Delivering A Seamless Digital Experience Beyond the Pandemic
Although the online environment is more important than ever in this moment, it will be equally important when we step out of this pandemic. It’s critical to make any improvements now and only build upon them as we get better acquainted with the digital environment. Institutions have the opportunity to see the gaps and flaws in their current systems and find solutions before students begin to look to other institutions who are highly skilled in the digital space. In this interview, Andrea Keener discusses how staff can deliver a high-quality experience, the challenges within to doing so and the key ingredients to creating a seamless student experience.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the most significant challenges involved with serving students entirely remotely through the college’s virtual channels?
Andrea Keener (AK): As far the School of Continuing Education and Professional Development is concerned, I would narrow it down to three major challenges: access, continued engagement and connection.
The COVID-19 environment poses several unique challenges: the severity of impact, the length of time and the sheer scale– all truly unprecedented challenges in our lifetime. Faced with these challenges, higher education’s main pillar–the brick-and-mortar mode of delivery-ceased to be possible. Suddenly, we found ourselves catapulted into a fully online or virtual delivery mode. Many familiar concepts had to be reconceptualized, and some turned out to be much more dimensional than we had previously thought; access was one of them.
We had to ensure our continuing education and adult students could log on and stay logged on to the LMS. Strictly speaking, this is a technology issue, but all of a sudden, in this environment of social distancing and within the boundaries of the COVID-19 environment, staying logged on became so much more dimensional and needed to be addressed as such. It needed to be addressed in a student-centric way in an effort to demonstrate a sense of continuity and our commitment to it as an institution.
To that end, we surveyed all students within the School of Continuing Education and Professional Development to gauge their technology needs and capacity. We made a concerted institutional effort to provide laptops and sustained technology support. We sent personalized emails to students. Our Retention and Recruitment Specialists, as well as our campus staff provided timely updates when classes would resume. Our goal was to send a clear message of uninterrupted accessibility to our students.
This second challenge could also be called the challenge of maintaining motivation. Our efforts focused on high touch student engagement strategies supported by our entire team. Since the situational demands required such a swift move to a fully remote learning environment to ensure academic continuity, this challenge had instructional implications as well. Deciding on the ratio between synchronous and asynchronous components was a valuable learning experience, and we are now able to implement its lessons during the fall term as we move towards academic sustainability in this global pandemic environment.
Finally, I would call the third challenge a connection to resources. Staying connected was essential for instructors, as they served as invaluable pillars of support during this time. As administrators and staff in the continuing and adult education space, we aimed to stay in supportive connection with our instructors by providing continuous training opportunities regarding remote teaching and learning and institutional updates; administration and staff moved to frequent virtual team meetings to remain connected and informed. We set up a virtual student support center to further bolster our connections with our students. Finally, in collaboration with our Center for Institutional and Organizational Learning, we designed a training program for ‘Remote Learning Champions’ for staff members. It included providing ‘embedded’ support to students, instructors, and staff. An additional goal of our Remote Learning Champions is to facilitate the delivery of a high-quality curriculum, foster student engagement, and ensure exceptional learning experiences in a fully online or blended learning environment.
In spite of its size, the School of Continuing Education and Professional Development has always been known for personalized service and its connection to students and instructors alike. We believe that maintaining this approach is essential to ensuring a relevant and dimensional student experience and wanted to ensure we could continue in this tradition during an exclusively remote learning environment.
Evo: How have staff at every level adapted to ensure the student experience they were delivering was of high-quality and personalized, even though the entire engagement between the learner and the institution is digital?
AK: Under ‘normal’ circumstances, translating curriculum into digital delivery formats is a time-consuming and iterative process. In previous positions, I have gone through this process at various levels, as a faculty member and administrator. This present experience was different because of the urgency involved, lack of alternative delivery modes, and the need to attend to several parallel processes simultaneously. This global pandemic impacts all of us to varying degrees. Adapting to its challenges takes on personal and interpersonal dimensions. Our institution’s empathetic leadership and our strong, internal team afforded us with the ability to provide continuous support to our students as well as to each other.
As far as the student experience is concerned, we continue to make adjustments based on lessons learned. We are mindful of the exhaustion factor both students and instructors are experiencing during this unprecedented time, and this continues to inform how we structure our classes in terms of delivery mode (synchronous/asynchronous). We remain mindful of the challenges our adult students face and tailor our programs and schedules to meet their needs. I believe making these adjustments based on the this current situation’s demands is necessary to maintain adult student engagement.
Evo: How would you advise faculty and staff to improve upon the work they’ve done so far to create that seamless experience?
AK: As an educator and administrator of a school that serves adult students and those seeking non-credit learning opportunities, the message I am sending to instructors is to listen authentically to students’ feedback. During the initial transition, we experienced an almost parallel transposition from face-to-face to synchronous learning. It became clear almost immediately, however, that this was not going to be effective. After integrating students’ feedback, we are noticing how autonomously and creatively students engage with the class material. We are noticing an intentionality to their engagement that is very reassuring and affirming. Students seize the opportunity to document their learning across multiples contexts. They are able to delve into the material more fully and, as they do so, learning becomes more relevant to them.
Evo: As you think about it from your perspective as an administrator, what are the key ingredients to delivering that truly seamless digital learner experience?
AK: You have to be able to think outside the box and understand that time is often an empty variable. Student learning should be about removing restrictions and not about adding them. As the facilitator, technology removes barriers and allows for learning to become seamless. This further allows for creative and authentic expression. Providing seamless learning opportunities lets students demonstrate learning that is relevant and personally meaningful.
Evo: In terms of staff efficiency, how can introducing tools that support a seamless digital experience help take the burden off staff while delivering a student experience that they expect from the college?
AK: Connecting students early on with the available institutional resources and tools available at a school such as ours is very important. This circles back to the connection piece we discussed earlier. Students learn to navigate these tools, develop digital skills, and they also learn how to express themselves creatively. Moreover, this approach fosters institutional embeddedness.
Furthermore, it is important for staff and instructors to be digitally fluent and have access to resources and tools, as well. This is especially important since instructors teach on a part-time basis in the continuing education space. Training and professional development are main goals of ours, and we believe them to be key factors when it comes to efficiency.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of delivering a seamless digital student experience in 2020 and beyond?
AK: Seamless experiences are learner-driven and technology-facilitated. Providing them within the context of an institutional support structure can increase student engagement. In terms of the adult or continuing education learner, this institutional connection can prove to be especially impactful, as it may lead to the continued exploration of educational opportunities, lay the foundation for their academic path or further their career advancement.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.