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Piedmont Technical College (PTC) is well-prepared to deliver online courses until it is safe to return to in-person instruction. In fact, the college has been a pioneer in the online and distance learning space for more than 20 years.
“Without question, COVID-19 has tested the PTC community on many levels, but online learning is something we’re uniquely qualified to provide,” said PTC President Dr. L. Ray Brooks. “Our experience with online courses goes back decades. In addition to our eight regional, physical locations, our online platform constitutes a ninth and perhaps largest ‘location,’ a vast virtual campus.”
In fact, PTC was actively working toward using technology to increase access to courses as far back as 1995, with the establishment of the Piedmont Education Network (PEN). Still active today, the PEN electronically linked the college's 3,500-square-mile service area with educational opportunities on the Greenwood campus and its county campus locations. And several years later, the college was already running its first fully online courses, with fully online degree programs to follow shortly thereafter.
“We’ve been running hundreds of online courses each academic year for a long time now. It’s just the way we do business here, and over time we’ve developed the expertise to do it well,” said Brooks. PTC faculty have long been, not only comfortable, but adept, with teaching in a virtual environment. And many PTC educators proactively explore new technologies supported by the internet, such as using avatars, video channels and interactive gaming to further engage an audience that largely grew up with the internet.
“Even though the instructional ‘how’ and ‘where’ may have changed, what hasn’t changed is our commitment to offering our Job-Ready Guarantee. It’s our pledge to students and employers that graduates of our programs will arrive in the workplace ready to perform, or we will retrain them at no cost,” said Keli Fewox, PTC Vice President for Academic Affairs.
Currently, all PTC summer courses have been set up to operate primarily online. Those that require lab, shop or clinical experience will be offered on a hybrid basis, with students brought on to campus, or sent to clinical sites, for hands-on training when it is safe for them to do so.
“We’ve long offered online teaching for the convenience of students but also as a more flexible option for students who work,” Brooks explained. “With online courses, most of our instructors also seek out Open Educational Resources (OERs), which are content, textbooks and other materials that are free of charge and available electronically. Already, 70% of our students attend Piedmont Tech tuition-free, so online courses are an added layer of quality and savings that we provide.”
PTC also offers optional student training sessions on the college’s D2L Brightspace learning management system at the beginning of each semester and encourages participation by students who are new to the online experience.
“I am exceedingly proud of how our faculty, students and staff have adapted to the recent transition to a fully virtual environment,” Brooks said. “We are right in the middle of an unprecedented situation, but I’d like to tell people not to give up on their dreams. College is still possible. We’re in this with you, and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure our students can succeed in this new environment.”
Piedmont Technical College (PTC) student Antonia Adams has taken the transition to remote education in stride, though she misses the social aspects of college life. The gregarious Phi Theta Kappa-honored scholar and Presidential Ambassador — who is widely involved in college life and a familiar face to many on campus — found the breakneck adjustment to completely virtual courses trouble-free but also a bit lonely. Always one to keep things in positive perspective, however, she expressed gratitude for PTC’s handling of the crisis.
“The transition to an online format was extremely well-done. Teachers were very quick in notifying students about the latest changes,” Adams said. PTC instructors absolutely had students’ backs should any problem arise. “All of my teachers have WebEx office hours. On WebEx, we can talk in real time. They can do things on their computer and show me their screen. That is very helpful.”
When “just a week or two” turned into many weeks, Adams went with the flow although she doesn’t particularly like home isolation.
“I was surprised when it became a long-term thing. That was disappointing to me because I love coming to school. I am a nerd. I thrive being around people and when I am out doing things,” she said. “During the transition, staying in D2L (the college’s learning management system) was very easy,” she said. “My (in-person) teachers worked very hard to get everything online quickly. I was able to keep working and studying as normal.”
Although she graduated in December with an associate degree in business administration with a concentration on accounting, PTC student Noel Johnson has continued taking classes as she pursues a career in human resources. The pandemic has affected her in a powerful way, but not because of the online learning environment.
Johnson began a paid internship in human resources at WCTEL in Abbeville last year. Her time working there changed her focus from accounting to human resources, a field she has come to love. That internship is continuing this spring, and like so many other Americans, Johnson has found herself and her WCTEL co-workers doing their jobs from home.
“It’s a little different working from home because, in HR, we deal with people and aren’t able to see them in person right now,” she said. “We are working on ways to keep our employees interactive with each other.”
The switch to a virtual college environment at PTC, she says, has been smooth.
“I’m still taking two online classes at Piedmont Tech,” she said. “I am finishing up my human resources certificate. … My classes were already online this semester, so nothing really changed for me. I think PTC does a good job keeping instructors connected with students.”
Johnson also took several online courses before graduating, so it was familiar territory, and the college has offered online courses for students who work or need greater flexibility for many years.
“I think right now, they really have a good system set up,” she said.
While Adams was planning a move to Columbia to attend the University of South Carolina this summer, she has put those plans on hold because UofSC recently announced that all summer courses would be delivered online as well. When the university welcomes students on campus again, Adams wants to live in a dormitory and participate in student life as actively as she has at PTC.
“I want to live on campus,” she said. “I am a very involved student. I like the feeling of being on a college campus. It’s a more immersive experience.”
PHOTOS: Antonia Adams, Noel Johnson