September 22, 2023

New research brief shows how Wisconsin’s technical colleges adapted to COVID-19

September 28, 2021

By WCER Communications

An inaugural research brief from WCER Principal Investigator Xueli Wang’s NSF-funded study of change and innovation in technical education finds institutions in the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) moved rapidly in response to the pandemic, revamping services and instructional practices to holistically serve students and meet their critical needs.


These supports include food, child care, and emergency financial assistance. Efforts also focus on enhancing internet access; mental health supports; and initiatives aimed at diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The long-term sustainability of these efforts, especially DEI, is critical, according to the brief, titled “Built for the Moment: A Descriptive Account of How Wisconsin’s Technical Colleges Respond and Adapt During COVID-19.”

“The adaptive and cutting-edge nature of technical education cannot be overstated, especially in the wake of COVID-19,” the brief concludes. “WTCS institutions have embodied that spirit over the pandemic through their tireless efforts.”

Looking ahead, the brief lays out three directions toward sustainable and generative technical education: professional development and support for faculty and staff; reinvisioned college-industry partnerships around post-pandemic skills for students; and reflective efforts to identify and remove “equity blind spots” in students’ access, experiences, and outcomes.

Based on an analysis of weekly WTCS news stories, the brief provides a “global picture of the adaptations and new initiatives that emerged during the pandemic” across WTCS institutions, the brief says. The adaptations are grouped into seven areas — technology/material access for virtual learning, instructional adaptations, students support, college operations, return to campus, COVID-19 and community support, and new initiatives — plotted on a chart reflecting when and how heavily they occurred between Mar. 2020 and May 2021.

The ongoing study, titled Crisis as Catalyst for Change and Innovation, runs from June 2021 to May 2024. The National Science Foundation is providing $799,773 for the research program, which will next examine individual technical colleges or technical programs for in-depth case studies. It is a collaborative project between Wang’s UW−Madison research team and Madison College Co-PIs Turina Bakken and Mary Ellen Kraus.

Wang is the Barbara and Glenn Thompson Professor in Educational Leadership and a professor of higher education with the School of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis.

Bakken, who also is the provost at Madison College, says of the project, “Having earned my PhD in educational leadership and policy analysis from UW−Madison’s School of Education, and as a leader in a WTCS institution, I am incredibly proud to be a part of this vital research. It exemplifies the kind of thoughtful partnerships between university-based research teams and technical colleges that we all need to advance knowledge, drive innovation in technical education, and ultimately best serve students.”

New research brief shows how Wisconsin’s technical colleges adapted to COVID-19