Mark Branom on embracing technology during the COVID-19 crisis

Mark Branom has been teaching for over 20 years. He has spent his last 4 years doing so at San José City College (SJCC), where he’s the Chair of the Computer Applications Department. He also teaches Computer Science courses through the CIS department. This semester, Branom teaches courses in MS Office (Word, Excel, Access, PowerPoint), XML, and Python Programming.

And as the mastermind behind the Technest Program, he has opened the door to a world of data science, coding, and computer programming for many students who might not have otherwise had the opportunity to step through it.

“The Technest Program is designed to bridge Silicon Valley's wage and skills gap,” said Branom.

SJCC’s program, which was selected as a finalist for the Bellwether Award, is a unique collaboration between universities like UC Berkeley and MIT, along with technology companies IDT and Renesas. By offering an affordable opportunity to students, it has substantially eradicated the barriers that might otherwise block entry to the technology space.

“What we're trying to do is to get more diversity into technology and technological fields. By diversity, I don't just mean socio-economic diversity...although we DO need more women and people of color in tech,” said Branom. “I also mean English majors and Art students and people studying History. For too long, the only way you could get into tech was to be a computer scientist or to be a mathematician or scientist. And there's nothing wrong with that -- we need them, too! -- but we need the tech industry to look more like the rest of society. When only techies work in tech companies, the types of technology that get created are not as useful to the world as they are when they're created by people of all backgrounds and education.”

At present, due to the coronavirus crisis, Branom, along with other professors across the San Jose and Milpitas campuses, has been working with his students virtually. Since he has already been teaching online classes for about a decade now, Branom had a fairly easy time transitioning.

Always one to embrace technology, Branom has recorded every in-person lecture that he’s presented. So for the students that he’s now teaching in-person, he is currently able to provide recorded lectures from the Fall Semester cohort. And his online courses are moving exactly as they were before the COVID-19 situation.

Some of Branom’s students have had a tough time making the transition from in-person to online. To help ease students into the process, Branom created his own document full of tips for online learning, which includes things like: setting up your own schedule, dedicating a space at home for learning (with only essential school-related objects in the environment), and reaching out to the instructor for help.

For Branom, teaching virtually is mostly positive, and has allowed him to put into practice the concept of the “flipped classroom.”

“In a ‘flipped classroom’ model of teaching, the students are expected to watch or listen to the lectures online before class. Then, the in-person class is supposed to be for more in-depth discussions and clarifications of items mentioned in the lectures,” said Mark. “That's what I'm doing right now -- I've posted my recorded lectures for my students to watch/listen to, and I'm expecting that they will either come into my Zoom sessions or send me emails with their questions and concerns.”

The biggest challenge he’s currently facing is ensuring that students are, in fact, watching the lectures and doing the work. To keep them on track, Branom has been sending them reminders via email and Canvas announcements. So far, he has been getting good responses from them. For students who don’t respond initially, Branom has started sending text messages to check in on them and keep them motivated.

Along with keeping up with his students, Branom has also been putting his time into helping his fellow instructors who need support with teaching online. Meanwhile, he has a daughter in 9th grade at home, whom he also helps with schooling. Not only that, but the current crisis has hit close to home for Branom; his mother has been diagnosed with COVID-19, and is currently in a hospital in Seattle.

“As of today, she's doing okay, but I'm worried about the pneumonia she's contracted,” said Branom. “I'm trying to keep tabs on her via text messaging, phone calls, and using Facetime.”

The SJCC team wishes Mark Branom’s mom a speedy recovery.