Aug 25 2020

Create Better Student Support Structures for Remote Learning

Here are some lessons from COVID-19.

When we gain enough distance from the COVID-19 crisis to fully assess how we performed, we’ll have much to learn from the choices made by different institutions. Already, we’ve seen campuses jumping over numerous hurdles, from faculty development and technology infrastructure to complete mindset shifts. How they land will help determine the changes institutions make after they emerge from their lockdowns. But, throughout the crisis, IT leaders are increasingly exercising their adaptive muscles to help their institutions navigate rapid changes in an unprecedented time.

The next step for organizational development is to look at how IT can work strategically with campus leadership to offer the resources and support that are critical to the student experience, both in normal times and in any future crises. Many colleges and universities, for example, now recognize that student needs extend far beyond access to remote classes. Numerous on- and off-campus activities and programs are crucial to student success, including advising, physical and mental health, career services, internships and practicum placements, financial services, emergency aid, housing and food services.

Understand Your Students' Most Critical Needs

Before COVID-19, some of these serv­ices, such as mental health counseling and advising, might not have been considered critical to learning. Still, these services promote student success, and that makes them essential.

A student’s well-being is key to persistence and success. By better understanding the whole student, both in and out of class, institutions can assess how and when they use services and be better prepared moving forward. Institutions that already did this before the COVID-19 crisis are now in a better position to replicate important services in online formats.

Moving to an entirely remote environment during the 2020 spring semester revealed the critical need to ensure that students, especially those from more vulnerable groups, can access services for food, shelter and internet connectivity. But other pressing needs are less obvious.

For example, 66 percent of institutions in an April 2020 EDUCAUSE poll reported that students find it difficult to remotely access off-campus internships and practica. Although these placements may not be the first services we think of as critical to student success, they are recognized as high-impact and have both short- and long-term effects.

READ MORE: Learn how to increase college success for underserved students.

Lost internships have an immediate affect on students’ education. For community and technical colleges in particular, fewer internships can result in a less prepared workforce and more downward pressure on the economy. The loss of internships also exacerbates social inequities. After all, for students from underserved communities who lack access to peer and family connections, internships play a particularly important role in developing career-building networks.

Another critical service is mental health. Following the onset of COVID-19, 37 percent of institutions reported that students are struggling to access these services. By contrast, only 16 percent of institutions reported students having similar difficulty accessing advising services.

As a whole, student services foster a sense of belonging that considerable research has proved to be a crucial positive. Even with fluctuations from class to class, year to year, that sense of belonging is critical for student equity. Feeling respected, welcomed and valued is, after all, correlated with outcomes like better grades, retention and engagement, with peer mentoring and staff support having a direct, positive relationship.

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn the best practices for engaging students online.

Know Your Students To Better Serve Them

But how can campuses replicate that sense of belonging and provide support through a computer screen? The answer can begin with a greater institutional understanding of the student journey on and off campus.

In the past decade, institutions have recognized the importance of offering early alerts, degree planning, advising and other online services to help students affordably and efficiently attain their academic goals. A wide range of new applications and technologies that support student success are now available to help students adapt to fully remote learning.

By using unbiased, anonymized behavioral data to develop models of the student experience, institutions could also identify the services they may need in a crisis. But, not only do we need more data, we also need deeper dives into the data to understand the challenges and opportunities for specific subsets of students. As tempting as the perceived efficiencies of predictive models are, they can be fraught with equity issues. We need a combination of data models and qualitative data about each student’s lived experience in order to fully understand what kind of resources might best support them. Knowing what a student’s typical day looks like, for instance, is key to knowing what services they need when facing a disrupted routine.

As one example of this type of insight, Sacramento State is implementing a pilot program to better understand which campus services freshman students use most. Students must opt in to be included, and the data collected has no personally identifiable information. But with this information, the university can identify critical support services and ensure these remain available in a crisis.

Although we still have much to learn and accomplish, we must also seize this opportunity to grow if we want to emerge from this crisis stronger. Within our institutions, these opportunities include using our IT resources and our human resources with greater efficiency and creativity. This, in turn, will help us find solutions that allow us to better serve our students. 

Chris Gash/Theispot