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This content was published: January 14, 2019. Phone numbers, email addresses, and other information may have changed.

Gate changes and cancelled flights: the ground crew helps get students to day one

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Last March, I published a best practices blog post called Takeoffs, Turbulence, and Smooth Landing: Building our courses as we fly them. The post was crafted around the commonly used phrase in distance education, “we are building the plane while flying it.” (In that post I also confessed my completely unwarranted but very real aversion toward all things flight related. You’ll be glad to know I’ve logged at least 20 more hours of flying and didn’t embarrass any friends, family, or co-workers that I was traveling with!). The post called faculty to pause and imagine the plane as your course, the students as the passengers and crew, and you – the instructor – as the pilot.

Various ground crew prepping for a flight

credit: flickr.com/photos/superciliousness

For this post, still imagine the plane as the course, the pilot as the instructor, the passengers as the students…
but this time, imagine the crew as the team dedicated to helping you serve students.

Each term, online students register for courses, make financial arrangements to pay for tuition and fees, purchase required course materials, and enter our courses on day one of the term. Meanwhile, as instructors, we have adjusted our courses based on student feedback, updated content, tweaked less-than-successful assessments and assignments, made sure due dates are adjusted, and so forth. What happens between registration and day one of the term for students though?

Getting to the gate is a lot of work these days

Long gone are the days of our family and friends walking us to our gate to see us off. No ticket = no security gate passing. (By the way, thank you! I always kick my friends and family off at the curb. Spending no time in an airport is a great day for me. I have no problem saying, “Have a great trip. Consider taking a taxi back!”) Imagine, though, not having anyone you trust to deliver you safely at the airport, no one to tell you what to expect when you get there, no one to tell you that the TSA agent is just doing their job and not to take it too personal, no one to warn you that you’ll be asked to remove your shoes so you should wear clean socks, and no one to tell you that sometimes you have to run to your gate to only find that your gate number changed (or worse, your flight cancelled).

An airport terminal

credit: flickr.com/photos/ltbaspotter

For many first-generation college students, getting to the gate (or the challenging of getting to day one of classes), takes a tremendous effort. First-generation college students don’t have a parent to map out high school courses to best prepare them for college, or to tell them about what they learned about being a successful college student. Even if they aren’t first-generation college students, it’s likely for many of our students that they might not have anyone to provide them reliable advice for preparing to take an online class. As an online instructor, you only see students that have made it to the gate. You never see students who already experienced too many barriers to ever make it to the airport, or those that turned around when they saw the length of the security gate line. (My friends and family are always worried that one of my trips to the “bathroom” will result in me intentionally missing a flight. The worry is warranted.)

Imagine having a personal on-ground flight concierge service at the airport. Wouldn’t that be great? You pick up a phone, or send a quick email, and your questions are answered. Our Online Student Help Desk provides technical support to students in online courses and serves as an informational resource assisting students with general questions about being a student at PCC such as information on applying, registration, using email, and more).
Sometimes there are gate changes.

You cleared security and have your boarding pass in-hand. Just as you are trying to put your shoes back on, you hear something over the speaker about your flight number. (I have no idea why I think my foot has magically shrunk during the screening and I can wiggle my foot back into my shoe without unlacing it. I always try. It never works.) The announcement is something about a possible gate change. You panic and say to yourself, “will I have time to get to the new gate?” This feeling of anxiousness while staring at screen full of gates (while standing in your shoes that somehow feel a half-size too small) might be similar to what it feels like for our students when they are about to take their first online course.

However, rest-assured that PCC has grown support for students taking online courses at PCC helping more students successfully get to day one of the term. The Start Guide for Online Learning is a “prerequisite activity will help prepare students for the rigors of online coursework, and allow the student to decide if online courses are appropriate – before they register for an online course.” In other words, it will help students find out sooner that there might be a gate change (maybe an in-person course is a better fit) and for the rest who will choose an online course – how to have a great flight. For students that make it to day one of your course, know that the Start Guide has asked them to consider the following: study skills, technology skills, academic integrity, student support services, individual attributes and learning styles, and generally what to expect in an online class. Online Learning has also recently published a What Works Well for Online Students infographic to help students better understand what to expect in an online class, what to expect from instructors, and what their responsibilities are as a student.

Sometimes there are cancelled flights and destination changes

(OK. I’m reaching the limits of the analogy, but please stay aboard.) Imagine you are already at your gate and you find out you are heading to the wrong destination. You thought you were headed to Toledo, Castile-La Mancha, SPAIN. However, as you are chatting with others in the boarding line, you find out you are heading to Toledo, Ohio. What a bummer! (No offense to those with ties to Toledo, Ohio. I’m sure it’s lovely, too.)

Airport flight board showing lots of delayed and canceled flights

credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wynnie/

I remember the emails from students in week one of the term pleading with me to give them a late override so they can register for my course. As an instructor, I often wondered if such requests emerged from some sort of lack of planning on behalf of the student. However, I’ve since learned that a cancelled course, an unexpected instructor change, or a last-minute change in intended major, might mean that a student needs to find a new course quickly (often during week one of the term). The ability to get to the same destination with an online course is likely easier than face-to-face courses as online courses are mostly not constrained by synchronous components and definitely subject to terrible Portland commutes, transportation issues, child care, work schedules, etc.

For some of our students, an online education is the only option they have for a higher education and we can respond to their last-minute course change needs. PCC offers academic advising for all students and a team of advisors dedicated to fully online students. Advisors can assist students with in-the-moment course changes and help students make sure that the flight they selected will get them to the right Toledo. All of the flights you need now are full? Students can now reliably plan their schedule of online courses in advance thanks to the development of the Planning Guide for Online Classes. The Planning Guide lists courses that PCC is committed to offering in future terms.

There are so many other ground crew supports available to students (enough for a future post). Most importantly, remember that as an instructor you are not alone. You have an entire ground crew of knowledgeable, encouraging, and approachable staff assisting students in the sometimes challenging journey to day on of the term. As week two of the term begins, don’t forget to enjoy the view from 39,000 feet and encourage your students to do the same.

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x (Comment #33917) by Peter Seaman 5 years ago (Comment #33917)

This is a great analogy, Heather. Your next blog post could be about the “ground crew” that gets the pilot ready to fly the online course, and keep it in the air while flying. :-) Thanks again.

x (Comment #33922) by Max Macias 5 years ago (Comment #33922)

What about smugglers? ;-) Great work!

x (Comment #33924) by bryan 5 years ago (Comment #33924)

Frankly, with the “government shutdown” (aka budget cuts), I’m worried about the TSA workers and the long lines …