Administrators at college and university campuses have started to urge faculty members to be flexible with students amid the current COVID-19 outbreak, recommending that physical contact and the exchange of physical items (e.g., graded papers and assignments) be limited. The same is true for staff working in student services, including admissions specialists, recruiters, academic coaches, counselors and academic advisers. Students and administrators alike are concerned about not only contracting the illness but also spreading it to more vulnerable populations.
In this environment, which is becoming increasingly precarious, advisers should consider how to serve students who may very well be reluctant to schedule an appointment or meet face-to-face. In the coming months, advisers will need to explore new methods using technology to serve their students -- making the mantra “meet students where they are” more relevant than ever before.
For the upcoming summer and fall registration cycles, online and video meetings will become a student’s best friend. Several online platforms can make that happen, but my favorite is Zoom. The platform is dynamic and intuitive, and best of all, it is free for basic one-on-one use. But not everyone will perceive this technology -- or any other video technology, for that matter -- that easy to use. That is why advisers should consider the following steps to facilitate the transition for students from face-to-face to online advising.
First, if you are an adviser, you should take the time to learn which platform works best for your students. Whether it is Zoom or Skype or something else, play with your software of choice and make sure that you are comfortable using it. This will be time well spent, as many of your students stand to benefit, so you shouldn’t feel as if you are wasting time blocking your calendars for it.
Second, students in your caseload will need to know that online advising is an option. At my institution, we use a scheduling software that does not allow students to schedule an online appointment. If that is the case at your college or university, too, send an initial email to your students informing them that even though they were previously unable to schedule an online appointment, online advising is now available to them.
Then, in a separate email, send them specific instructions on how to schedule that appointment. These instructions should include specifics about scheduling (i.e., how to inform the adviser that the meeting will be online), as well as details about getting familiar with the appropriate meeting platform. Since I use Zoom, I include in the email detailed instructions about downloading the necessary app or how the program functions in a browser. I also tell students where they can leave comments when they schedule their appointment. And I make sure to title the email subject line something like “Online Appointment Instructions (PLEASE READ!).”
Why two separate emails? That is so students can easily go back into their email and search for the subject line that will help them locate just the instructions. It also keeps the two emails shorter than they otherwise would be if they were combined, increasing the odds that a student will read both of them in their entirety.
In addition, at some point before meeting with your students online, you should conduct trial appointments with colleagues and co-workers to ensure that the process will go smoothly. Most advisers only get around half an hour to meet with their students, which is arguably too short already and is not the ideal time to troubleshoot software issues.
Once the appointment begins, you should set expectations and boundaries for the student. That means informing students of any time constraints you have with back-to-back appointments. With a face-to-face appointment, students are often able to check in to an office with someone there to assure them that even if a previous appointment goes over, the student’s adviser will be with them shortly. In an online environment, no such person exists, particularly for offices that do not typically advise online. That means it is crucial for you to be punctual for each appointment, lest a student feel forgotten or ignored.
You should also provide students guidance about follow-up and how to obtain important resources. Students will not be able to leave an online appointment with physical notes and forms like they would in face-to-face meetings. But you can show them how to find such resources by navigating websites with Zoom’s screen-share feature, for example. Likewise, you can take the opportunity to promote students’ sense of responsibility by encouraging them to take their own notes as the session progresses.
Finally, as an appointment reaches its time limit, you should make sure that if the student has questions or concerns that you haven’t been able to answer, they at least know how to get in touch with the appropriate parties for follow-up. Over the next several months, students probably will have questions about your institution’s response to the virus -- questions that you may have never heard before. You will need to hone your relational competencies to assure students that, even in these uncertain times, administrators are working with their interests in mind. The more student appointments that end on a supportive and positive note, the better.
Why have I have chosen to recommend online appointments using videoconferencing software in favor of, say, a phone appointment? One reason is that in a time that may eventually be characterized by quarantine and isolation, you will still want to foster trusting and supportive relationships with students. While that can be done over the phone, videoconferencing offers both parties the benefits of facial expression and body language, for example, to help students feel connected to the institution. Also, this is an opportunity to move advising practices forward and develop innovate ways for campus support personnel to serve students.
With the spread of COVID-19 -- and with institutions limiting and in sometimes eliminating in-person classes for the coming months -- advisers need to explore new approaches to give students the guidance and support they need without potentially putting themselves and others at risk. This crisis compels us to accommodate students in creative and meaningful ways that might not have occurred without the threat of global pandemic. Shifts in higher education practice are often relatively slow, but this is one that ought to happen sooner rather than later.