CLC community embraces online learning, persists through challenges

How is the virtual classroom working for students in hands-on classes like auto mechanics, music and videography? There are challenges, opportunities and changes that may come in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

With all classes now online, Central Lakes College videography instructor Mark Ambroz uses Zoom to communicate with his students, who all have video equipment at home to use. Submitted photo

Transitioning from the physical classroom to the virtual world is more difficult for some students than others, especially at the college level.

With online learning now the chief mode of education during the coronavirus pandemic, teachers at all levels are doing their best to continue giving their students a quality education. But when it comes to college courses, learning in the online world isn’t necessarily easy. That’s certainly the case for some instructors and students at Central Lakes College, which offers several hands-on courses requiring time inside the classroom. Classes at all Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, though, will continue online for the rest of the school year.

Rebekah Kent, CLC dean of career and technical programs, said instructors are doing their best to be creative in figuring out what kind of instruction works for their students. That could be watching informational videos, practicing with equipment at home or any number of other technological methods.

For auto mechanics instructor Ray Johnson, this time is especially difficult, as students can’t be on campus learning with the school’s equipment. This is the time of year, he said, when his classes usually get more hands-on after students have learned a lot of the basics.


“So timing’s kind of bad for when this happened right now towards the end of the year,” Johnson said during a phone interview April 13. “That’s going to be a problem for us.”

Instead, classes take place via Zoom — a video conferencing software used throughout CLC — and students learn by watching auto repair videos and discussing the components.

“But that doesn’t take the place of hands-on training,” Johnson said.

Luckily, though, many of his students already have some sort of part-time job in the auto mechanic field, which helps with that real world experience. But even though Johnson said those types of jobs seem to be plentiful in the lakes area, not all of his students followed that route.

“This might be some kind of a thing for the future for us to look at,” he said. “Maybe something positive will come out of it and we’ll develop better relationships with the industry and get some of these people working part time while they’re going to school.”

Without the structured lab hours at CLC, Johnson isn’t sure what that will mean in terms of certification. Normally, students would be able to earn certification through the nationally accredited Auto Service Excellence Education Foundation upon completion of the auto mechanics program at CLC.

Johnson said there could be a chance for summer classes to help get students up to speed, but a decision to bring students back to the classroom would be up to either Gov. Tim Walz or Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra.


“As an instructor, of course I miss being able to be there in the lab and everything,” Johnson said. “We’re all going to miss that.”

Music ensembles

Learning music online isn’t exactly a piece of cake either.

“We’ve been making a lot of ‘lemonade,’” CLC music instructor Jonathan Laflamme said during a phone interview April 8.

Laflamme teaches several musical ensembles at CLC. Doing so virtually isn’t quite the same as in-person, but Laflamme does his best to make the endeavor as normal for his students as possible by continuing to teach from his regular classroom.

“I still get nice and dressed up in my shirt and tie, and I go to the rehearsal hall at the college,” he said. “... I think that can provide some sense of normality, if you will.”

That’s pretty much where the normalcy ends though.

Students don’t gather together in the rehearsal hall, nor do they get to hear one another play. Instead, Laflamme uses Zoom to see his students and an intelligent accompaniment software called SmartMusic to help them rehearse. Students first learn their songs at home on their own. Then, during class, they hear a recording of a song through their computer, see the music and play along with their instrument. They can’t hear each other, and Laflamme can’t necessarily hear everyone playing live, but he can still help his students through what he perceives as trouble spots and answer students’ questions as they go.


Central Lakes College students and instructors use Zoom video conferencing for online classes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Videography students in Mark Ambroz's classes all have their own cameras and other equipment provided by the school to use during this time. Submitted photo

“We’re still engaging in the elements of music,” Laflamme said, “talking about how to maintain pitch, tambor, dynamics, articulations, releases, balance and blend, and all the things that we would normally work on.”

And a helpful feature of the software is the ability to slow down the music, making any problem sections easier to rehearse.

For students, online practices obviously aren’t the same, but they work.

“It’s better than not at all,” student Johnathan Pettis said during a phone interview. “But of course everyone still wishes that we were in person.”

Pettis, who plays French horn and flugelhorn, said learning his part can be difficult without being able to hear the rest of the ensemble or ask his section members any questions he has.

Natalie Thorson, a Pequot Lakes junior who plays trumpet in two of Laflamme’s ensembles, has similar feelings.

“We’re definitely not, like, making music when you listen to each other and you blend with each other,” Thorson said. “You can’t do that over the computer. So that’s been really hard.”


But she said Laflamme has been good with giving his students resources and answering questions as they come.

While Laflamme said many other college ensembles have stopped rehearsing for the year altogether, he didn’t see that as an option for CLC.

“I can’t do that,” he said. “It’s not fair to the students, it’s not fair to the college, and it’s just not who I am.”

Laflamme still hopes the pandemic will subside sooner than later so his ensembles can come together yet this year and perform their music.

“That being stated, just being able to see and hear each other is really kind of the highlight of my week and the highlight for a lot of students,” he said.


Students in Mark Ambroz’s videography classes seem to be faring better amid the mayhem.

“We have some advantages because we work in a media field,” Ambroz said, noting his curriculum already includes learning about live programming and things of that nature.

All of his students received care packages of sorts, complete with a video camera, tripod, lights and audio equipment. And thanks to Zoom, Ambroz can do live video demonstrations with the equipment.


For a recent assignment, Ambroz instructed his students to shoot a changing seasons montage, so students are able to complete their work by going out into their neighborhoods and shooting nature footage. During class time, Ambroz can then review the shots and discuss them with everyone.

Student Henry Fagaroos said the transition from in-person to online took some getting used to, but overall he feels like it’s working well and takes some consolation in the fact so many students around the globe are in the same boat.

For student Nathan Eide, less traveling is a perk of online classes, as he lives in St. Cloud and would normally commute to Brainerd twice a week. He also noted Amrboz’s teaching skills help make up for not being in the physical classroom.

“Mark’s an excellent teacher, so I mean he does a really good job of explaining everything that we need to know,” Eide said, adding the hands-on element still remains because the students have much of the equipment they need.

Online classes still aren’t perfect, though.

Eide said class can get a little more difficult if he’s not understanding something, although he is still able to reach Ambroz by phone if needed.

“Nothing compares to face-to-face and being together and interacting like that,” Ambroz said. “Plus, I can’t send every piece of equipment that we have that we need home with the students. So there’s elements that we can’t duplicate.”

Ambroz doesn’t have the resources to dole out amplifiers, microphones and other audio equipment to every student, but he does his best to make up for that through discussion. He writes up videography scenarios students might find themselves in at events and venues so his classes can talk through how they would go about getting quality audio in various situations.


“They all took it real seriously, and attendance has been great online,” Ambroz said. “And I think they’re mostly staying with it the whole time. I know it’s not easy to sit through a Zoom meeting that goes on for a long time, but they seem to be doing great.”

Making it work

Throughout all the changing dynamics, Kent said she is impressed with how well students and staff members have worked together to make the transition smooth.

“It takes a village. It takes students being open to new ways of doing things and to creative ways, and same thing for the faculty,” Kent said. “And I think they’ve done a good job of supporting each other through this.”

Kent said she has heard a lot of stories about instructors checking in on their students just to see how they’re doing and making sure everything is going OK.

That's a really important part of this, too,” she said. “Because you get that in the classroom, and we didn’t want to lose that when we transitioned.”

Despite the uncertainty and difficulties for some, Kent hopes some positive elements come out of this time, too, in terms of increased technology capabilities and hybrid classes taking place partially online that might be more flexible for some students.

“I really do think despite how hard this is, there’s going to be a lot of good that comes out on the other side,” she said.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .

Central Lakes College students and instructors use Zoom video conferencing for online classes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Videography students in Mark Ambroz's classes all have their own cameras and other equipment provided by the school to use during this time. Submitted photo

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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