Education Is a Team Sport

How can we best support student learning online? And who is this "we," anyway?

May 27, 2020
 

Students aren’t educated entirely by their professors. They are supported by teams who look out for their physical and mental health, offer subject tutoring and workshops in organizational skills, provide career services and mindfulness instruction, keep research labs safe and open, help students navigate the library and connect with alumni mentors, remain available during crises and emergencies, and create spaces for students to talk with peers who share their backgrounds, challenges and interests. And this is a suggestive rather than comprehensive list of the kinds of support networks that collectively make up the robust infrastructure that guides students while they are on campus.

Clearly it takes a village to ensure academic success, and this village is a community of diverse and talented individuals trained in the skills that make class time the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to university education. The successful transfer of knowledge, the stimulation of creative thinking and the development of critical insights all rest on the preparation, organization and stability that this small army of specialists provide. When professors walk into classrooms, they assume the lights will be on, the electronic podiums will work and, not least of all, the students will be ready to learn. Indeed, the success of their educational performance depends on these minimal conditions being met. Not surprisingly, it takes a large and sophisticated network to make this happen.

Some of the unsung university heroes of the COVID-19 crisis are the staff members who helped students navigate the logistical complications and emotional trauma of the pandemic. They made sure that students didn’t miss deadlines and that they had internet access while they struggled to finish semesters unexpectedly delivered online. IT crews rush shipped Wi-Fi hotspot devices to students suddenly attending classes from their parents’ kitchen tables on remote farms or in otherwise internet-free homes. Recreational center staff scrambled to develop online yoga and wellness courses in time to help students navigate end-of-semester stress. Global support services staff helped international students stranded due to border closings remain safely on otherwise abandoned campuses. And these teams have been problem solving around the clock since mid-March with no end in sight.

There is nothing new in recognizing that education involves more than a simple meeting of the minds. Collective wisdom tells us that a healthy body leads to a healthy mind and that early to bed and early to rise makes us healthy, wealthy and wise. The ancient Greeks, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Emile Durkheim, among many others, promoted versions of holistic education, the theory that academic knowledge is only a part of educating the whole person. Often overlapping with these theories, modern student services developed slowly out of the Oxbridge tradition of educating well-rounded and informed citizens. And since World War II, student services have played a key role in the expansion of higher education beyond a privileged few, helping students navigate university life.

Over the past quarter century, as more aspects of our lives have moved online, university support services have kept up. Students turn to websites to learn about resources and sign up for appointments, they open up live chats with librarians, and they can even interact with career services bots on twitter when they are applying to internships or jobs. In many instances, there is no substitute for talking with a live human, reading their body language and having the true privacy of an unmonitored space. But different students and different circumstances require a range of communication formats. Especially when talking about sensitive issues and asking for help, students often prefer to start by sending a text or reading online documentation.

As college classes moved online en masse in March 2020, many universities, temporarily overwhelmed by the migration of student services to remote delivery, contracted outside companies to provide emergency psychological services, tutoring, coaching and other forms of support. Without time to build, they decided to temporarily buy the infrastructure they needed. And as we look to the fall semester, universities are deciding not only how they will resume classes but also how they will resume student services -- all the extra resources that make life on campus the ecosystem in which students develop emotional intelligence, life skills and human resilience.

There will be no single student service model to emerge, but a series of models that reflect some of the innovations happening in the classroom. Just as large lecture classes may be transformed into hybrid sessions where students watch asynchronous lectures ahead of classes and then enjoy smaller discussion sections, so too might fellowship info sessions or study abroad advising be delivered online with more intimate Q&A sessions available by appointment. At many schools they already are.

With more time to build, online student services platforms might develop to allow students to get at least some answers quickly before they move on to more sustained engagement with student services staff. Dedicated search engines, machine learning and interactive information systems might put a database of resources at students’ fingertips 24 hours a day and help them navigate the range of help available. Just as teams are critical in helping prepare students to learn and complete their degrees, these teams will increasingly be called on to develop innovative methods that help students succeed when learning online or in blended and hybrid formats.

Too often, discussions of online learning leave out student support when they should be mentioned in the same breath. It’s not only our classrooms and minds that move online but our whole selves.

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