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Campus Closures Mean Students Learn Hands-On Skills — Remotely

Julian Carvajal
Flickr / CC-by 2.0

College students in all sorts of programs have had to make big adjustments to their studies due to COVID-19 related campus closures. That includes those studying a trade or technical skill.

Steve Flinn, interim dean of agricultural and industrial technologies at Illinois Central College, said career programs require students to learn hands-on competencies that are difficult to master online.

Flinn said students tend to gravitate towards these types of studies because they value the sensory learning experience and might not always be the strongest book learners.

"So now we're asking students who are not necessarily the best online learners to become online learners, and still try to learn all this hands-on-type stuff without actually being present in a lab,” he said.

Flinn said instructors are doing their best to simulate that hands-on experience digitally. He said almost all are live-streaming interactive demonstrations on equipment and machinery — like a carborator, for example.

“They’re soliciting input from the students as to what the next steps would be,” he said. “So the students aren’t actually holding the tools, but they’re kind of guiding the faculty member.”

Other faculty members have even devised a way to allow students to manipulate programs or machines remotely. Flinn said for an electrical instrumentation course, one instructor brought lab equipment home with him when the campus closed. Students are then able to engage with that technology using the instructor’s computer as a proxy.

“It’s been actually pretty effective, because the students are actually doing the work, they’re just doing it remotely,” he said. “The downside is only one student at a time can manipulate that equipment while the others sit by and watch. So it takes longer for the same kind of learning outcome to happen.”

Flinn said this model of instruction is also more challenging for staff, since there’s a significant amount of resources and pre-planning involved. Plus, he said, it doesn’t work for all areas of study.

"You can't become a proficient welder unless you're actually using the equipment. It's like learning to play piano,” he said. “I can demonstrate to someone how to play piano all day long, but until they get on the piano and just practice and practice and practice, they're not going to be proficient."

The same goes for courses like machine operating, Flinn said. Those classes and others have been canceled outright until campus reopens.

Flinn said the students have been understanding of the challenges posed by remote learning and remain committed to continuing their studies once in-person instruction is available again. He said those same students may actually come out of the COVID-19 pandemic at an advantage, as the jobs they’re learning traditionally remain solid, even in a cyclical economy.

“Once things start to open back up again, we’re still going to need the logistics, we’re going to need the trucking, we’re going to need the welders, we’re going to need the maintenance people,” he said. “I would like to think these people are still going to be as employable as they were before all this happened.”

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.