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Berkshire County Colleges Adapting To Remote Learning During Pandemic

An aerial photo of a building complex set on a wooded hillside
Christina Barrett, Heidi Weber
Berkshire Community College
Berkshire Community College's main campus in Pittsfield, Massachusetts

Higher ed institutions in Berkshire County are settling into the new norm of remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the morning of March 23rd, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker issued an advisory for all nonessential services in the state to either close or move to remote operations by noon on the following day.

“In that period of time, we went from being roughly a 400-employee campus where people have offices and work here to probably having fewer than 70 people here on campus," said Dr. Jamie Birge, president of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams – student body around 1,500. “We had hall directors and student leaders come back to help move out more than 700 students out of the residence halls in the period of about two weeks while maintaining the CDC protocols for social distance.”

MCLA’s transformation wasn’t just physical.

“In the matter of a week, more than 100 faculty transitioned more than 500 classroom-based courses to remote learning courses," said Birge. "In a week. 500 courses. That’s remarkable, and they did it with great knowledge about technology and limited knowledge of technology.”

Berkshire Community College – student population around 2,000 – underwent a similar process, with its main campus in Pittsfield emptied of its usual occupants.

“We’ve had faculty who have self-disclosed that this has been a seminal moment in their own teaching and how they think about teaching and how they have perceived their students as learning the materials," said President Ellen Kennedy. “And we have people who are struggling with the isolation of doing this. The real need to be very focused on your studies when you have so many competing needs in your own families.”

Specifically, many of BCC’s students aren’t traditionally college-aged.

“They’re primary providers to their families," said Kennedy. "They have children who are home from school that they’re having to oversee their education. So lots of competing interests right now for their time and energy. We notice that they tend to be more engaged in the evening, which would make sense.”

Both colleges are working to overcome technological barriers to make remote learning possible for all.

“We’ve created, for example, employees would have a cell phone where a hotspot is available for them – we’ve opened that up for everybody so they can use their phone to connect," said MCLA President Dr. Birge. "We’ve tried to share with others internet service providers that are offering free internet access and helping students in particular finding places where they could go where there would be internet access. We’ve handed out equipment – laptops, Chromebooks, things like that – to students who don’t have them so that they can have access to those things.”

BCC has a team working specifically on problem-solving the difficulties of remote education in real time.

“We have a teaching and learning division at the college, teaching and learning innovation division at the college, headed up by Lauren Goodman, and we have instructional designers and faculty who are just focused on helping people in real time respond to what’s happening,” said Kennedy.

As she puts it, the demands of the pandemic and the abrupt transition to remote learning have made educators students themselves.

“That’s challenging, but it also can be really exciting and invigorating," Kennedy told WAMC. "And I think we all wish we had a little more time to do it, but being forced to do it has made us all step in and lean in and work really hard to make this work for our students.”

The future of in-person learning remains murky. Both colleges are working to move summer courses online. No one knows what the fall will hold.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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