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March 27, 2023 - 
By Eric Tegethoff - Producer, Contact -


Big Sky Connection - Community colleges have undergone a digital transformation in the wake of the pandemic. That has its benefits for students, especially in a large, rural state like Montana. Comments from Joe Thiel ("teel"), interim deputy commissioner for academic, research and student affairs, Montana University System.

Click on the image above for the audio.  Miles Community College is a small college in eastern Montana. (David Schott/Wikimedia Commons)

Eric Tegethoff

March 27, 2023 - Digital learning has become the new normal for colleges since the pandemic, and a report finds community college students are largely satisfied with this change.

"The Digital Transformation of the Community College" from Bay View Analytics found 79% of students gave online courses an 'A' or 'B' grade for meeting their educational needs.

Joe Thiel, interim deputy commissioner for academic, research and student affairs for the Montana University System, said the pandemic was a catalyst for improving online learning.

"A lot of faculty, a lot of campuses became more thoughtful but also more entrepreneurial in terms of how to use online wisely," Thiel observed.

Thiel pointed out Montana saw a slow but steady increase in students taking courses fully online before the pandemic. Levels are even higher now. He explained online coursework fits better with some people's schedules, such as adult learners with jobs, or with where people live.

Thiel noted online education has advantages in a large, rural state like Montana. For example, he said Flathead Valley Community College in northwest Montana was able to work with Miles Community College on the other side of the state to help the college stand up a licensed practical nurse program.

"That benefits both that community, it benefits both of the colleges, but most importantly it means that a lot of the pathways that are most in demand for students," Thiel outlined. "They're now available closer to where more rural students live than they were before."

Thiel added the move online also means colleges have to rethink the services they provide, such as library access, advising and counseling.

"If more of our student population is attending from a distance, we have to invest in those services in ways that we didn't before so that they can be accessed from a distance," Thiel emphasized.

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Support for this reporting was provided by Lumina Foundation.