At the UIA, we’re committed to eliminating gaps in college attainment by race and income. While equity in higher education is the focus of our work, the COVID-19 crisis has broken longstanding systemic inequities wide open for all to see. Coverage in the New York Times and the Atlantic highlights how the pandemic disproportionately affects the most vulnerable students on college campuses.
Students who rely on part- or full-time work to pay tuition, fees, or rent aren’t able to cover those costs because of layoffs and closures. We’re also seeing challenges with technological access for students who return home to complete the semester, but can’t reliably access their coursework online. Even for students with reliable access, transitioning to online learning can be new, difficult, and isolating.
We’ve spent the last few weeks talking to students at UIA institutions about their experiences transitioning to remote learning. While these perspectives represent just a small snapshot and not a comprehensive study, the insights generated can help guide how we support students in the current online environment. Here are 5 things we’ve heard so far.
- An increased need for communication with faculty. It’s already intimidating to ask professors for help. With the sudden switch to remote instruction, students have even more questions about courses, grades, and support they may need. Faculty may be unaccustomed to the volume of email they’re suddenly receiving from students trying to sort through LMS pages and manage online assignments. It’s important to remember that students need extra support at this time. (Faculty do too - that’s another topic!) Students shared that clearly communicating course expectations and checking email or Canvas messages more often than during a “normal” semester are helpful ways faculty can adapt, and help students adapt too.
- Consistency in online course format is really important. When a student takes an in-person class, they can organize their notebook however they like. When the classroom suddenly becomes Canvas (or other LMS) and Zoom, they may be left to track down the updated syllabus in any one of the many places it might live on a course page - modules, course info, files, or messages. Assignments may or may not be listed on the LMS calendar; if they are, the student can easily see deadlines for all courses at once and plan accordingly. Flexibility for faculty is undoubtedly important! But students suggested their institutions might provide some guidance to standardize basic course structure and save students time looking for key documents and deadlines.
- It’s harder to feel prepared for the workforce. Internships, student teaching, and clinical practice have all been affected by COVID. Students don’t have the same opportunities they’d have in the “normal world” we all distantly recall; many of these experiential learning opportunities have been cancelled or restructured. Students shared fears about arriving unprepared to their first jobs, and about limited opportunities to gain exposure to their fields of interest as the pandemic continues. We need to be diligent and proactive in ensuring virtual alternatives. The economy needs every one of these talented graduates to be prepared and employed.
- Family support (especially childcare) can make a huge difference. Adult students and student parents have a lot to juggle. One student we spoke to cared for her small niece; another had a young daughter. They scheduled their online coursework around children’s naps and the availability of other family members to provide care. Of course, adult students with older children face the additional challenge of homeschooling and reinforcing virtual coursework amidst school closures. Faculty and administrators must remember that students’ family obligations, and the availability of additional family support for childcare, vary widely, and accommodate accordingly.
- Celebrate the progress students have already made. We heard that it can be hard to keep going. School feels different online and off-campus; goals may be less clear or seem further away. When they felt stuck and ready to give up, students told us they found it helpful to reflect on the successful coursework behind them, rather than just on what lay ahead. Reflecting on the progress they’d made on their degrees helped these students remember that they were so much closer than when they started. It’s easier to feel motivated when you harness the momentum you’ve already gained. Incremental goal-setting and small rewards are helpful ways to keep moving forward.
As we forge ahead into summer and fall terms colored by COVID, these student perspectives remind us to consider how we communicate, how we organize course material, how we connect students to pre-professional opportunities, and how we help students balance family obligations. When the going gets tough - for students, and for faculty and staff - let’s remember how far our students have come since orientation and how far our campuses have come since March.
You can access the UIA’s video library, including our most recent conversations with students about online learning, here on YouTube. Follow us on Facebook to join our live streamed interviews. We’ll continue these student conversations, and other interviews with faculty, administrators, and higher ed leaders, as implications for the sector unfold. The need for collaboration and innovation has never been more pressing - and listening to students and campus stakeholders is critical to an informed and sustainable COVID response.