Staying Connected Through the Power of Technology
Centering Student Experiences
At the onset of the pandemic, higher education institutions across the country rushed to bolster digital infrastructure, to maintain both instructional continuity as well as academic and financial advising, so that students could stay enrolled and graduate. Many institutions also rapidly developed new services to accommodate student technology needs through device loaning programs and Wi-Fi partnerships, typically led by the library as gleaned through a series of roundtables conducted with library directors earlier this spring. While the initial investments required for developing such services have in many cases already been made, through emergency federal funding or otherwise, ongoing support is still necessary.
As part of our three-part Q&A blog series on building effective student support at community colleges during the pandemic and beyond, today our student advisors shed light on the digital infrastructure at their colleges, the virtual services that have helped them succeed, and best practices for faculty to use in the classroom within this “new normal.” They highlight the benefits and limitations of digital solutions in fostering both technological and emotional connections to their peers and faculty. Their responses also demonstrate how different students may feel on returning to in-person instruction this fall semester.
How has your college worked to provide digital services and resources to students during the pandemic? How were students made aware of these services?
Mitchell Fountain (he/him)
Even before the pandemic hit, internet connectivity in my region of the country was already an issue for most. Due to the fact that Eastern Texas has a primarily rural population, there are few options for internet service providers (ISPs), let alone high-speed internet providers. Due to this, many students have struggled to find ways to complete the online activities necessary for their classes. The library at Panola College sought to combat this problem for our students by starting a pilot program in 2019, in which they loaned internet hotspots and Chromebook laptops to students in need of technological assistance. When COVID-19 forced the campus to close, the library began seeking to acquire more of these hotspots and laptops and distribute them accordingly to students in need. The primary tool the library has used to inform people of available resources is through our school provided emails. Library staff would regularly send updates to students concerning the number of available hotspots and laptops, as well as when more would become available as they received more shipments. The library has continued to provide these services today even as things trend toward normal. They also continue to seek ways to help improve internet and technological availability for all students.
Christina Lehua Hummel-Colla (‘o ia/she/they)
Los Angeles Valley College (LAVC) utilized a variety of communication methods prior to and during the pandemic, including phone calls, text messages, and e-mail. While I do not often utilize my student e-mail address at LAVC, I do have my settings enabled to forward and send certain messages to my personal address, which I check regularly. From what I have seen, much of the infrastructure for moving to a hybrid and/or remote learning environment was already in place—therefore, digital services and resources needed to be extended and strengthened rather than built from the ground up. Thankfully, learning management systems existed prior to the pandemic and can be developed further to serve the needs of community college students across the nation(s).
The Hawai’iloa program at Windward Community College began prior to the pandemic as well and was built from the ground up to serve Hawaiian diaspora communities. I believe there is much that everyone could learn from this educational model. Further, I am curious about what learning management systems grounded in Indigenous ontologies (would) look like.
Jacob Bunch (he/him)
Most of the services offered at Hillsborough Community College this year were virtual, which made things difficult. The Student Activities advisors did a great job of keeping as many students involved as possible and keeping them informed. The use of social media was an integral part of keeping students informed and involved in a virtual environment.
What virtual services, provided by your college, have you used the most during the pandemic? How have these services been helpful to you?
Almost all of our meetings and events were held virtually during the pandemic. Just being able to meet with other students and talk about how everyone was handling different situations made a lot of difference for me personally.
Fortunately, I was able to get by pretty well with the current technology and internet I had at my disposal. However, the primary digital service my college provided that I used the most was our online curriculum platform, Canvas. Through Canvas, our teachers were not only able to provide us with new materials and lessons, but were also able to communicate with us as a whole or individually via Canvas Message (an internal email messaging system). Since this online platform was already being greatly used, it helped to make the transition from in person learning to online learning much easier.
By and far, I have relied most heavily on LAVC’s learning management system. I have utilized the system in completing my coursework throughout the pandemic and it has served reasonably well as a virtual classroom environment. The menu items sometimes get a little visually cluttered, but it enables us all to communicate and learn with each other while staying safe. As I write this, I notice that there is a direct messaging feature I was unaware of until now, which I appreciate. The “Inbox” feature, which more closely mirrors e-mail messaging, can sometimes seem a little slow and cumbersome. For some reason, when I utilize the feature, it will not allow me to see previous messages as I draft a response, nor will it allow me to save the message I am drafting. This makes it very difficult to write and respond to long form messages. I hope that the “Pronto” feature will help to address this, and I look forward to learning how it works as I complete my coursework for the Summer 2021 session.
Looking toward the upcoming academic year, are there any digital offerings that you would like to see your professors continue providing and/or make available? How would these be helpful to you as we transition to a “new normal?”
To address the first question, I have enjoyed options and flexibility in terms of synchronous and asynchronous online learning. While I appreciate video sessions and lectures, it is difficult for me to attend them due to my work schedule and life in general. I hope that professors will continue to be flexible and offer hybrid environments that are more accessible to more students. I hope that professors will take what they have learned from the experience and continue learning.
I do not think that we will be transitioning back to “normal,” but rather toward a “new normal.” We need to accept that the world we live in has changed irrevocably and expect to adapt along with it. In a broader sense, this is a universally applicable truth of life on our home world. Much of our praxis prior to the pandemic was problematic and dysfunctional to begin with. Welcoming the changes wrought by COVID-19, as traumatic as they were, also creates enormous opportunities for us to re-think what we do and how we do it. My hope is that we will gather our rosebuds while we may and leverage the changes to inspire our shared future. For my part, I draw inspiration and hope from my Hawaiian name—Lehua—as a form of plant life that grows and blossoms well on lava. It is usually the first plant to grow on new lava flows. ‘Ohi’a lehua has taught me that life and death, creation and destruction, are aspects of the same process, not opposing points on a binary. Accepting this lesson will serve us better than clinging to “normal.”
I believe that the most helpful digital service I would like to see professors continue is some form of online instruction. Whether that be through lecture and example videos or Zoom calls, some form of digital instruction would, in my opinion, help students transition more smoothly from strictly virtual to in-person. Over the course of the pandemic, some students have probably taken on new responsibilities or roles while at home, and will likely need time to reorient their lives so they can return to class as normal. Others may still be uncomfortable returning suddenly to campus for one reason or another, and may want time as well. Both of these reasons make a continuation of virtual instruction a very important necessity as we transition back to in-person learning.
While the virtual events were helpful during the pandemic, I am looking most forward to getting back in person again. I think most students would agree that an in person environment helps to maintain accountability and makes putting in the work a little easier. Fully online classes and activities are more difficult to stay involved in.
Up next in this blog series, we will be concluding our student Q&A with a discussion on definitions of student success and best practices for ensuring it in our new normal.
Please note responses were voluntary and have been lightly edited for clarity. For more information on all of our student advisors, click here to read about their personal and institutional backgrounds.