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Supporting Staff and Students in Response to COVID-19

The EvoLLLution | Supporting Staff and Students in Response to COVID-19
It’s important to distinguish the difference between remote and online learning to both faculty and students.

During this time, it’s more important than ever for institutional staff and faculty to come together and support one another. Not having experienced anything like this before, folks may be lost in how to deal with remote teaching and learning. In this interview, Michael Frasciello discusses how Syracuse University has shifted its faculty and students to a remote learning model, how it differentiates from online learning and what lessons they have learned in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How has Syracuse University responded to the COVID-19 outbreak?

Michael Frasciello (MF): Rapidly and with purpose is the way to describe our response to the COVID-19 outbreak. We’ve moved all classes online for the duration of the spring semester. That decision was made relatively quickly. We had initially decided that we would simply extend instruction online for a week past our spring break, but within 24 hours, it got to the point where we had to extend it based on what was tracking throughout the country and at the direction of CDC and New York State healthcare health officials.

At that point, the institution requested students not return to campus after spring break. It provided us with some lead time to encourage students to take materials, textbooks and valuables they weren’t comfortable leaving for an extended period of time on campus. We have now begun sending students who had initially remained on campus home, encouraging them to move out completely and arranging for free transportation. Those who are unable to leave campus are moving to alterative accommodations that support social distancing protocols.

Evo: How have University College operations and learners been affected by this shift to remote learning?

MF: We have two different modalities of delivery for our adult and part-time students at Syracuse University. The residential part-time student population has been rolled up into the messaging and support services that our full-time residential students are receiving. These tell them how to prepare for online courses, what the best practices are, and they reach out to every student to determine their individual technology requirements. Some of them are also higher education opportunity program students, so they may not have the financial means to equip themselves with broadband, laptops or microphones. We’re doing a lot of outreach to those underserved populations of students and finding them equipment to borrow.

Our online part-time population was already configured and set up, so our online programs and courses are still running as scheduled without disruption. In fact, many of our online students have taken it upon themselves to reach out to our residential part-time students to create communities of support and help them transition to online, which is very encouraging to see.

Evo: How do you help distinguish the difference between remote learning and online learning to both faculty and students?

MF: This is something we began to cluster around immediately when the decision was made to move the full-time residential instruction online. There are two sides to it: the student experience and the faculty experience. While Syracuse University has a long history of online and distance education, we’re still a traditionally residential campus. A lot of our faculty have no experience with distance and online education, which made us very concerned for their first entry into this space. We didn’t want it to be one of stress and anxiety.

On the faculty support side, our Center for Online and Digital Learning has been working with faculty in very targeted ways to alleviate some of the stress and anxiety they have about this transition. At the same time, the center shows faculty that this temporary solution is really a stop gap that’s meeting an immediate need. This distinction makes them realize that more thoughtful instructional design and online course development would be required for them to meet the full requirements of their course. But it’s important for us to let faculty know that what we’re doing right now is not distance education to the extent that Syracuse University is known for.

On the student side, our office for Online Student Success (OSS) provides a type of “super advising”. Our unit has now scaled out to engage advising teams within the schools and colleges to prep them with best practices for how to be a proactive advisor in an online environment. We look at persistence in online programs as opposed to retention, understanding that most students in online programs are adult learners, and they drop out at more frequent rates than full-time traditional aged undergrads.

OSS is helping advising teams understand what these students are going to be dealing with in an online environment. That’s everything from the discipline of logging onto their classes at the right time, making sure tech is up to date and tested, knowing how to check in with students, etc. It’s less proactive and more reactive with regards to academic programing and ensuring student participation. What our OSS student support advisors do is much more proactive and intentional: three to eight touchpoints per week, per student for online students. What we’re trying to do is scale out quickly by training up residential academic advisors — as best as we can — to be more proactive and forward facing.

Evo: How have staff and faculty adjusted to these changes so far?

MF: As a collective, faculty have responded very positively. Since we’re a university within a university, we have our own bursar and registrar, financial aid, advising teams, etc. We’ve been able to organize the critical functions we recognize need to be attended to first. In terms of our bursar operations, we recognize that a lot of our students are underemployed. The virus’ economic impact is going to affect their ability to pay their tuition or even register for the next term. As a college, we’ve been able to focus on the work at hand and look at everything one semester at a time to see how our students will be affected. We’ve become a full remote workforce.

So, how’s that affected us? As a college, we’re supportive of each other but focusing intently on our students. Syracuse University, for as big as we are, is a pretty tight-knit community, and we immediately saw departments reaching across campus to offer support. These are the times that sort of test a community’s will. It’s been humbling so far to see how unified the university has been from staff to faculty in our focus on students.

Evo: As you look at how quickly the change occurred, what are some of the elements of all this that have surprised you the most?

MF: What surprised me the most were the agility and ability with which our industry reacts. Our rapid and coordinated response has been amazing. It’s not something you traditionally see in higher education, but as a university, we are so focused on our students, their success and their wellbeing. In that sense, I really wasn’t surprised to see the quality of the university’s response to make sure that our students were safe, healthy and feeling supported. We also needed to make sure we could continue to keep them engaged and their degrees on track.

That sort of response of focus and concern hasn’t been surprising to me because it’s always been there.

At University College, we do contingency planning like this. It’s something that we’ve done for years, so I feel like as a college, we are always well prepared — not just for this particular crisis — but for any disruption. We pulled our contingency plans literally off the shelf and executed them.

Evo: What are a few lessons about disaster preparedness that you’ve taken from the last few months?

MF: One initial lesson that emerged is that in spite of the planning, what you need most is to be resourceful. It hadn’t occurred to us in our planning and training that not all staff have adequate technology at home, should our response require them to be home bound. We immediately realized that future planning would include resources, like laptops and technology, available for staff to take with them.

Another lesson has been the need to establish what communication protocols would look like. We have an emergency response team set up, so we were able to implement that immediately. It’s also about making sure you have a model in place to respond to situations like this.

We’re trying to do contingency planning as it relates to the budget, and I know this is affecting lots of folks in higher ed right now. We’re already starting to run some numbers, looking at X percentages of hit to enrollment, cost of moving more instruction online, those sorts of things. So we’re working through some cost and budget models right now. That’s something we hadn’t done in the past, as it relates to sort of a crisis response like this.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on March 19, 2020. 

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