The 2019-20 academic year was unlike any other for institutions of higher education. The spread of COVID-19 forced colleges and universities to move instruction completely online in early March, and to complete the academic year that way. While this was occurring, schools everywhere also had to begin making plans for the 2020-21 academic year. Indiana Tech faculty and staff worked through the spring and summer with the goal to return safely to in-person classes this year, and, given the constantly changing nature of the pandemic, to prepare for any and all scenarios when students returned.

“COVID-19 has placed many universities in a difficult situation heading into this fall because of the many challenges inherent in this kind of disruption in their routine,” said Indiana Tech Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Tom Kaplan. “Indiana Tech has been offering online courses for nearly 15 years, so it put us ahead of the curve. That gave us time this spring and summer to create a plan to meet our students’ needs during the pandemic, and to build even greater quality into the way we teach them and the opportunities we create for them.

“I am very happy with our team for working so hard to prepare for our students’ return during a challenging time. The work will serve students and the university well as we move forward.”

A significant number of initiatives were facilitated by Indiana Tech’s Teaching Excellence Center (TEC), a resource created in 2018 to help all faculty members become stronger in their teaching skills, student engagement techniques and professionalism. Not only were all faculty members invited to attend each of the 28 professional development sessions created by the TEC, but the sessions were recorded and added to the online Warrior Faculty Lounge Virtual Library for later viewing.

These TEC Summer Sessions provided faculty with the opportunity to learn or share about a variety of topics: how to use new technology, how to develop hybrid classes, how to assess learning in nontraditional ways, how to build a course that is engaging regardless of delivery method and more.

“This summer series was a first for Indiana Tech and I was impressed by the number of faculty who stepped up to lead a session and who either attended live or watched the recorded sessions when able,” said Sherrill Hamman, associate professor of business and director of the TEC.

While the entire series was designed to support faculty members in their quest to transform classes into vibrant, engaging and authentic places of learning, it ended up becoming a collegial and engaging exchange of ideas among faculty members. In fact, many faculty members took it to the next level through the formation of faculty learning communities (FLCs). Each FLC (comprised of six to eight faculty members) met during the summer to share ideas and expertise, to encourage each other and to help each other.

“While we have had multiple FLCs for a couple of years at Indiana Tech, now we have a renewed vision and passion for being connected and empowering one another,” said Courtney Shull, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “In the past FLCs were created for full-time faculty. Now our FLCs include full-time and part-time faculty, and some Indiana Tech staff who teach on an adjunct basis. We really are taking the next leap into cross-department collaboration designed for support and continuous improvement of our student experience.”

Finally, Indiana Tech invested in technology upgrades to each main campus classroom, intended to create a high-quality learning experience should a student need to miss a class or, in a worst-case scenario, the coronavirus forces the university to go back to online learning. Each class is now livestreamed for remote participation, and also recorded so students can view class again at a later time.

“With our goal of providing our students a world-class experience, we researched, purchased and installed new audio-visual technology for every classroom on campus. This technology was new to our instructors and required quick training in the weeks leading up to the fall semester. It was a great deal of work in a short period of time, but it was accomplished on time with the help of a willing faculty and our supportive information technology team,” said Dr. Scott Liebhauser, associate vice president of academic affairs.

Understanding that glitches would likely occur in the first week of class as Indiana Tech “flipped the switch” on its new technology, the university’s IT team, led by Jeff Leichty, associate vice president of information technology services, staged IT staff in each academic building to quickly troubleshoot any problems with the new equipment. According to Liebhauser, this rapid response team “made the difference between success and failure at the onset of our new hybrid environment at Indiana Tech.”

Liebhauser added, “Now we’re a month into the academic year, and our new technology is working well and our students are engaging. The diligent planning and preparation of Indiana Tech’s Crisis Management Team, our faculty, our IT team and support staff displayed the Warrior spirit that makes Tech exceptional.”

Dr. Kaplan echoed Liebhauser’s sentiment about the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. “As we finish the fourth week of the fall semester, things are going well. The work of everyone from March through the summer continues this fall with a focus on maximum flexibility and taking care of our students and each other,” Dr. Kaplan said. “There have been so many variables to manage in this situation, and I couldn’t be more proud of the way our entire team has stepped up to deliver the full college experience for our students this fall. As we move forward through the semester, we will continue to adapt as needed to support our students.”