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Northern ramping up student services during COVID re-opening


Last updated 8/27/2020 at 11:34am

Montana State University-Northern is offering new support services to students to help them during this unprecedented time both on campus and virtually.

Enrollment Management Vice Chancellor Maura Gatch said Northern has been prepping since the summer to help students come back on campus safely, but also to make sure when they do come back that they have the high quality education they were accustomed to before COVID-19.

That entails a lot, she said, with the first thing being safety.

“We have socially distanced all of our classrooms, so every single classroom on campus has gone through the Provost and a few people on our COVID response team spent over a week in every classroom with measuring tapes, making sure that our students could be able to come here, sit in

the classrooms, so they can get the face-to-face experience that they are looking for, but that our students, our staff and our faculty are safe,” she said. “We’ve ordered plexiglass shields, we’ve also put a lot of cleaning protocols in place, so sanitizing

throughout the day. We have backpacks with a quick spray to make sure that everything is disinfected.” 

Northern Provost and Academic Affairs Vice Chancellor Neil Moisey said Chancellor Greg Kegel has two

priorities for the fall: One is the safety of the faculty, staff and students, and the other priority is to maintain the academic quality of what Northern does.

Moisey said Northern did really well as a campus compared to most campuses in the

state handling COVID when it first arrived in the state during spring break.

“What we have done leading them to the fall is to ensure the safety of our faculty, staff and students — we put a lot of things in place for faculty and students to maintain, and ensure and increase, in some cases, probably, the quality of the academic programs,” he said. “... We’ve also done the same things in terms of providing faculty the training to deliver academic programs both face-to-face, distance and hybrid, which is a combination of those, and really provided training through our Office of Teaching and Learning Excellence for our faculty to be able to transition if they need to.”

Gatch said Northern's faculty spent a week on campus with the Office of Teaching and Learning Excellence, looking at the best way to put their courses online and the best way to reach students.

Moisey said Northern has faculty across campus who teach mainly face-to-face and only occasionally online, and other faculty who teach online quite extensively and a face-to-face course maybe once a semester.

“These were workshops where faculty talked with other faculty about how they did things, how they dealt with a particular situation in terms of delivery that content and ways other than the traditional way,” he said. “It’s been a really good experience, I think for the faculty to do that and we’ve heard nothing, but really good comments from the faculty about that preparation and thinking about alternative ways to deliver curriculum, and that sort of thing.”

The last group of faculty is coming this week, he said, so 100 percent of Northern’s faculty will have gone through those workshops and training.

Northern has also increased its footprint of its student advising, tutoring and other student success initiatives on the campus, he said.

This is in response to COVID, he said, although the university has been working on many of these programs and initiatives for three years.

“It’s good that we have had that kind of movement to be able to get to this point,” Moisey said.

Gatch said another big push this summer was the initiative for student success and student access.

“We have a lot of students, 60 percent of our students, are TRIO-eligible, so first generation, low-income or students with a disability and we have one of the highest percentage rates in Native American students,” she said, “so really understanding what those students need in order to be successful and then focusing on how we can make sure they continue to get the access and success skills that they need.”

TRIO is a U.S. Department of Education program focusing on first generation, low-income or students with a disability. Northern just had its TRIO grant renewed, with a $1.5 million grant over five years.

Gatch said tutoring is part of success services, for which everything had to be taken from face-to-face tutoring and shifted it all online.

This upcoming semester, using a variety of platforms such as Zoom, WebEx, Skype for Business, tutoring will be offered both face-to-face and virtually, she said.

“That is something we have never been able to do before, so we’re definitely reaching students where they are at in order to be successful,” Gatch said. “So that both our professional tutors and our student tutors will be able to do both face-to-face and virtual to make sure that students get what they need.”

As for advising, she said, Northern has had some interesting conversations around that issue.

This summer, Northern was able to work with the chairs of the colleges and the deans to bring advising more to where the students were at, she said, adding that advising was able to be transitioned online as well.

She said Northern was also able to develop an Early Alert program, where if faculty and staff see a student that is struggling, or seems kind of off they can submit something called an Early Alert.

“Now, we are being proactive instead of reactive to reach out to students who might need more assistance in their academics, whether that is they are just not participating in class, or they are not seeming to understand the content, or they have a lower test score, they’ll submit one of those, which comes to Student Central and it goes to the departments on campus that can help the most,” she said.

Those departments that can help include Student Support Services, The Little River Institute, Financial Aid and the Office of Teaching and Learning Excellence, she said.

“Now, we’re able to be responsive to our students more quickly and efficiently with the right resources,” she added. 

Moisey said the Early Alert program allows everybody — every staff member and faculty on campus — to say, “I’ve noticed a change in Student A, they are less engaged, they are this or they are that,” that way everyone on campus can play a role in that..

“There is a team that deals with getting that information back out where it might be, so it could be with any given student that are having financial issues or having problems with family — our counseling services are part of that. It could be in terms of meeting deadlines for academic — homework and assignments, and tests and that sort of thing,” he added. “... It has been a really nice system and we get quite a few reports, and we’ve been really successful with that.”

Northern is trying to capture those concerns for the student long before the issues become serious, he said.

“All we want is students to persist and graduate, and go out there and change the world,” Moisey said.

Gatch said because of the Early Alert program, one thing Northern noticed in the spring was a lack of technology access for the students.

In response to that, she said, the institution is purchasing a number of laptops that will be allowed to be rented out by students if they need them.

She said if students choose to come back to school this semester, Northern can make sure it has all the skills and tools it needs to make students successful whether face-to-face or virtually.


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