As Lakeland College’s School of Agricultural Sciences closes the books on a spring semester interrupted by the pandemic, faculty are simultaneously hoping to welcome students back in the fall and preparing for continued restrictions.
The college has several agricultural programs, ranging from ag business to animal science to crop technology at its Vermilion, Alberta campus. The school of ag is known for its focus on hands-on learning, whether students are training ranch horses or harvesting and marketing grain from the student-managed farm. But with COVID-19 closing campuses across the country, staff had to pivot to online learning to finish the semester.
Fortunately, the college’s IT director had been preparing for a quick switch to online, says Geoff Brown, associate dean for the school. Three days after the announcement that Alberta’s colleges would have to cease in-person classes, they were online.
The timing could have been worse, says Josie Van Lent, the dean of agriculture at Lakeland. Most of the experiential and hands-on learning was wrapped by the time the pandemic hit. If they’d had to shift to virtual classrooms a month into the fall semester, it would have been a much bumpier ride, she adds.
For example, students typically complete their crop planning for the student-managed farm in the winter, and the college’s employees seed the crop according to the plan after students graduate in the spring. The next year’s class then harvests the crop, develops a marketing strategy and sells the grain. Those students also manage finances and plan for the next year, repeating the cycle. If restrictions ease, those activities will carry on as usual this fall.
Other activities were postponed or adjusted. Students graduating this year will have their convocation ceremonies postponed until the spring of 2021, at both the Vermilion and Lloydminster campuses.
Students running the grain farms usually do a capstone presentation in front of a large audience, including family and community members, in the college’s theatre. The presentations were entirely online this year, which requires a completely different skillset than an in-person presentation. And, like purebred breeders across the country, the students running the purebred beef herd held their bull sale entirely online on March 20, with sales results as good or better than other years.
The college is also carrying on with its ag research programs this year, in both the livestock and crop spheres. “Many of them don’t involve a lot of people and it’s quite easy to social distance,” says Van Lent, adding they are adjusting how summer students travel to the field, for example.
Generally students have been quite successful online, says Tracy Quinton, chair of the ag school. Students appreciate Lakeland’s virtual classroom approach, which encourages participation, he adds. Having students learning from home has also opened the college to more feedback from parents on course content, Van Lent adds.
Lakeland College’s ag programs have a hands-on approach, so it would be difficult to go fully online, Brown notes. But now that faculty have had time to work with the technology, Quinton sees opportunities for a blended learning model in some instances. For example, they might have more theory online, allowing them to focus on hands-on learning later. Van Lent adds that online delivery might work well for students who are harvesting in the fall and simultaneously trying to fit in lectures and labs.
The sudden swivel online hasn’t been without its challenges. About 30 per cent of ag students have struggled with time management while working from their families’ farms, Quinton says. Some students have missed a lecture or assignment “because it’s the thick of calving for them,” for example, and they’re expected to pitch in.
Quinton doesn’t fault students or their families, though. He’s not sure that students or the college fully understood the online learning concept before they were forced to adopt it. Students expected to be able to work on their courses whenever it was convenient for them, while the college expected to continue with lectures and final exams at their regularly scheduled times, he explains.
Revenue is also an issue for the college. Brown says that in Alberta, there have been “pretty significant cuts to post-secondary.” And COVID-19 has cut some of the college’s revenue streams, such as student residence. Yet the college still needs to maintain those residences.
“It’s a big hill,” says Brown of the financial challenge.
Lakeland’s staff and students are also missing the face-to-face interaction on campus, and hoping restrictions will ease by the fall. But pandemic restrictions carrying on into the fall intake “could be a reality and we’re being asked to look at this quite seriously,” says Brown, adding that a drop in enrolment is one of the biggest risks. Many students come to Vermilion for a chance to build the types of relationships that will sustain them throughout their careers. Mixing with students in other program areas, whether it’s beef, dairy or crops, is also valuable.
To mitigate that enrolment risk, the college is going to create videos during the growing season that can be used online later in the year. They’re also considering modifying the school year, shifting the theory to September so they can continue online, and be ready if things open up later. And they’re evaluating how they deliver and assess student learning in an online environment, and looking at ways to create the type of connectivity online that they do on campus.
“I always say that the real magic happens when students really trust that you have their best interests at heart and their learning at heart,” says Van Lent.