How connection is key in a pandemic and post-pandemic world

14 October 2021
Posted by Study Group

Teacher Perspectives Blog Series from Study Group

The latest blog in the series is introduced by Joshua Rubin, Executive Vice President for Higher Education in North America at Study Group.

To continue to highlight the vital role of “teachers at the heart of education recovery”, the theme for World Teachers’ Day 2021, I am delighted to share the latest blog in our ‘Teacher Perspectives’ blog series from Jennifer Little and Andi Beard.

In this blog, Jennifer and Andi explore how the new realities of academic delivery in a pandemic ultimately led to a deeper understanding of students’ needs. As a result, faculty at James Madison University's International Study Center (ISC) in the US have quickly assimilated new skills, viewpoints, and knowledge, which they feel will enrich their teaching practices and welfare support provision moving forward.

Jennifer and Andi’s full blog is available below.

How connection is key in a pandemic and post-pandemic world

By Jennifer Little, Center Director and Andi Beard, Academic Manager. Jennifer and Andi are based at Study Group's James Madison University ISC in the US. 

“The key word during this time seemed to be 'Connection.' It was important for us to find ways to keep closer connection to the students when they were learning remotely. We wanted to make sure that they stayed connected to the university and each other at a time that was very isolating”.

Ensuring students academic wellbeing

Jennifer: Our primary area of focus was first on ensuring all students were able to participate and stay proactive in the new learning environment. We made sure that they had equitable access to the courses and coursework, and we worked to maintain at least 50% synchronous learning to help students stay connected and engaged, while implementing new methods of classroom instruction.

Andi: Once we knew that students would be attending both in-person and remotely, we realized we needed a strategy that would offer everyone a shared classroom experience, so we have employed the “Hyflex” classroom model in all courses. The in-person and remote students attend each class together in real-time and can communicate with the instructor and classmates naturally as the class progresses.

Jennifer: Students had told our Student Success Manager that they were having difficulty focusing on learning while studying from home, so she initiated “homework meetings” that allowed students to log in via Zoom and in order to complete their homework with someone “present” virtually to help them stay focused and accountable.

Ensuring students personal wellbeing

Jennifer: As with academics, the key word during this time seemed to be “Connection.” It was important for us to find ways to keep closer connection to the students when they were learning remotely. We wanted to make sure that they stayed connected to the university and each other at a time that was very isolating.

We increased programming to provide one synchronous opportunity and at least two asynchronous activities each week. We knew participation wouldn’t always be 100%, but the goal was to be there for the students – they could take us or leave us, but we were there for them no matter what.

This was also the time that Study Group instated the Start Smart courses for US-based ISCs, which helped create connections between the students early on and provided a more personal experience than what students typically receive at large in-person or online orientations. Start Smart students have reported feeling more comfortable with their studies and more connected to the campus.

Andi: As mentioned before, we made sure that we met classes synchronously every week so that students could have a regular routine and sense of connection. In asynchronous classes, we recorded lesson videos and had them record responses so we could hear from them regularly. We learned that seeing faces, even recorded ones, is more communicative than simply reading a PowerPoint or text-based assignment.

Key takeaways from the pandemic

Jennifer: We found that students who were studying remotely, with family and friends nearby, needed us less for entertainment than for guidance on how to be effective students and maintain work/life balance from home. We recalibrated our programming away from a deluge of “trendy” Zoom activities (games, cook-alongs, etc.) and instead provided short, bi-weekly virtual interactions that addressed topics of interest to them.

Andi: Academically, the strategies used in remote learning have proven effective even when most or all students are in person. We’ve learned to better leverage our Learning Management System for all courses, no matter the delivery method, and to vary our approaches to instruction. We’ve become more flexible in all aspects of teaching. We now better understand the extent to which emotional and mental health impact learning, and this will help us better address students’ struggles going forward. We have all faced these changes together—faculty and students—and in a strange way, this has given us a chance to deepen our understanding of each other. I feel we are better equipped to recognize not just their academic needs but how students are impacted by all aspects of their experience.

The path forward

Jennifer: In terms of students’ overall needs, we’ll be continuing to offer shorter, targeted programming that is aligned with learning objectives, as well as diverse advising opportunities that seek to meet students where they are. Allowing students to choose how they wish to meet and having a combination of formal and informal advising interactions helps in communication and connection.

Andi: We’re using what we have learned to grow as instructors, always making sure we give students a variety of ways to seek our help and to connect with us, with course concepts, and with each other. The new paradigm of learning is wider, deeper, and full of more opportunities than ever before.

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