Silver Linings: 10 Shifts in Student Supports During the COVID-19 Pandemic
In March 2020, I had just completed a series of equity-focused student focus groups at a California community college when we were asked to shelter in place. Over the course of the next several months, my efforts to gather students’ experiences and voice to inform policies, practices, and processes shifted to virtual Zoom calls with some attention paid to the elephant in the room: advantages and disadvantages of learning in an online environment. These conversations were even more critical as many students who had struggled to connect and succeed in an on-campus environment now were forced to navigate distance learning, asynchronous courses, technological requirements, virtual support services, and various apps. The spotlight on equity increased from 60 watts to 1,000 watts to ensure that all students had the tools and access to resources they would need to participate in an online learning environment fully and successfully.
As institutions move to bring their personnel and students back to campus, here are 10 shifts and changes made during the pandemic that students, faculty, classified professionals, and administrators shared with me should be made permanent.
1. Post videos
Produce and post videos that cover the lecture portion of courses, provide an overview of key application steps and processes, and offer instructions on how to access services and support.
Hands down, students appreciated the ability to view videos. Several students found the videos posted by the instructors as critical. These videos allowed them to review key segments of their classes at their own pace at times that were convenient for them. Watching and listening to an instructor after the class provided an additional opportunity for students to learn and retain information and to understand concepts and issues that may initially have been unclear. The video recordings also allow students to be more engaged in the content and not as concerned about taking copious notes.
Some colleges also posted videos to inspire and provide updates and information. Administrators, classified professionals, and faculty encouraged students to stay positive and to access available resources so they could remain focused on their coursework. Other videos let students know how the shelter-in-place orders were impacting access to the campus, resources, and college personnel. To reach as many students as possible, videos were also often produced explaining how to complete the application process, how to fill in and submit necessary forms, and how to access available support services.
2. Zoom support
Offer support services such as tutoring and academic counseling, and instructors’ office hours via online platforms such as Zoom to increase and expand students’ access to resources and their professors beyond the on-campus opportunities.
Typically access to counseling, tutoring, and financial aid services has been limited to “regular business hours” on most campuses. As part of the virtual campus environment, many colleges and instructors offered evening and/or weekend hours and longer appointments. Using online platforms allowed students who worked during the day, lived a long way from campus, or who were unable to come to campus because of transportation issues or caregiving responsibilities to have access to needed support. Some students appreciated the ability to queue up in a Zoom room for online “drop-in” appointments where a counselor, financial aid specialist, or tutor could respond to a quick question. Others appreciated the longer appointments to fully discuss their career goals and education plans, receive needed tutoring, or to receive additional guidance on the transfer process. In some cases, students had access to support specialists who were bilingual and could offer services in languages other than English that were not available in person previously.
3. Free learning materials
Use free, open educational resources (OER), online textbooks, and tutoring software to ensure that all students have equal access to course materials in a timely manner.
Many students are unable to purchase their textbooks and other materials until they have received their financial aid, and if their aid is delayed, they may not have access to their books until several weeks into the semester. Use of free OER and online resources can ensure students have immediate access to needed content and assignments to ensure they understand key contexts and gain the required knowledge to be successful. Students also found tutoring software such as MyMathLab, if not cost prohibitive, to be useful and effective for identifying areas where they needed to strengthen their knowledge and provide opportunities for them to complete examples and problems that address specific knowledge gaps. However, resources and codes that can only be purchased online using a check or debit card can serve as a barrier to students who do not have or prefer not to use these forms of payment.
4. Google it
Identify online resources such as Google, YouTube, Khan Academy, or MIT’s OpenCourseWare and highlight them in the syllabus (see information on liquid syllabi, #7 below).
Many students searched for and used online resources to identify and access additional examples to help them understand concepts that may have been unclear to them during class. Some students shared that they had instructors who recommended specific online resources to help them grasp complex or difficult concepts. In some cases, students received additional credit for reviewing videos and completing assignments from the online resources.
5. Save a tree
Use tools that allow students to electronically sign and submit necessary paperwork and forms.
Not all students as noted above regularly come to campus or can visit key offices when they are open. Some institutions as part of their virtual campuses made downloadable or fillable forms available in the student portal or on the campus website and allowed students to electronically sign and submit paperwork. As a result, students did not have to take time off work or make a special trip to campus during operating hours.
6. Build bonds
Identify and use online platforms such as Discord, discussion boards, Google’s Jamboards, or padlets to provide an opportunity for students to connect, collaborate, and support one another.
The lack of peer-to-peer contact limited students’ ability to seek help from their classmates, gauge how their grades compared to other students, and feel connected to the institution and other students. Students appreciated assignments that required them to review each other’s work, pose and respond to questions posted by their classmates, and share additional resources that other students had found helpful. In some cases, students reported that part of their grade was dependent on their interactions in these discussion spaces. Students often took the initiative to create their own spaces to connect with each other, e.g., using a gaming app called Discord that allows students to text messages and calls, both voice and video.
7. Liquify syllabi
Utilize online, liquid syllabi to present course information in digestible, interactive, and fun ways, and adapt during the term as necessary.
These web-based, user-friendly, mobile-accessible overviews of the course and instructor often use closed captioned videos, photos, graphics, and brief descriptions that are easily digestible. Rather than look for a pdf or printed document, students can access these syllabi on a mobile device, which is many students’ primary device. Updates made to these syllabi allow students to have access to changes in real time.
8. Support tech
Continue to provide access to laptops, Wi-Fi hotspots, and technical support.
The availability of laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots provide an opportunity for many students to more fully participate in distance learning. Without these resources being made available during the pandemic, a number of students would have had to withdraw. Having a tech helpline allowed students to successfully address computer, Internet, and software issues to ensure their uninterrupted participation in their online courses. As classes return to campus, continuing to ensure that students have access to a computer and Wi-Fi at home will only enhance and further support students’ ability to get the most out of their education and prepare for the world of work.
9. Develop faculty and staff’s tech skills
Continue to offer development opportunities for all college personnel to strengthen their tech skills, and knowledge of, and comfort with the use of online resources and platforms for student support and learning.
Although students and instructors will return to the classroom, online resources and platforms provide students with access to examples and models that can advance their learning. As noted above, students appreciated instructors who posted videos of their lectures, hosted office hours via Zoom or other platforms. Other students were grateful for instructors who know how to use the student portal to post information on the course as well as the topics, reading and other assignments, and tests and quizzes for the entire semester. This allowed students to plan to shift their work hours when they needed more time to prepare for tests or to complete assignments.
10. Remain compassionate
This pandemic challenged everyone—students, classified professionals, full- and part-time faculty and administrators— and shined a spotlight on equities and systemic barriers. Instructors and student support professionals gained a critical understanding of the challenges their students were facing as they dealt with some of the same challenges such as lack of childcare, limited access to Wi-Fi or updated technology, no quiet or dedicated workspace, concerns about job security, inability to focus due to stress and anxiety, COVID-19 illness followed by long recoveries and/or lingering symptoms , and grief over the loss of loved ones. We all grappled with isolation and the stress of the unknown. College personnel spoke about how they were more compassionate, understanding, and supportive to their students and peers during this time. Students felt positive changes in how the college personnel viewed their struggles and worked to support them. Let’s continue to give students the benefit of the doubt, figure out ways to remove systemic barriers that may impede their access to and success in college, and recognize and honor our shared humanity.
As students return to campus, consider how implementing or keeping in mind one or more of these 10 suggestions and themes can help your students maintain their focus, access the supports that they may need, and build connections with their peers and their instructors. What can you lead? What opportunities will you take advantage of? What “silver linings” and positive shifts that occurred since March 2020 that you would add to this list?