Across the globe, COVID-19 has dramatically changed the way we conduct our daily lives. Stay at home orders have transformed our work and school environments, how we socialize and celebrate. Few events in history have created the extensive societal change we are experiencing right now. No one is impervious to this crisis as we now figure out our new normal.
Innovation in education is currently on the front burner. Educators needed to adjust rapidly to ensure students could learn in this current environment and technology appears to be the answer. On-line learning now plays a much larger role in curriculums from elementary classrooms to graduate programs. Whether delivery is synchronous, asynchronous, or hybrid, the unexpected switch to on-line leaning is a challenge for administrator, instructor, and student.
For the Horticultural Therapy Institute, it’s always been about offering a unique educational experience. This small institute has a vast reach, attracting students from across the U.S. and internationally. The curriculum is organized into four intensive courses: Fundamentals, Techniques, Programming and Management. Course work is completed before, during and after class time and upon completion of all four courses, students earn a certificate in horticultural therapy. The Institute is affiliated with Colorado State University where HTI students have the option to earn college credit. Although based in Denver, classes are offered not only in Colorado but throughout the US.
|” The instructors were wonderful and made it very easy to learn. Overall, I would have to give this experience an A+ and would love to have the opportunity to take other classes using an on-line format.” – Pat Hall HTI student from Mobile, Alabama|
Rebecca Haller, HTM has served as director and lead instructor of the Horticultural Therapy Institute since 2002 along with co-founder and program manager, Christine Capra. Karen Kennedy, HTR is just one of the four instructors at the institute and recently co-taught the Institute’s first on-line class. It was mid-March when it became clear the spring classes would need to move on-line. All three women collaborated on the best way to convert the face-to-face, experiential curriculum to an on-line format.
Rebecca describes this period as being,” quite a hectic pace, but Christine, Karen and I methodically learned and considered changes”. They immediately began researching platforms and watching educational webinars. Christine adds, “We needed to learn very quickly what would work best for our students and instructors. In a matter of weeks, we had weighed our options and made decisions.” Since that time, two Programming classes have been conducted on-line. One in late April, originally scheduled to be held in Henderson, North Carolina, and a second, scheduled for the end of May in Ft. Collins, Colorado. Students enrolled in these classes would have traveled from across the U.S., Canada, and Italy to attend. It might have been easier to post-pone the Programming classes until a time when face to face instruction was once again possible but, in the end, all involved felt that moving forward with an on-line version was best. Rebecca states, “We considered all options but chose to offer the classes on-line in order to best serve our students. Many had planned for completing the series of classes in 2020, and we wanted to allow them to continue to study a field for which they have such a passion.” She went on to say, “While we certainly have made lots of changes, the curriculum has not been modified much at all for HT Programming.”
|“Students have been incredibly patient and understanding of this change. While many voiced their passion for face to face learning they were so grateful to have had the opportunity to take the class and many said they were pleasantly surprised at how well it went.” -Christine Capra HTI Program Manager|
Even before the pandemic crisis, Karen Kennedy had her hands full. Professionally, she is not only an instructor with HTI but also the Education Coordinator with the Herb Society of America. At home, she is the mother to a daughter in middle school, who suddenly needed support and guidance making the transition to home schooling and loss of social connections. “It was quite a challenge to navigate the change to the school day and loss of all face to face meetings, like soccer practices/games and Girl Scouts. So, with my child coping with boredom, loss, and anxiety over the situation, plus my job with the HSA, continued from home as our office closed, it was challenging to begin to figure out the best platform for our [HTI] class.”
Early in the conversion process, the decision was made to conduct the classes in a synchronous format. Rebecca states “We wanted to have chances for students to interact with each other, and for them to experience a community of learners. As well, we wanted to provide some experiential activity that would mimic what they get in face to face classes.” The experiential activity that Rebecca refers to is one of the hallmarks of the Programming class, where students lead an actual HT activity. Split into small groups, the students will plan and conduct their activity in person with an assigned population. Because of the on-line format, this was not possible but…necessity is the mother of invention. The decision was made to have Christine’s family role play several garden activities, that the students would participate in and lead virtually. “It was quite the undertaking, but my family was game and enjoyed the acting challenge. My oldest daughter did all of the camera work and the younger, who has taken the HT classes, and is a special education teacher was often the star!”
To foster a sense of community the students were encouraged to set up ZOOM meetings outside of class to socialize and collaborate. Pat Hall from Mobile, Alabama attended the April class. She expressed concerns about being able to navigate the course from home, “I was a little worried before class about being able to manage the technology, but it was very simple. I had very few problems that were quickly managed”. Pat goes on to say, “For me, working full time makes it hard to get away to attend classes. I would lose two days of work to travel in addition to the four days of class.” Not having to travel was also an advantage for Ania Balducci, who avoided the arduous 12-hour flight from her home in Florence, Italy. Ania comments, “I felt very comfortable having the ability to [attend class] from my sofa with my yoga pants on”. Both Pat and Ania commented that they did miss being face-to-face with their fellow students and instructors. “Nothing could replace the interaction and the friendship I experienced during the [Techniques Class] I had in Greensboro, NC. But due to the pandemic, I am ready to [continue] on-line.” Pat sums up her experience,” The instructors were wonderful and made it very easy to learn. Overall, I would have to give this experience an A+ and would love to have the opportunity to take other classes using an on-line format.”
With two Programming classes successfully completed, the consensus from the HTI faculty is positive. Karen states, “Once you are comfortable with the system or web-based platform, the actual teaching is like being in person.” She also adds, “We got glimpses of student’s pets and kids, and that was really nice!” Rebecca recounts, “The on-line experience in the HT Programming class was more like a face-to-face class than I expected. While certainly not my preference, it is a viable way to proceed until we are all able and willing to travel and the need for social distancing is over.” Some of the changes made, that were necessary for the conversion of the class are now recognized as assets and will be continued once face to face instruction is possible. So, what does the future hold as far as more on-line HTI class offerings? Rebecca said, “The landscape is evolving, and we are adapting. This Fall we are offering both sections of HT Management and most likely all three Fundamentals of HT classes on-line. As for the 2021 schedule we will consider all options that best serve our students”
Currently, society is dealing with extreme trepidation from dire pandemic projections, “Black Lives Matter” protests, and on-going political turmoil. It has become challenging to stay physically and mentally well. As horticultural therapists, we have a deep awareness that spending time in nature is by far the best choice to reduce the influence of stress in our lives. This same message is now being widely communicated by physicians, mental health providers and in public health announcements. People are encouraged to get outside and rediscover the restorative power of nature. Will this reawakening of the people-plant relationship precipitate change in how horticultural therapy is perceived as a practice and a profession? Rebecca certainly thinks so, “The health benefits of nature have certainly become clearer to a lot of people-not just on an intellectual level. Personal experiences of most people will substantiate and encourage what could be a major shift in perception and priorities.”
Could this be our “silver-lining”?