The students and faculty are online, but what about the staff? How student affairs and academic support staff adapt to COVID-19

Originally published on April 7 in Inside Higher Ed.

Overview

This article steps back from existing structures and staff within student affairs and academic support services and reimagine what might be best for students in a solely online learning world the next few months.  Recommendations that will be proposed include:

  1. Use the Learning Management System’s data on students as an early alert
  2. Collect student feedback on their success as online students
  3. Implement a coaching program
  4. Create staff-initiated student conversations among the students
  5. Interact with students outside 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  6. Focus on students most at risk for dropping out
  7. Hold staff office hours

Setting the stage

Higher education is having an early wake-up call. Although many universities have successfully shifted more of their education online in recent decades, many universities are still novices at this. The higher education news of the past few years has been littered with examples of, and warnings about, universities hiring Online Program Management firms to market and oversee their online offerings.

The United States has traditionally been one of the best examples of physical campus-based learning in the world.  Unfortunately, this is an expensive educational model and when stripped of much of its value (i.e. during COVID-19), it forces traditional campus-based education to compete with much more nimble and reasonably-priced alternatives.

As Richard Arum and Mitchell Stevens put it in the New York Times,

“…the hard fact is that this delivery format is an extraordinarily expensive way of purveying college degrees. Americans’ obsession with residential education as the sine qua non of academic excellence is a big part of what makes higher education roughly twice as costly per student here than it is in European countries.

We recognize that residential programs provide a great deal more to students than mere coursework. They are relationship machines, generating countless friendships, intimate partnerships and professional network ties. That machinery doesn’t translate easily to digital life, which is why residential-campus students, when told to complete their coursework on computers, feel cheated out of much of the value associated with residential college attendance.”

This is the setting higher education is facing in the spring of 2020, when almost all universities have been forced to move education online.  This article focuses on the specific roles of staff who facilitate and oversee the residential campus, typically referred to as student affairs and academic support staff.

The arena of student affairs and academic support staff

I’ve worked in student affairs for almost 30 years and have earned to clearly articulate the benefits of student life to many students, faculty members, and parents. The argument is really quite simple: a student only spends about 15 hours a week in class and another 15 hours a week studying. Allowing time for sleeping and getting ready in the morning, that leaves about 80 waking hours a week when a student is neither in class nor studying for one.

That’s the equivalent of two 40-hour work weeks within one week. And that time is when most student affairs and academic support staff attempt to make a meaningful impact through living-learning experiences, student organization involvement, intramurals and fitness classes, tutoring, career advising, mentoring, volunteering and the like.  For decades, student affairs staff like me have argued that we can have just as much, if not more, of an impact on students.

But the COVID-19 outbreak, the closing of many campuses and the move to online classes potentially nullify the impact thousands of student affairs and academic support staff across the nation can have. And the question worth asking is, “What does student affairs and academic support look like when most students are no longer on campuses?”  Academic support staff members, such as those in counseling, academic advising, tutoring and career placement, are in a similar situation.

Thankfully, many student affairs and academic support staff are quickly learning how to deliver and scale their services in a virtual manner. And now is an excellent time to rethink how students are educated outside the classroom in an online environment. How can we best reallocate our student affairs staff to roles that foster student success in online learning environments?

Here are seven actions we might consider in the coming weeks:

What is happening in student affairs and academic support units?

When it comes to solutions, it is important that we step out of the box because what we are dealing with is a situation where we have a staff potentially have a large amount of time and very few on-campus students to assist.  For example, let’s say that a campus has ten residence halls and therefore ten residence hall directors (RHDs).  Each of these RHDs likely has about 0-10% of their residence hall occupied.  One staff member at the Education Advisory Board even likened germ-laden residence halls to cruise ships this week and the person they were interviewing confirmed that this would be the case unless the local health department took over running the residence hall.  With occupancy rates this low, these residence hall directors are eventually going to have a significant amount of time on their hands.

I interacted with a hall director on March 23 who affirmed this. Their comment to me was that about 8% of their halls were occupied and “this last week was a lot of responding to student and parent emails, (communicating) with student staff, and packing up students’ items and shipping them to them. This next week will be continued planning/trouble shooting within the halls. In a couple weeks I expect things to really slow down.”

The same might apply to the student activities staff who work with student organizations, the student union, Greek Life, and student social programs.  These staff members now have no students to gather together to develop and offer leadership growth opportunities. Student groups can’t meet in person and in-person social events are eliminated (at least university-sponsored ones).  With university recreational centers closed, campus recreation staff have more open schedules without a facility to oversee nor students to play intramurals or participate in fitness activities.

Academic support staff members are in similar situations. Most are not set-up to run on-line tutoring, career guidance, supplemental instruction, mentoring and other common practices that typically occur in person and are most often led by other students. Thankfully, many student affairs and academic support staff are quickly learning how to deliver and scale their services in a virtual manner. Most of these staff members are trying to figure out how to best replicate their in-person work with students in an online manner.  This can take a lot of time and can include counseling and health appointments, tutoring, academic advising, career placement, and others

I am suggesting, however, that now is an excellent time to rethink how students are educated outside the classroom in an online environment.  Any review of some of the best online programs’ student engagement and academic support reveal that their approach is fundamentally different than campus-based student support.  If we don’t take the time to learn a new way of doing business, this first “solution” becomes more of a likelihood, especially at small private universities with less than $100 million in endowment.

Potential solutions

#0. Layoffs – Let’s get the ugly out of the way first (then we can focus on more helpful alternatives)

I am calling this option zero because no one wants to consider it as a realistic option.  However, one solution in a protracted campus shutdown would be to lay off staff, which might include student affairs and academic support staff.  So much of the work in student affairs and academic support is done face-to-face that shifting online may prove untenable.  In addition, many universities are moving to refund spring semester students on their housing, food, etc. As of March 18, a number of colleges, including Amherst, Brown, Clark, Emerson, Harvard, Northeastern, and Tufts have already announced that students will get a refund for room and board if they return home.  While most, if not all, of these universities can easily handle this additional cost due to their massive endowment/student, many other colleges will not be in this situation.

For example, the Hotel at the University of Maryland closed on March 20 and laid off 150 staff.  I would expect layoffs to grow exponentially throughout April as universities plan for their fall budgets and realize cuts are necessary.

Layoffs are further damaging to universities because of the loss of university morale, the destruction of employees’ lives, and further contribution to the national recession.  However, when it comes down to the survival of the institution vs. the survival of individual faculty or staff members, the university almost always wins.  There are countless examples of universities painfully choosing to lay off faculty and staff when the survival of the university is at stake.  Just ask the staff at DePauw, Hardin-Simmons, Miami of Ohio, Northern Colorado, and Oberlin who were let go in the last year.

What if, instead of layoffs, we could find another way to creatively allocate student affairs staff during what is hopefully a somewhat shorter, rather than longer, COVID-19 crisis period?

What if we consider best practices in engaging and supporting online learners and reallocated our

student affairs staff to roles that fostered student success in online learning environments?

#1. Use our learning management system’s data on students as an early alert. If you are in student affairs or other types of student services, find someone at your university who has reporting access to the learning management system (LMS). Work with them to run a report to see which students have not engaged on the system for over a week.  Come up with a plan for reaching out to those students or their faculty members so as to understand their situation and nudge their online engagement. Baylor started doing this last week, and we are finding ways of helping our students navigate the technological, mental and emotional hurdles keeping them from engaging in their online classes.

Champlain College has gone a step further, according to EAB and identified “students most in need of academic intervention by highlighting “risk phrases” in students’ online discussion board posts.  The institution developed a list of frequently used key words and phrases that signal academic risk, (e.g., help!, tried over and over, frustrated, don’t understand).  An automatic script identifies all instances of the words in posts, and instructors are provided a prioritized list of students to proactively contact.”

You can also use your institution’s LMS is to build a predictive model using the data commonly associated with lack of retention.  Many institutions already use predictive models for retention but few that I am aware of integrate data from the LMS.  According to EAB, “Progressive institutions are developing algorithms to predict the risk of attrition using historical records, demographic data, and LMS usage metrics. …Data gleaned from enrollment and admissions information can be paired with in-course activity data, including the number of log-ins and page views, number and length of online postings, minutes spent on the course website, and attempts at practice quizzes or other formative assessments embedded in the online course environment.”

#2. Collect student feedback on their success as online students. One of the challenges most student affairs and academic support staff have is that we can only provide help to the students who seek it.  Many more students don’t know how to ask for help or don’t feel comfortable asking for it. What if the university was able to reach these students in order to learn about their challenges and support them?

A number of institutions employ brief surveys at the start of the semester that give student affairs and academic support staff a pulse on the students.  For example, at Baylor University, we learned through such a process that students were about five times more likely to leave the institution if they responded by “disagreeing” (vs. agreeing) with this question, “Do you feel like you belong at Baylor?”  We also learned that attendance at orientation and welcome events were key factors in student retention, along with their not skipping classes and arriving to class on time.

At the end of March, Baylor sent out a short survey for students that is being used to guide our outreach to them.  The questions were a mix of multiple choice and a few open-ended options. Several of these questions included, among others:

  • How would you describe your overall well-being since Baylor moved to online classes?
  • If you are not doing as well or struggling, what are the main reason(s) you are not doing as well or struggling?
  • Is there anything limiting your ability to participate in your Baylor online learning? Which sources of information from the university have been most helpful in keeping you up-to-date on changes as a result of COVID-19?
  • How would you evaluate your professors’ efforts on what may have been their first week teaching online?
  • What do you think Baylor needs to know about Baylor students like you at this time?

In the first 12 hours, we received over 3,000 responses, and with reminders, we heard from more than 6,500 — or almost half of all of our undergraduates.

And we’ve learned a lot from their answers. Administrators in various departments have reached out to students experiencing technological challenges, those concerned with issues in their specific classes, those needing financial assistance, and those who have self-reported mental health difficulties.  We’ve also created a dashboard and circulated it among university leaders to offer a quick glance at the state of Baylor students.  For example, we know that 20 percent of students are struggling with online learning, although more than half of those who replied to the survey are either surprisingly or extremely impressed with Baylor faculty’s adjustment to teaching online. We also have learned that student respondents also prefer communication in the form of a weekly email from the president.

#3. Implement a coaching program. Coaching programs are one of the fastest-growing student support initiatives of the past decade, and multiple research studies show the effectiveness of such programs. One reason they are thriving is that they are student-centered versus university centered:  you can direct each student to various specialized departments to help them with their distinct needs and guide them to the best resources.  Virtual meetings with students might include conversations about academic behaviors, financial matters, social integration, personal struggles, career guidance, self-care, or setting priorities.

One of the coach trainers at the University of Central Florida’s coaching program for online students, Natasha Williams, describes the role:  “A success coach is an additional layer of support to help students feel like they’re more than just a number. A coach empowers students to do things for themselves by walking them through difficult processes while addressing everything else that they have going on in their lives outside of school.”

Think of a coach as a doctor who is a general practitioner.  Patients start out with a general practitioner often receive all the help they need from them.  However, sometimes, the general practitioner might refer the patient to a specific doctor for specialized care.  Think what might happen if we simply told patients to choose the type of specialist they think they need or want.  They might not make the best decision and have to be directed to several other specialists before finding the right one.

A coach saves the student time by providing a concierge like service to what that student will most benefit from doing.  One of the fastest growing student coaching companies is Inside Track.  Coaches at Inside Track are trained to ask questions of students to learn about what aspects of student success are most relevant at that moment in the student’s life.  Virtual meetings with students might include conversations about academic behaviors, financial matters, social integration, personal struggles, career guidance, self-care, or setting priorities.

In a December 2018 article titled, “Student Affairs Goes Digital: Translating Student Support to the World of Online Learning,” Kevin Kruger and Dave Jarrat share about the University of Central Florida’s coaching program for online students. One of the UCF coach trainers, Natasha Williams, describes the role of a UCF coach as,

“A success coach is an additional layer of support to help students feel like they’re more than just a number. A coach empowers students to do things for themselves by walking them through difficult processes while addressing everything else that they have going on in their lives outside of school… Coaches help students develop personalized plans to graduate by empowering them to understand their degree requirements and take accountability for their own success.”

The coaching idea does not come without challenges.  For starters, it typically requires being willing to re-envision many student affairs and academic support staff roles instead of just hiring a group of entirely new coaches on top of existing roles.  However, the COVID-19 online learning environment is a perfect time to do this.  If a university is ready to give this idea a try, they must be ready to identify coach’s job roles/descriptions, selection processes, required training, and a process of evaluation.

The next big challenge comes in successfully contacting and connecting with students.  Our current communications arena is multi-faceted but with no dominant format.  Although most staff might default to email or phone calls, often texts or video chats work even better. Which option works best will often depend on the student. Once the connection is made, coaches will need to remember that their students may not understand the role of a coach and how to best use this resource.  Coaches will need to help students understand the value they offer.

Baylor rolled out a Bear Care Coaching program the last week in March.  Several hundred university staff volunteered to serve as coaches and watched several short videos made by existing staff about how to coach, how to log comments in a database, and how to connect students to other campus resources.  The coaches contacted students in the survey who evaluated themselves as struggling or who expressed a desire for someone to reach out to them.

#4. Create staff-initiated student conversations among themselves. The current online educational delivery model at most colleges and universities is centered on course delivery.  But students will still want to communicate with each other outside of class time. As former Tulane President Scott Cowen stated in a recent article about how his university responded to Hurricane Katrina, “Institutions should also ensure that groups within the larger campus community — such as individual programs, clubs, and student organizations– remain in close dialogue and find ways to still pursue their interests and plans.”

Ask yourself, “What mechanisms exist that help student affairs and academic support staff to gather students together to talk about how they are doing?”

Most learning management systems allow for non-credit groups to use the course platform, and many colleges and universities have purchased web conferencing software like WebEx or Zoom that can work within their LMS to allow students to communicate with each other. You could also work with your institution’s IT staff to use existing labels in the enterprise resource planning system to put the members of various student organizations in “courses” for ease of communication.  Many students use group use text messaging for this, but the LMS functionality, with staff guidance, may strengthen the connections among students not included in text group chats.

One successful similar idea is Oregon State’s Ecampus Learning Community, which gives students in shared majors the opportunity to connect to each other and their adviser. Another option:  some universities have purchased student organization platforms, like CollegiateLink and OrgSync, that allow students to communicate with one another.

At Baylor, the student affairs staff creates a Facebook group for each entering class before they arrive on the campus. Unprompted, students interact and engage with each other, asking who is going to live where on the campus, who is taking what classes and so on.  Often, students who meet each other on these Facebook groups have even decided they wanted to room together in the fall. You could create a similar-type social media group for current students geographically separated by COVID-19 campus closures, allowing them to talk to and support each other. The staff overseeing the group would only interject if a question came up that no students could answer.

#5. Interact with students outside 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. As a former residence hall director, I always found it fascinating to see how, at 5 p.m., students emerged from their dorms and turned the campus in to their playground while almost every non-student left. What message did that send to the students about faculty and staff willingness to help?

In the COVID-19 era, physical campus-based institutions need to take every possible step to engage, encourage, and equip students for success.  If student affairs staff work from home and potentially have some daytime interruptions like children, pets, and household work, they might also consider an expectation that to best serve students they might need to be available and willing to help later in the evening and on weekends.  For example, Wayne D’Orio writes in a piece on rethinking student services for online education: “Take Sunday evening, which for most colleges is a time when many of their support services are unavailable, waiting to reopen on Monday morning. For a student juggling a job and a family, however, Sunday evening can be a prime time to do schoolwork.”

Knowing that the number of high school graduates is declining every year for the foreseeable future, and that colleges will be fighting tooth-and-nail to attract and keep these students, student affairs and academic support staff would be wise to consider how they can best provide a level of service above their peers.  As Sue Ohrable, a college advising consultant puts it,

“With the growth in popularity of online education, there is a great deal of competition for these students. Establishing a point of difference in support will help attract new students. A popular phrase that’s heard when discussing these strategies is ‘concierge-level service.'”

I am not saying people must work outside of traditional work hours, nor am I saying that there should not be a balance between work and a personal life. Not everyone, every day, has to work nontraditional hours. But colleges that do provide availability and outreach outside traditional work hours are most likely to be successful in serving students effectively and staying competitive in a rapidly changing educational environment.

#6. Focus on students most at risk for dropping out. Many universities already know what groups of students will be less likely to stay in college and graduate.  At many traditional campuses, where 18- to 22-year-old white students make up the majority of students, these groups might include first-generation students, underrepresented minorities, older students who are parents and many others. Unfortunately, the structural and cultural bias towards more traditional students at many higher education institutions can make it difficult for many underrepresented students to succeed.

Student affairs and academic support staff could identify and reach out to students who fall in one or more of the groups that are particularly less likely to remain and graduate. The challenge with this approach is that it can be seen as stereotyping a group of people without knowing them individually. But I would argue that the university is reaching out to students whose success we want to make a priority. By using some open-ended questions like those in the previous survey, we might open the door to further dialogue. Baylor has decided to act on this idea by reaching out to students who are graduating in May, those who studied abroad this spring, those with low G.P.A.s and those who had received more than one early alert this semester.

#7. Hold office hours. Before COVID-19, students typically could come by our offices and/or schedule meetings with us. This can continue — virtually. We can decide how to best reach out to the students and let them know what times they are available each day and week. We can use various software to create the schedule and host office hours including WebEx, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Duo or Google Hangouts.

The week before Baylor restarted classes online, the IT and library staff hosted office hours each day for professors going online.  There were designated time slots for: 1) help with the LMS, 2) web conferencing, 3) media services and 4) instructional design.  What if student affairs and academic support services did something similar with office hours for: 1) class help, 2) personal help, 3) social support, 4) financial questions, 5) library use and 4) spiritual care?

Conclusion

In Scott Cowen’s March 20, 2020 article on what he learned from Tulane’s response to Hurricane Katrina that might be helpful with COVID-19, he states,

“In the end, community is about a sense of belonging and trust. Open, responsive, and reliable communication is the foundation, but there are many other ways for colleges to help build community. As Tulane learned in the fall semester of 2005, it requires ingenuity and experimentation, but it can be done even in the most challenging context. In fact, I would argue that the extraordinary conditions and the collective experience of adapting to a new normal deepened our sense of community. To this day, Tulane’s “Katrina class” is known for its loyalty and special bond with the university.”

In conclusion, now is the time for student affairs and academic support professionals to get out of our comfort zones and try something different.  How can we re-envision our work to re-engage with our new online learners so that they continue to know they are a part of a community that cares about their success?  What do we want our students to say about their college experience during COVID-19 and how we impacted their lives outside of their classes?

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