So, this is where we are

Dr. Jay Keehn, Union Institute & University’s Executive Director, Student Support Services, shares an essay reflecting what many of us are dealing with during these uncertain times, and some good news and advice for Union’s model of distance learning.
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Dr. Jay KeehnCOVID-19 has turned the world upside down and shuttered everyone in. Businesses are closing. Restaurants are literally starving for customers. Unemployment seems to have found the right conditions to thrive. Movie theatres, parks and playgrounds, barbershops, libraries, museums, etc. are all empty. Even churches and synagogues have shut their doors and developed policies for praying alone. The lights of Broadway are out. This virus has, with its global disruption, plagued society in a way where rebounding from it won’t be as smooth as the initial shot was.

Life has changed. We did not ask for this. Sure, there were people, perhaps many people, who spent most of their employment hours fantasizing about being home. They said to themselves, “Why did I fight traffic to get to my office only to have phone/video meetings that I could have taken from my pool deck?” These same people are craving those moments when they meet their colleagues at the morning coffee pot and share the cuteness of their kids’ / grandkids’ talents, scrutinize each other’s weekend plans, moan about the horrible call their team’s manager made, or whether the Game of Thrones ending was bad or epic bad. Now, they are at their own Keurig wondering: “how much is this affecting the productivity of my work team? How much is this affecting my own productivity?”

Almost as soon as the words “social distancing” became embedded in our new lexicon, colleges and universities across the country started shutting their campuses. School administrators were rushed into the unenviable position of policymaker in times of health crisis. Sure, they had some policies for an outbreak on campus. But, no one alive has seen anything like this. What do they do with students from different states/countries who now reside in their dorms? What about athletic teams? What about commencement? And, most importantly, what about classes?

Millions of students (from preschool to medical school) are now acclimating themselves to a new educational landscape, one in which many are woefully ill-prepared. Some K-12 (public and private) have employed technology as part of their classroom experiences, and moving students online was an easy transition. But, most have not. Additionally, many children in low-poverty areas can’t afford computers or WIFI to be in their classes at home (some school districts should be applauded for supplying their students with laptops). Then, there are the questions around feeding children whose only viable meals come from school. Yet, to help flatten the curve during this pandemic, school systems across the country closed their doors, and the new educational landscape contains the contents being Zoomed directly to their bedroom.

Online education is not new in higher education. It is now decades since the Internet played the classroom role for many colleges and universities. The technological advancement of learning management systems has allowed professors to mirror the instruction they were providing in the face-to-face classroom. Consequently, the more traditional brick and mortar colleges now offer many of their classes online. For the past 15 years, I have been fortunate to work for a university that has been social distancing before it was trendy – or mandated. Since 1964, Union Institute & University has been perfecting distance education. As technology advanced from snail mail correspondence to fax machine syllabi deliveries to professor/student e-mail communication to our highly interactive learning management systems, UI&U has advanced along with these educational models. For 56 years, UI&U has been doing what many universities are now scrambling to do.

With the economic struggles accompanying the pandemic, many may be asking, “Now what am I supposed to do?” Many may be thinking, “I wish I had finished my degree. I would be in a better place to get back out there after this crisis passes.”
UI&U’s experience with distance education may be more vital now than ever before. Now, as we are being sheltered in place, jumping down rabbit holes of YouTube videos, getting stuck on our couches while watching Rocky I – VI marathons, or reliving our childhoods by setting up old model trains, perhaps the Internet can bring you something more valuable – a degree from Union Institute & University.

But, this essay is not meant to be a commercial for this stellar university. I want to look at one specific piece – student support services.

Once the instructional hours are appropriately rationed online, it would seem simple to also provide support online. Student advisors, academic tutors, career coaches, disability services, etc. can call or FaceTime the student for individual attention. For some, that is good enough. But, for most, this may very well be where the personal connection is missed most. Most universities have a tagline somewhere in their admissions literature emphasizing community – “be part of our community,” or “you are community here at _____U.” People want the community members who are supporting them through their college dreams.
In 2015, I had the privilege to be a presenter at the NASPA annual conference. The title of my presentation was: Connecting Students to Services and Services to Students in an Online Environment.

Since 1964, the way one would define “community” has changed significantly. There has been a sociological shift that has paralleled the academic shift. The tsunami of technological advancements has displaced the traditional notion of education. But, it is my stance that it also has made us more connected than ever before.

There are so many social media apps that universities can use to keep connected and to include in their services portfolio. Imagine a Facebook group only open to a specific class, where the professor can interact, post, and tag academic content. Imagine an Instagram page from a student advisor to share social activities such as book club or pet grooming. Imagine a Twitter feed from the library team or academic tutors that push out study and research tips. Imagine a LinkedIn page run by executive career coaches. All this assists with the sense of community, even when the members are spread across the globe.

This is useful for colleges to make their online students feel part of the community even when they are not on campus. They can livestream guest speakers, Snapchat from campus ceremonies, and YouTube sporting events.

This may very well seem too simplistic. No one needs to be told this. Everyone uses social media. Students who feel more connected, take advantage of services provided to them at a higher rate, and exhibit higher levels of success. That is why it is important to understand the sociology of education, and more so now, the sociology of online education.

What happens when our world returns to a sense of normalcy? Will businesses see that they did not lose vital productivity by having employees working remotely? Will universities feel the economic decline for months, years? Will more universities offer more courses online? Or, full programs? Perhaps, universities will look to have more pieces online. For example, student support services. Perhaps, not.

So, this is where we are.

Our sense of connectedness has weakened and strengthened at the same time. We all are taking the precautions necessary to get us past this Corona pandemic. Maybe that becomes a new reality. No one ever will shake hands again, and even when we return to offices, we will make sure to stand six feet away. We are all recognizing the heroics of nurses and doctors. They are truly amazing. All the time. Maybe we will always have that heightened level of appreciation.

And, maybe when the world returns to a new sense of normalcy, we might better understand what community means today. Both, the people who live nearby and can help with shopping and a comfortable face-to-face six feet away wave, and the people who you now connect with daily on Zoom.

And, for us, student affairs professionals, whether this is a new way of connecting or not, let’s use all at our disposal to connect with all of our students and ensure that they are safe and healthy and they are getting all the support they need. Let our policies (especially those surrounding assignment flexibility) reflect the seriousness of the pandemic we are experiencing. Students have come this far, it is our responsibility to help them to the finish line.

Yes, distance education is not new. It just seems new for many. It was common before “social distancing” was. But, we do not have to be distant. We can be connected now more than ever. It is when we can’t be together on campus and in offices, that our connections become much more important.

That’s just where we are.

Explore how UI&U’s distance education model can help you on your educational journey, by clicking here.