Harold Torrence Reflects on Sustaining Student Success during Global Crisis

Business instructor shares insights on connecting with students via distance learning

Harold Torrence, EdD, serves as faculty in the Business Management program at Dakota County Technical College. Originally from Venezuela, a country of nearly 30 million people on the Caribbean Sea in northern South America, Harold recently became a U.S. citizen. He now has dual citizenship with Venezuela and the United States.
Earlier this month, Harold shared his perspective on teaching and learning online during the COVID-19 pandemic. His insights and teaching philosophy are invaluable.

One teacher’s perspective on online learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic

I am Harold Torrence, a Latin American business management instructor at Dakota County Technical College. I have been teaching for more than 15 years in traditional, hybrid and online classrooms. Students who choose to take courses online do so voluntarily; however, when students choose a face-to-face delivery method, they are saying their preferred teaching method entails a more personal approach to learning. COVID-19 abruptly changed all my hybrid courses to distance learning—and distance is the key word here that challenged and jeopardized student success during spring semester 2020.

Since our Business Management program (BUSN) is delivered either online or hybrid, the transition to fully online delivery was practically seamless. Moreover, all BUSN courses are eight-weeks in an accelerated learning format. In hybrid courses, students can be put at the center of the classroom and their voices can be heard naturally and humanly. On the other hand, online learning creates physical distancing, and technology becomes a barrier to creating authentic human connection in the learning process. The challenge is to reach the same level of human connection online.

The BUSN program has been part of the college equity-by-designed pilot program, which basically emphasizes the use of data to identify opportunity gaps across courses and means of delivery. An analysis of student success data across different demographics in the last five years indicates a wider opportunity gap in online delivery across different demographic groups; in hybrid delivery, the opportunity gap closes in the majority of students demographic groups, but black students still have a 0.98 student success ratio.

Student success is my priority and closing the opportunity gap is my commitment. This requires a mindful effort to go above and beyond the delivery of my courses. I need to get to know my students and understand their barriers to success while conducting an authentic examination of my teaching practices.

Harold Torrence DCTC News stories

October 2009: “Harold Torrence Joins HCCM 25 on the Rise”
April 2016: “Harold Torrence Named Outstanding Educator”
April 2020: “Faculty Spotlight: Harold Torrence”

I believe you teach as you were taught. We are influenced by our learning experiences, and we tend to judge through those lenses as well. I came to the U.S. from Venezuela in 1999. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Universidad Tecnológica del Centro (UNITEC). This degree seemed more focused on industrial engineering due to an emphasis on supply chain management, coding, calculus, statistics and many other tough courses.

I survived my first year, where I had to attend large lecture classes, many times without a textbook. I had to take good notes and study for many long nights and days, taking many sample exams from previous years. This tough learning process had an expected attrition of more than 60 percent. During this first year, I was just a number to my professors and not a name, much less a last name. Exams were proctored in large lecture halls every Thursday morning at 7 a.m. with students from other programs sitting right next to me, taking a different exam. Professors who did not know anything about our midterm and/or final would watch over our shoulders .

Our cohort started with an estimated 1,200 students with approximately only 300 graduating after five years of surviving this difficult educational experience. Earning a bachelor’s degree in many Latin American countries takes five years because the basic education is K–11 instead of K–12. I was 17 years old when I started college; I graduated at the age of 22.

I would characterize my bachelor’s degree as a survivalist learning experience. Replicating this educational experience in my own teaching practice would have been easy. I could have gone with a more instructor-centered approach rather than putting my students first. I could have been resentful and judgmental of learners who do not seem to apply their best efforts.

Student success is my priority and closing the opportunity gap is my commitment. This requires a mindful effort to go above and beyond the delivery of my courses. I need to get to know my students and understand their barriers to success while conducting an authentic examination of my teaching practices.

However, my perspective changed when I moved to the U.S. on April 20, 1999, to enroll in graduate school at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. I quickly realized how different the education system here. In the U.S., a heavier emphasis is placed on reading, reflecting and writing. I could not believe I only needed to write papers and work on projects. I completed two master’s degrees and a doctorate in 12 years. This experience changed my worldview on learning how to learn. Instead of memorizing concepts and regurgitating information, I was able to find my voice as a learner.

Throughout the process of earning my Doctor of Education (Ed.D.), I had the pleasure of learning from teachers of teachers. This benefit greatly impacted my teaching philosophy and practice. I became a constructivist, a believer in the social construction of knowledge. Now my courses emphasize the importance of learning together through relationship building and sharing of experiences.

Today, my teaching practice is shaped by my diverse learning experiences. I still struggle with making assumptions about students when they are not fully engaged; I have to acknowledge my biases. As an equity-minded practitioner, I need to uncover such biases while continuously moving from an instructor-centered paradigm to an authentic learner-centered approach.

While participating in our college’s equity-minded teaching/learning community throughout the academic year 2019–2020, I started reaching out to students who were not fully engaged in their classes with the intention to know their situation and find ways to remove obstacles and barriers. I sent multiple emails, but did not get too many replies.

Therefore, to create a more inclusive learning environment, I changed my online teaching practice to enhance opportunities for oral culture learners opportunities to succeed in my courses. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to offer student-centered and more personable experiences has been heightened. I knew that a passive and print-culture approach to teaching was not going to work. Having traditional discussion posts and lectures was not going to be enough.

I then started calling directly—and many of my students answered and shared their personal struggles with depression and anxiety, being too busy, or losing their motivation to learn. Many of my students were students of color. At first, I had a hard time understanding why I was unable to affect their motivation to learn. But after persistently communicating with them and listening to their challenges, we worked together to create individualized recovery plans that inspired 85 percent of my students to successfully complete their coursework.

In spring 2020, the student success challenge moved to the next level with COVID-19. I was fortunate to have 15 years of experience teaching hybrid and online courses; I was able to quickly move my hybrid courses to synchronous online delivery. I taught seven different courses in spring 2020, and I had five courses starting in March.

As a constructivist, I always felt online learning did not provide a personal approach to a more social way to collectively construct knowledge. The case might be that online discussions offer an alternative to exchanging ideas via print culture. Beegle (2009) defines print culture as “a learned way to relate to the world. Through reading, often to obtain information for living their lives, oral communicators become print communicators by training their brains to think ‘first this, then this’ through process. This enhances the brain’s ability to analyze and to classify information and to develop advance reasoning skills.”

I would argue that students with a trained print culture are capable of navigating the online learning process more effectively; on the other hand, students of color and/or students in poverty may experience more challenges because their natural way of learning is via oral culture. Beegle (2009) affirms “oral culture (orality) is a natural state in which people get information for living their lives by talking to other people. They are highly attuned to senses (touch, smell, sight, sound and taste) and devote a great deal of attention to sensory information and relationships with people.”

My teaching continues to evolve, and keeping a true commitment to learner-centered teaching is certainly difficult. However, these are not normal times, and the current crisis requires us to find the best ways to help our students succeed. These are unprecedented times, where not only COVID-19, but also racial injustices and tribalism present the most challenging teaching environment I have encountered in 15 years of teaching.

Therefore, to create a more inclusive learning environment, I changed my online teaching practice to enhance opportunities for oral culture learners opportunities to succeed in my courses. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to offer student-centered and more personable experiences has been heightened. I knew that a passive and print-culture approach to teaching was not going to work. Having traditional discussion posts and lectures was not going to be enough.

I had previously delivered many synchronous lectures via Adobe Connect and Zoom. However, I used this time to lecture, which was a more passive and less interactive way of learning. I decided to prerecord the majority of my lectures and use a more interactive time to engage students, flipping the classroom and using breakout rooms in Zoom.

All of a sudden, I was able to find lively discussions and activate learning. More introverted students were able to find their voices talking to peers in a more private setting and extroverts were able to share their perspective in the larger virtual classroom. The level of engagement online resembled the hybrid delivery for the first time, and the course completion was close to 80 percent.

I know that an interpersonal and intercultural approach to teaching and learning is essential. I wish all my classes would facilitate the best way to learn and construct knowledge together in the classroom with a learning community, but with this pandemic, I needed to find creative ways to offer the best possible way to build meaningful learning experiences via authentic relationship building.

Business Management at DCTC…

The Business Management program provides working adults with the essential knowledge, skills and abilities to succeed in today’s increasingly competitive business environment.

As a student in the program, you will acquire competencies that can be universally applied to global and local organizations in the profit, nonprofit and public sectors. You can individualize your degree by selecting an emphasis area through the completion of two of the following certificates:

LEARN MORE…

My teaching continues to evolve, and keeping a true commitment to learner-centered teaching is certainly difficult. However, these are not normal times, and the current crisis requires us to find the best ways to help our students succeed. These are unprecedented times, where not only COVID-19, but also racial injustices and tribalism present the most challenging teaching environment I have encountered in 15 years of teaching.

The ultimate goal is to be that vessel to facilitate transformation, so let’s embrace the challenge of closing the opportunity gap amid the worst pandemic in recent human history. We have the ultimate responsibility of shaping safe spaces for learning and ensuring student success. Let’s come back in fall semester ready to assume the challenge.

Harold Torrence
Business Management Faculty
Dakota County Technical College
July 2, 2020

Learn more about the Business Management program at DCTC by contacting:

Harold Torrence, EdD
Business Management Faculty
Business Department Chair
DCTC Faculty Shared Governance Council Chair
DCTC Equity and Inclusion Council Chair
651-423-8606

Scott Gunderson, MPNA, CM, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
Business Management Faculty and Advisor
651-423-8295

Harold at Graduate Drive-By Celebration 2020

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