes, and academic interventions for students continue uninterrupted and are being delivered through the College’s internal portal.
  • Student Life and Learning, which deals with so many aspects of campus life and the student experience, is ministering to the small number of students who remain on campus for various reasons and “continuing at a distance” to serve the remote student body, Larry Hardesty, vice president for Student Life and Learning, said. His office has fielded hundreds of inquiries from students and parents and is working swiftly to respond. “So much of what we do is relational,” he said. “We have to be more intentional to maintain those relationships.”
  • The Office of Admissions is working out innovative alternatives to attract and engage students, including communication with prospective students and parents are increased use of Live Chat, virtual campus tours, and ramping up engagement on social media. One of the most notable is the changing Admitted Student Day into Virtual Admitted Student Week: A full week devoted to introducing prospective students to campus and begin building a sense of community in the class of 2024.

The historic changes may have been forced upon the campus by a national crisis, but the lessons learned and the new digital tools and protocols employed will enhance the rich educational experience that is the hallmark of Grove City College.

“We have seen through this difficult crisis some new ways to pursue the College’s mission,” McNulty said. “By God’s grace, when this monumental challenge is behind us, I believe we will find that our beloved College is a stronger institution.”

College demonstrates historic resilience, benefits from technology

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