While members of the Texas Tech community in Lubbock practice health precautions to learn in-person or in a hybrid format, one Tech campus continues to utilize all-online learning: Costa Rica.
The community at the Tech Costa Rica campus located in San José has faced different obstacles regarding education amid the COVID-19 pandemic. With the campus being in a different country, one may wonder how its current education delivery differs from that of the Lubbock campus.
Tech Costa Rica Dean Jeffrey Belnap said the campus, which is designed to bring American-style higher education to the region, is closed because of governmental regulations in the country. There were plans to open the campus, but the Costa Rican government’s attempt to assure the virus did not spread prevented it from opening.
Because of the outbreak of COVID-19, Belnap said the Costa Rica campus closed in mid-March and moved to online instruction within three days’ notice. Unlike the Lubbock campus that had one week off for spring break and another week off for faculty to prepare online courses, the Costa Rica campus did not get the same amount of time to prepare.
“The faculty were basically champions,” he said regarding how quickly faculty and students adjusted teaching and learning activities to synchronous video conferences.
The country, which is a regional center for innovations in technology and manufacturing, has implemented a variety of regulations to mitigate the spread of the virus, Belnap said.
“The country itself has been very regulated in managing social distancing and in modeling and sort of assuring that there isn’t unnecessary human contact,” he said. “There are different levels within the country of opening and closing, and so we are, as a local institution, obligated to follow those requirements.”
Costa Rica classifies different areas as either an Orange Alert zone or a Yellow Alert zone, according to the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica website. Under Orange Alert, there are restrictions on business operating hours and restrictions on which businesses can operate. Under Yellow Alert, most businesses can operate normally with some restrictions on operating hours.
Laura Barrera, marketing and recruitment manager at Tech Costa Rica, said the country’s Ministry of Health will not allow face-to-face classes.
“So we’re waiting for the new communication to see when we can open the university,” she said.
With the current health precautions, learning at Tech Costa Rica could be impacted in different ways.
Faculty at the campus are doing everything they can to keep students engaged, Belnap said. Instead of using asynchronous online learning, there is a focus on synchronous video conferencing.
“The challenge, I think, is the challenge that all students all over the world are facing, which is it’s very difficult to stay engaged with virtual learning when you’re basically in the same place and not seeing your friends all day,” he said. “So there’s certainly a serious social cost.”
Instruction at Tech Costa Rica is doing better than other types of learning and teaching taking place in the region, Belnap said. The campus models the best kind of educational experience that is available through video conferencing instruction.
In addition to working with Tech Costa Rica students, Belnap said faculty at the campus work with members of the Tech Lubbock campus. Deans and department chairs from the Lubbock campus oversee Costa Rica classes, particularly in science and engineering where there are labs.
“The expertise of the Lubbock campus provides a major resource for assuring that not only our classes meet a high international standard and follow the Lubbock guidelines, but also that all of the innovation going on in Lubbock to support virtual learning also manifests itself here,” he said.
Amid the pandemic, everyone is in the same boat, even if the Lubbock campus is not fully engaged in remote learning, Belnap said. Whether one is in a nearby room or on a campus in a different country, he said the distance factor when working with the Lubbock campus does not matter, as most people already are working remotely.
“So, I think it kind of shines a light on the reality of, you know, what the post-pandemic world is going to be, meaning video conference collaboration is the new normal,” Belnap said, “and even though we will go back to being face-to-face, I think, because hundreds of millions of people have now been socialized to video conference work, lots and lots of business is going to be done in this modality that was before done face-to-face.”
Student life professionals at Tech Costa Rica also are making an effort to reach out to students in and out of the online classroom, Belnap said.
Gabriela Echandi, student services and affairs manager at Tech Costa Rica, said she works closely with student services departments at the Lubbock campus to bring certain services to Costa Rica.
“But regarding student services, I would say the most difficult part has been getting students engaged, and still having that sense of belonging and community,” she said.
After online classes, Echandi said it is hard to get students involved in other activities. Another issue that arose is students feeling stressed about having to manage their time and schoolwork amid distance learning.
Hosting a virtual mental health workshop is one example of providing resources for the students, Echandi said. In addition, multiple virtual town halls aimed at reaching out to students and their parents were hosted.
“To get a more clear picture, what we did was we divided the students into groups, so that we could talk closely with each one instead of being all the students trying to talk at the same time,” she said regarding the town halls, which had more participants than she expected.
Parents appreciated being taken into account at the virtual town halls, Echandi said.
Families in Latin America are more engaged with their child’s university than families in North America, Belnap said. Because of this and the fact most of the students attending Tech Costa Rica are locals, he said the staff has tried to maintain engagement with students’ families.
“And so, keeping our students’ families very close to us is part of what we do in the sense we like to keep them informed appropriately and make them understand what we’re all about,” he said.
The pandemic impacted student outreach and engagement at Tech Costa Rica in a variety of ways.
There used to be a lot of in-person events on campus, but now, virtual events are being utilized, Barrera said. Another example of virtual engagement is the webinar series for students and their parents to get more information.
“So, I think that the webinar series that we created for them is really useful to keep that retention,” she said.
Some virtual webinars that will be hosted consist of bringing together a Tech Costa Rica and Tech Lubbock faculty member with a professional in a certain industry, Belnap said. These webinars will be geared toward high school students and college students.
For each of these career webinars, Belnap said an industry leader and a faculty member will come together to discuss their leadership experience and use of skills to pursue a career.
“And what we’re trying to do is help students learn about how other professionals, who are now maybe mid-career, got to where they’re going, so that students can see themselves in the professional life story of other people,” he said.
Amid the pandemic, a student may not have the opportunity to learn about different careers and educational fields.
“So, I guess what I would say is that we are doing everything we can to keep our students and the larger community of young people in Costa Rica enthusiastic about the future,” Belnap said, “because everyone is feeling a little bit discouraged.”
Regardless, the pandemic could pose multiple issues for students wanting to grow their skills, whether that be in Costa Rica or another country.
Being connected with the students despite the pandemic prompting people to interact remotely is a task Echandi said is important.
“I think part of college is feeling that you’re part of something bigger, and I think students don’t feel motivated or encouraged if they just feel that they are going to class and then staying quarantined at home,” she said. “I think these social connections are important also, even for your mental health, so, to have students connected and engaged is very important for us, so that they have that social part of their life that they had when they could come to campus.”