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I’ve worked in student affairs for almost 30 years and have learned 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 workweeks 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?”

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.

No. 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. 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. It 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. In the words of 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.”

No. 2: Collect 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 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.

No. 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,

Baylor is rolling out a Bear Care Coaching program this week, having spent countless hours the previous two weeks planning for it. Several hundred university staff have volunteered to serve as coaches and have 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 are now contacting the students in our survey who evaluated themselves as struggling or who expressed a desire for someone to reach out to them.

No. 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 noted 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 noncredit 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 text messaging for this, but the LMS functionality, with staff guidance, may strengthen the connections among students not included in group text 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.

No. 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 nonstudent left. What message did that send to the students about faculty and staff's 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.”

I am not saying people must work outside 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.

No. 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 GPAs and those who had received more than one early alert this semester.

No. 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 we 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 6) spiritual care?

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 their classes?

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