How Virginia Western Community College Turned COVID-19 Into Opportunity

By: Danielle Chazen

The novel coronavirus has brought about significant challenges for today’s colleges and their students. Yet some higher education leaders are choosing to instead adopt a positive mindset and look at COVID-19 as an opportunity.

Among these leaders is Virginia Western Community College, a two-year public institution of higher education operating under the Virginia Community College System. Virginia Western sees a current annual enrollment of over 9,000 students in credit courses and more than 1,400 enrollments in fast-track workforce and continuing education courses.

Prior to the health crisis and the current move to hybrid learning, Virginia Western was offering captioning and transcription to a small number of students who required accessible materials to meet ADA requirements. However, COVID-19 and the need for remote learning presented an opportunity for the college to implement more technology and live CART tools.

The school’s leaders have shared a vision to move toward universal accessibility for all video for some time. Now that the crisis has presented the need for more technology, different stakeholders from VWCC banded together to implement a solution that meets the needs of students with disabilities, but also accounts for the evolving expectations of today’s video viewers.

A recognized need for tech engagement tools

Joseph Bear, CTS, Media Department Lead, Virginia Western Community College, is responsible for incorporating video-focused products like Panopto and Zoom into the school’s workflow. As a result of COVID-19’s impact and a previous partnership with Verbit, he’s been able to showcase the importance of captions for education as the standard, not just as an accessibility measure.

Bear noted that COVID-19 has higher-ed considering new definitions for the standard classroom.

“What I’m struggling to find as of now and just emphasize with COVID is, what is a classroom? Where is a classroom? Is it virtual? Is it a physical location? And then the answer is, of course, all of the above. That’s a stance that I’ve been pushing for probably the better part of five years now.”

Bear said this new idea of a classroom coupled with the new ways students consume content and video trends are critical for schools to keep top-of-mind.

“Watching the trends with YouTube and things like that, that is becoming the first stop for not just students, but everyone when we want to learn something. And when YouTube adds things like captions as part of the standards, we need to adapt to that as well. Because it’s not just accessibility anymore. It is becoming the standard. It is people on the bus that are having hearing issues. It’s podcasts available for people that are driving into work. It’s things like that that we’re seeing. And education is no different than any other consumed media. And we need to be jumping on that bandwagon.”

Bear previously worked with Verbit to make recorded videos accessible to students, but when VWCC shifted to hybrid learning, Bear was given an opportunity to test out more live video technologies, such as CART services.

Bridging together departments & expertise

While Bear’s background makes him an expert in A/V and media, he said he needed to become more well-versed on accessibility requirements. His expertise, partnered with that of Hillary Holland, LPC, Disability Counselor & ADA Coordinator, fueled collaboration and primed the school for success.

Bear and Holland came together to identify both the accessibility and media benefits of utilizing new live tools and their functionality within Zoom. They created documentation for others to transition in the future “when we take this campus-wide, because I think it’s going to happen,” Bear said.

“Verbit brings people together and I can’t stress that enough. It just brings departments together. It brings faculty together. It brings faculty and students together,” said Holland. “Regardless of what [students’] hearing needs are, Verbit’s services wraps around and can meet all of them…It’s just that accessibility on every level. And it brings comfort in knowing that our students are not missing any aspect of the spoken word in the classroom.”

While the upside to these technologies is clear from accessibility and modern media perspectives, Bear said one of the biggest challenges he faces is pacifying the fears of less tech-savvy faculty in order to drive their vision of an accessible campus forward.

Training getting buy-in from faculty members

“We’ve been trying to prove to the faculty that this stuff really is not that difficult and do not be afraid. And that’s been the biggest problem,” Bear said.

VWCC has invested in equipping its in-person classrooms with tilt zoom cameras that can zoom in on the whiteboard and room microphones that capture student responses and instruction. However, Bear noted that some of the tech was previously not being used. Now that professors and students are remote, they’re learning how easy technology can be to use, he said.

His current focus is now on helping instructors learn to adapt their teaching styles.

“Instructors that have been here for 20+ years are stuck in their ways and honestly horrified to touch technology. And that’s a big problem right now, is trying to get that technology gap between instructors that are part of a younger generation that can hop in and just do this versus instructors that have been out of the technology game just simply because, you know, they evolved around it. They didn’t have to adapt it because their classroom was brick and mortar… but COVID-19 kind of forced everyone’s hand.”
woman sitting on a table with her laptop and holding a transparent mug

Showcasing ease of use

Bear said demonstrating ease of implementation and use for new technologies like captioning is key. Verbit worked as the decided solution for Bear since he could showcase its easy integration into professor workflows.

“It’s basically sign in, press a button and go. That’s about how simple this product is. The instructor signs in and presses go and they get up and running… Given my designs that I have in my classrooms, this product was instantly attainable. With minor additions to microphones, I was able to turn this on in all of my classrooms basically almost immediately.”

For Holland, it was also about ensuring the students navigating disabilities she serves had the tools they needed to participate live and in different scenarios, such as breakout groups or classroom discussions.

“If a kid in the back makes the comment, how are we ensuring that that information is getting to the transcription? But it’s my understanding that that that is not an issue. So that’s again, another way, Verbit has made this work very, very well.”

Bear furthered that COVID-19 simply escalated the move towards video that was already beginning to happen across all classrooms.

“We’ve been doing lecture capture in all of our classrooms for over a decade now. So it was easy to transition the same technology, the cameras, the room microphones and all that kinda stuff over to an online platform. I mean, it was it was a no brainer,” he said.

The health crisis has just forced all instructors to simply get more comfortable with video and ed-tech tools, he said, which will help to make course captioning and interactive note taking tools the norm, not the exception.

Peer and K-12 inspiration

Looking into the future, Bear said it’s important to look at what other universities and colleges are doing and look to adopt strategies that are working for school peers. Further, he said he’s greatly inspired by not just higher education institutions, but what K-12 schools are implementing to facilitate remote learning.

“It’s blowing my mind how [K-12 is] using Canvas and little things that I’ve never even thought of to help with engagement and to help keep those students oriented, so that they can address some of those issues with students that have to be in the room to get that instruction.”

Since K-12 is implementing more technologies and captions, these tools are going to be expected moving down the line, Bear said.

“They’re going to say, ‘why don’t I have video in my class? Why don’t I have captions? Why don’t I have this stuff when I did when I was in K-12.’ The culture has changed drastically overnight and everyone needs to accept that. But realize that you’re not doing it alone because everybody’s doing it,” he said.

To learn more about VWCC and Verbit’s partnership, you can read this case study.