How faculty, technology supported students during pandemic
As I was leaving my office for spring break last year, little did I know that I would not return to my office for a very long time. My beloved office where students stopped by to chat and have a cup of coffee or tea. Sometimes they needed help and other times, just to decompress from the rigors of being a student. The sounds that came out of my office are sorely missed. Laughter, small talk, sometimes a few crying sessions, and even impromptu violin concerts spilled into the halls of Akerlow Hall. I miss the interactions that occurred in my office and I yearn to return to normalcy.
What I have learned during the forced separation from my office, is that the community of Waubonsee Community College has survived by moving into a support system. For example, the Faculty Development and Engagement office offered faculty support through resources, webinars, and a partnership with the University of Illinois Springfield's ION Master Online Teacher certification. Faculty were offered three graduate credit hours for each course completed. Academic Support started an Online Learning Navigator program which was modeled after a program from McHenry County College. Navigators help students with navigating Canvas, utilizing third-party tools, other technologies, and connecting students to campus resources. A popular campus resource is our Tutoring Center, which modified their tutoring sessions to virtual and physically distanced. Through IT, students are able to check out laptops, webcams, and other needed technologies.
Faculty have been at the forefront of supporting students since before the pandemic and have increased their support in multiple ways. Faculty have become proactive with mental health issues that students are facing. Many students have lost their jobs, faced online learning for themselves and their children. It has taken a toll on them and those of us working directly with students. The stories we are told, the tears that are shed, and the range of emotions displayed are daunting and at times overwhelming. Faculty send emails and class announcements with contact information for our counseling department. Phone calls to students who disappear from class or are not doing well are made by faculty. Well-being checks at the beginning of virtual classes have become the norm, but what else can faculty do to support students?
A good start is to utilize a combination of teaching strategies to design an environment that is conducive to learning. Designing online classes with User Experience design (UX) is one way to make learning less stressful. Putting the user first is paramount in UX design as it maximizes a more meaningful and relevant experience for users. It is used extensively when designing websites and products. Barriers to content and information are reduced when UX design is implemented. UX and usability expert, Steve Krug, has a catchphrase that I keep in mind; don't make me think. Of course, we want students to think, but not about where to find content. A common UX/usability principle that I apply is three or fewer clicks to a student's destination in the course.
Two other teaching strategies that I use are Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and instructional design. Both strategies can optimize learning for everyone as accessibility increases, which leads to inclusiveness. CAST created the UDL framework, which is based on the science of learning and provides guidelines for educators. An example of ULD is to offer two or more options for students to demonstrate their learning. A video, an infographic, presentation, or a short essay are a few options that students could choose from. Instructional design assists in designing creative and engaging learning journeys and is also based upon the science of learning. Backward design is an example of an instructional design method. Backward design is looking at the learning goals and how students will be assessed. With the learning goals and assessment in mind, how to teach the content gains clarity.
Incorporating various teaching strategies seems intimidating and time-consuming but employing one principle from each strategy will enhance the learning environment for students. The payoff is a supportive and inclusive learning environment for students that can also be used in face-to-face classes. I know my office is waiting for me to return and once again the halls of Akerlow will be filled with the sound of students' laughter, tears, and hopefully impromptu concerts!
• Amy Chaaban is Assistant Professor of Information Systems at Waubonsee Community College.