Published on 2020/10/01

The EvoLLLution | How to Support Students through the Online Transition
Meeting learners’ needs in a virtual environment requires student-centricity, empathy, and an openness to finding new solutions to old problems.

It’s obvious that how universities are doing their work this fall is very different from how they have done it in the past. We still don’t know how schools will balance in-person and online learning or services. But we still need to provide the curriculum to our students and to support them as much as we ever did (if not more).

While neither of us have ever worked during a pandemic before, we have both worked in online education for over a decade. Here is what we are thinking about and doing now to avoid some of the common pitfalls of providing support to students in an online environment.

Meeting students’ needs online is very different from meeting their needs in person. There are no opportunities for random encounters and no obvious times or places for students to drop by. In order for them to get information, they need to be intentional in looking for it.

For online student support to work well, we need to do an even better job advertising what we offer. This could mean clearly stating outcomes for counseling or advising appointments on your website, sharing learning objectives for workshops in the invitation, or sending multiple messages in multiple formats when you would usually just post a flyer on a bulletin board.

Current student needs are different than they were just months ago. When students are attending class remotely, they are easily distracted, trying to multitask and possibly (likely) doing it all on their phones. Many learners are at home with other people around, sharing slow wifi or computers. They are also experiencing new and different kinds of stress. What does this mean for your services?

Be conscious of length and timing

Consider when you offer services and programming, and how long your presentations and sessions will last. In some cases, the timing that works best for your students may be first thing in the morning, before the kids start screaming. Since attention spans can be much shorter, think about how you can deliver your messages in 3 to 5-minute chunks

Be aware of technology realities

Be aware of unequal access to technology. For instance, Zoom requires a very strong and consistent internet signal. Think about how students can connect with you in ways that only require a phone signal (texting/SMS) or something that they can download and respond to when they have a stronger signal.

Simplify communications

Students are overwhelmed by information coming from all directions. You can help them by communicating your messages in multiple forms at multiple times; it may sometimes feel like you are overcommunicating. Use texts, emails, and phone calls. Short bulleted lists with links are great. Create a place on your website where students can go to find information if they missed it the first (second or third) time.

Modernize engagement tactics

Try offering office hours via chat. If your university does not have this feature, you can set up a Google account and use it for chat during specified hours. While it’s tempting to use Zoom or video conference software for office hours, it means that people are often waiting a long time to meet with you and they need to be in a place where they can talk/use video. Chat means they could ask questions privately, even if they are at home with lots of other people around.

Another thing you can do is identify support services and resources in students’ local communities. It is a tall order to do this for every locality, but you can identify widely available national or global resources. One issue that folks will be confronted with immediately is that counseling center staff will likely not be licensed to serve students out of state. However, there are services that support individuals all over the country that one can create connections with and organizations that can easily refer your students to local counseling services. Just the act of identifying and sharing food banks, childcare resources, tutoring services, or mental health resources can go a long way toward providing support to your students.

This concierge mentality can also help you curate online resources (videos, articles, or community programs) for your students. You do not need to recreate your usual in-person workshops in an online format, since most of these already exist out there. Instead, you can use your expertise to identify YouTube videos or articles that are relevant to your students and post them to a centralized location.

All of this applies equally to the course space and faculty interactions with students. This doesn’t mean that the curriculum is subordinate to student services, but curriculum and student services must be integrated now more than ever, as remote students might have only their instructors as their one connection to the university. This is especially challenging right now, though. Faculty and staff are experiencing some of the same issues that their students are dealing with themselves. So are you.

So how do you manage all of this when everyone’s hair is on fire? The trick is to stay connected to everyone. Faculty and staff need to feel supported and connected to one another as much as students do. Also, the more faculty who are aware of all you are doing to support students, the better they can support you. We suggest a regular update email to faculty with new student services or even a weekly 15-minute meeting with faculty to share student service updates. Faculty need to know what is happening in order to share this information with students.

Even better: think about ways to integrate services into the classroom. Work with faculty to create activities or offer a live chat (with a disability coordinator or career counselor for example) in some of the larger lecture courses.

We can use this time to experiment with new approaches to instruction and assessment. It is an opportunity to move away from commercial textbooks (which are not always available when we need them) in favor of open educational resources, which give us more flexibility and save students money. The shift to remote learning has also accelerated policy changes that were slowly moving forward. For example, we have asked instructors to eliminate proctored online exams in favor of project-based assessment. The technical challenges of online proctoring during the pandemic have made it less useful, and in truth, we were already experiencing challenges with the standard exam format administered online.

Can we be more open to alternative ways to demonstrate mastery, such as a narrated PowerPoint presentation? Yes, often we can. We have also tried to make our academic policies more flexible without reducing academic standards. Deadlines can be more flexible, and academic probation policies can be reconsidered.

In some cases, in order to successfully support students online, you may need to rethink your support programs from the very beginning. Whatever you do, supporting online students should not look like your traditional on-campus support model. If we had the benefit of long-term planning, we might handle this differently and survey and experiment with various approaches.

In the midst of the pandemic, though, we need to move quickly to support students and help them attain their educational goals. Eventually, you will need to find the time to evaluate these changes and make sure they are helping your students succeed. You may come to find that these temporary fixes should become permanent.

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