How to Remain Accessible While Supporting Social Distance Learning

The COVID-19 pandemic has flipped the higher education environment on its head. In a world in which most students were required to physically attend classes, often with their grades weighing heavily against their absences, that physical presence has gone to the virtual realm. This new environment of distance learning has led to some significant concerns among students and faculty alike. How can educators mirror classroom sessions in a webchat setting? What can faculty do to remain engaged and accessible to students?

While the long-term ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic have yet to be revealed in full, the short-term challenges are visibly present, largely due to the seemingly overnight switch from classroom learning to distance learning. In what felt like an instant, campuses were closes, classes were canceled, graduations were postponed, and faculty and staff who may not have been familiar with online learning and engagement strategies were put in the spotlight and forced to deliver. A recent Bay View Analytics survey of more than 800 higher education faculty and administrators revealed that 97 percent of respondents said faculty were encouraged to deliver online classes, even though more than half had no experience with online teaching.

Now, a few months into this new setting, takeaways have emerged that may help shed light on how institutions can continue to evolve and embrace an unknown, unforeseeable future. Remaining accessible and reinforcing a sense of community should be high on the list for institutions. This is important for both the mental health of faculty, staff, and students, as well as overall student experience and satisfaction.

1. Use Engaging Collaboration Tools

The recent rise of social distancing and self-quarantining practices means that institutions should do everything in their power to keep the channels of communication open between faculty, staff, and students. Fortunately, there are a handful of online tools available for institutions that are keeping collaboration a priority.

In addition to free platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, institutions should also leverage online platforms that students are familiar with. Social media is a great way for faculty and staff to keep in touch with students, deliver important information, and keep everyone engaged. Sending notifications via Facebook or Twitter and even opening forums to discuss classwork can reinforce the sense of community that is present in the classroom.

2. Provide Personalized Advising

Advising is arguably more important now than ever. Because students may be uncertain about their current and future academic and professional careers, advising teams need to be more engaged to keep students focused on their goals. There are a lot of factors that students are thinking about now that they may not have had to think about before. Topics like their current or long-term financial well-being as well as the prospect that their dream job may not be in reach due to the potential long-term outcomes of the pandemic should all be discussed in length to encourage and nurture students along the pass to success. These concerns may be even greater for new students.

The good news is that many students are trying to engage with faculty. According to the National Survey of Student Engagement’s 2019 report, the number of first-year students who interacted with faculty about their career plans, course topics outside of class, and non-coursework activities increased by 10 percentage points between 2004 and 2019. Advisors should continue to encourage these interactions and meet with students to discuss how they can align their academic plans with career goals.

3. Keep Office Hours and Communication Open

Maintaining a sense of regularity is important amid the pandemic. While a lot of things have changed, not everything needs to; faculty and advisors should remain accessible to students even when individuals are no longer physically on campus to meet. Keeping office hours can be a good way to retain consistency, allowing students to meet with faculty and staff to discuss challenges with coursework, short- and long-term goals, and personal issues.

When office hours are not available, institutions should consider using web-based tools like chatbots that can allow students to schedule appointments or even get answers to questions that may have been preprogrammed in the application.

4. Encourage Self-Health

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of many individuals around the world. Given May is Mental Health Month, institutions need to remember that social distancing, online learning, and self-isolation practices can have a negative impact on students. In many cases when campuses closed, students lost their only source of income, increasing stress and anxiety. In other cases, the isolation itself can be damaging to mental and physical health.

Noting that everyone reacts to stressful situations differently, the CDC encourages people to take care of themselves and their community by taking breaks to unwind, exercising, and remaining connected with others. Institutions should encourage students to take breathers every once in a while, and stay connected with friends, family, and even faculty and staff.

Jenzabar continues to stay committed to helping institutions through this stressful period. We want to stay connected with you and ensure that you have the means to remain accessible to your students. If you are having difficulty engaging with students, please reach out to us. For more information on resources, click here.

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