Minnesota West embraces online learning

MN West distance learning
Minnesota West has set up a WiFi hotspot at each campus so students who don't have Internet access at home may turn in their assignments. (Leah Ward/The Globe)

REGIONAL — Minnesota West Community and Technical College has risen to the challenge of distance learning during the novel coronavirus outbreak by delivering 95% of its classes totally online, college officials reported Tuesday.

"We started our pandemic planning in earnest on March 12," Minnesota West President Terry Gaalswyk said Tuesday.

Gaalswyk outlined the college's top three priorities, in order of importance: 1) the safety and well-being of staff, faculty, students and community, 2) completion of the spring semester and 3) assuring business continuity.

He said Minnesota West's reputation as "the college that cares" is what initially drew him to the college about six years ago, and watching the leadership prepare for distance learning during the extended two-week spring break was further reason for him to be proud of the institution.

"It is absolutely amazing how nimble, creative and laser-focused our staff have been," Gaalswyk said.


Bruce Peterson, vice president of academics, agreed, describing the faculty and staff's adjustment as "beyond belief, frankly." He said established online classes have been an asset in redesigning the remainder of the courses.

"We've had a tremendous history of doing distance education," he said, noting that faculty who had already been teaching online were able to share their knowledge and processes with instructors who were only teaching in person.

While the vast majority of classes have already been transferred to an online platform, the college is still tweaking a few lab classes, where accreditation agencies require a certain number of lab hours. One solution Minnesota West is exploring are simulations, where a student can, for example, do electrical testing online with remote instructor supervision. Another possibility is allowing labs to meet in-person, but with limitations on the number of people and following social distancing guidelines.

Additionally, the college's industry partners have been sharing tools with Minnesota West administrators, sometimes at no charge. Faculty are able to record lab demonstrations in advance on campus and send the videos out to students. They are also using Zoom to hold live instruction.

Executive vice president Jodi Landgaard added that it's not just class material that is now available online — students also have access to services like academic advising and mental health counseling.

"Though it's virtually, we are still here for them," Landgaard said. "We really pulled together to see what we could do to help our students in any way possible."

Minnesota West has created a food bank on each campus for students in need, Landgaard said. On the Worthington, Pipestone and Jackson campuses, the food bank is located in the student center.

Each campus is open for limited hours in order to ensure access to resources such as computer labs, she said. A WiFi hotspot has been installed on each campus, as well, so students who don't have Internet access at home are able to submit assignments. In order to reach the hotspot, Landgaard recommended nearing the glass of the main campus building.


Students who have other financial or unmet needs are invited to contact their faculty, who will help them find out what else Minnesota West can do to help. Landgaard and Peterson will deploy solutions to concerns as they arise.

"We are proud of the way our staff and faculty have responded," Landgaard said.

Enrollment for the summer and fall semesters at Minnesota West is open, and application fees are being waived for those terms. Peterson said he expects summer classes to be online, and a decision will be made about fall as it gets closer to the start of the semester.

Landgaard added that plans are in the works for virtual graduation and other spring celebrations, so students are still able to memorialize their achievements.

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