Washington State University has made dramatic changes to its operations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In-person classes across the system moved to online delivery. Vital student services, including academic advising, tutoring and career services, followed suit. Many employees made the adjustment to working from home, while others continue to report in-person in order to keep essential operations running smoothly.
In the course of responding to the ongoing public health emergency, lessons have been learned that will be relevant even after the return of normalcy.
Digital tools open new avenues to learning, but inequality of access persists
A majority of faculty across the WSU system had little experience delivering remote instruction before now, according to Rebecca Van de Vord, assistant vice president of Academic Outreach and Innovation.
“Our first priority was to get faculty as many resources and as much training as possible,” Van de Vord said.
Thanks to preparations for events such as weather-related closures, resources and trainings were available, and simply needed to be put into the hands of instructors and professors.
After myriad training sessions during Spring Break, the transition to remote learning was made with relatively few hiccups. Faculty worked collaboratively with one another as well as their students to find digital alternatives to traditional lab activities and projects.
While these alternatives can be compelling, reminders of persistent unequal access to necessary technology and high-speed internet are common.
“Though many classes are settling into a groove, we are still facing a number of technical challenges specific to students who for one reason or another lack access to broadband internet or to computers necessary for specific types of learning,” Matt Jockers, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said.
WSU has stepped up to this challenge by loaning out laptops to students and is working to make Wi-Fi available at Extension offices across the state.
“These issues do not really fall into the category of lessons learned but into the category of ongoing challenges and problems still to resolve,” Jockers added.
During stressful times, students seek reassurance in addition to academic advice
Students and academic advisors typically sit down for 30 minute sessions to talk over schedules or degree programs.
Lately, these sessions have been running up to an hour. Terese King, executive director of University Advising, says the longer meetings are due to uncertainty facing students.
“One of our big lessons is that during this stressful time, academic advisors really need to be flexible with students,” King said. “They are stressed about this environment, and that is evident in the conversations that go beyond the advising issues. Student are really needing help to process this situation.”
It’ll be key for advisors to keep this lesson in mind once students return to campuses and resume face-to-face meetings.
“Students will still need to talk about how they are doing, what their finances are like, what their summer plans are,” King said. “Getting to know students beyond academics requires much deeper conversations: we must support the whole student, and in return, students must also be willing to ask for help and to seek it out.”
When information being delivered is critical, it’s important not to overwhelm
The experience of remotely learning has given units across the WSU system an opportunity to reflect on how they deliver instruction to students.
It’s also meant examining how vital information is given, and where there might be too much going out at once for an audience to process it all.
“One of the things we hear about through our ALIVE program from students is that they’re getting so much information that it’s like sipping water out of fire hose,” King said. “Doing online orientation has forced us to look at what do the students need at that moment and how much information can they take in at one time.”
It’s promoted new thoughts on what should be presented to students directly by program organizers and what can be conveyed on a website. Taping pre-recorded messages to students has prompted greater focus on ways to be more engaging, especially when a live audience isn’t there to give verbal and non-verbal feedback.
The university has also stepped up to provide the latest information on its response to COVID-19, setting up a website with an FAQ on the latest developments. University leadership have also hosted system-wide town halls to answer questions from the community while providing operational updates.
Solicit feedback from stakeholders early and often
As the university’s response to COVID-19 has shifted, so to have the concerns of its stakeholders.
During Spring Break, the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture began to survey its undergraduate students about their concerns. As the university was beginning its first week of remote learning, students were concerned with their ability to learn with the online format, and their instructor’s ability to make the switch.
Less than two weeks later, their concerns had shifted completely, Mary Rezac, dean of the College of Engineering, said.
“They were more concerned about someone in their lives getting sick, as well as their own mental health,” Rezac said. “So we started sharing information with them to ensure they had resources available through the university to support their mental health.”
Reaching out to faculty has also prompted collaboration, Van de Vord said, with instructors sharing ideas about different software and tools to better reach students remotely.
“We have a lot of innovative faculty out there,” Van de Vord said. “Our role in Academic Outreach and Innovation is to bring those ideas to a place where other faculty can benefit from them.
Cougs are capable of tremendous things when they work together
Collaboration has been key to making necessary transitions as smoothly as possible. Whether it was IT staff helping professors and students with the move to remote learning or instructors sharing tips and tricks, Cougs have come together during this uncertain time.
“I’ve been so very pleased and proud of our faculty for their willingness to step up,” Rezac said. “We’re trying to create an environment that recognizes that each of the 6,000 students we have across the system has a backstory and each may be worried about something unique to them. Our task now is to continue to educate them as well as support them as human beings, and to be as flexible in our approach as we can be.”
She continued, “This experience shows us what we’re capable of doing. We do have the capacity to make really huge shifts in how we are delivering courses and engaging with students in a short period of time.”