Fieldwork in the UAS Sitka Fisheries Technology program also has a remote component: Lab equipment and other gear is shipped to students. (UAS Sitka image)

While the COVID-19 pandemic forced many schools and colleges to innovate ways to teach students remotely, one University of Alaska Campus was already there. UAS Sitka has been running 1- and 2-year degree programs in Fisheries Technology since 2013 — with almost all of the lectures, assignments, labs, and exams packed into a single iPad.

Director Joel Markis recently told the Sitka Chamber of Commerce that the Fisheries Technology Program was focused on workforce development in Alaska’s second-largest industry, where many students cannot attend traditional classes.

Markis – The first thing that I want to do is present the problem. This is a community in northwestern Alaska — I think this is St. Paul — and you can imagine that the challenge of getting internet to somebody as far and remote as St. Paul is pretty high. An online class is probably out of the books. There isn’t a university campus in St. Paul, so taking face-to-face classes is off the books. And so people in these remote communities with limited internet capability lack access to education, and to fisheries education. We saw this as a problem. The other challenge is that some people don’t have a schedule that allows them to participate in a traditional semester. Maybe you’re a fisherman who works late into the fall, or even throughout the winter. Or maybe you’re a person with a full-time job and a family and a traditional curriculum is off the books for you.

Markis said that delivering education to non-traditional students was going to be critical for the future of Alaska’s seafood industry, many of whose 60,000-member workforce he described as nearing retirement — or “graying.”

The answer proved to be a delivery method tailored to a younger generation.

Markis – The solution that we came up with was to basically present a course on an iPad. We take an entire college course, put it on an Apple iPad, and we can send it out to the student. It provides maximum flexibility with respect to schedule, internet availability wherever the student takes the course. So you can learn from anywhere: On these iPads we have included pre-recorded lectures, all reading assignments for the students, self-check quizzes (to make sure that students are progressing in the class), the weekday assignments that the students take. There are a variety of different apps loaded on there that students can use to make creative projects that demonstrate their learning to their instructors, and the exams are all conducted on the iPad which shuts down and locks during the exam period so students can’t access previously-viewed material. And so now our fisherman can learn about dive fisheries in Alaska while steaming from one fishing ground to another; our fisheries technician can sit on the weir waiting for the fish box to fill up with fish that she’s going to process, and be pursuing a college education.

Markis mentioned that solutions sometimes create new problems: For example, there was no way to teach students how to catch or handle fish from an iPad, or how to walk in a stream bed. UAS Sitka has developed lab kits for all the Fisheries Technology courses, with all the tools they need to learn field techniques. Markis said that they had just sent “a bunch of sick fish and microscopes” all over the state for a fish pathology lab course, and “it was a rave success.”

The UAS Fisheries Technology program offers degrees with emphasis on commercial fisheries, seafood processing, and hatchery enhancement. It also offers several occupational endorsements, and internships within the industry.