Professors have long obsessed about how best to have their students connect with class material but that’s just one of many ways they are worrying about making a connection this year. In pandemic-altered remote and hybrid classes, educators and others in higher ed are wondering how students connect with one another and their institution, and sometimes literally how they connect to the internet.
Colleges and universities across the U.S. are rising to meet these challenges head on, often in ways that redefine how we think about campus community and connectivity in general.
Closed buildings, open campus
Classes are remote at the University of Southern California and buildings are closed but that doesn’t mean the campus is off-limits to the university’s 44,000-plus students.
“Our campus is an open campus,” says Joe Way, director of Learning Environments-Information Technology Services, at USC. Many students still live near campus and university staff members have set up socially distanced tables and outdoor areas where students can come connect to the university’s reliable WiFi for their online classes. Food establishments with take-out window access are open and serving students. Adding electrical outlets for student use is also being considered.
All this, Way says, gives students the opportunity to come to campus, even with state regulations. He adds students can, “Come, sit down, relax. Stop by the Starbucks that is open right there, grab a coffee and sit there till their laptop battery runs out. That builds that connectivity to campus, along with all the other online things.”
USC has a regular online speaker series, while clubs are finding ways to meet and continue to pursue projects and events.
Way says it’s important for university staff to remember that building community goes beyond an LMS and Zoom, and school is more than a classroom education for students. “It's as much social for them,” Way says. “It's as much learning about their own identity and who they are.”
Staying connected with students in this time starts with listening to them and does not necessarily require in-person classroom teaching, Ways says. “I guarantee you if they list the number of things that they go to school for, sitting in a classroom is actually a lot lower on the list than we would believe it to be,” he says.
Recreating hallway chatter
When in-person classes shut down last March administrators at Massachusetts Institute of Technology quickly started thinking about continuing to foster community online.
“Our Infinite Corridor is kind of the main path that goes through campus, and it connects all of our buildings,” says Lauren C. Pouchak, Ed.D., Director of Special Projects. “And one of the things we talked about was just kind of having a way to connect our students back to the Infinite.”
This semester, with classes remaining remote and only 700 seniors living on campus, particular emphasis was placed on fostering a sense of connection with first-year students who may never have been to campus. More than 1,000 joined a Slack group in which they could post casual questions to each other and academic advisors. Upperclassman also created Support CommUnities For First Years (SCUFFY), an initiative to place first-year students in dorm communities. It was a way for new students to be assigned to specific dorm buildings so they could connect with other students who “live” there, and learn about what the culture of each building was like.
These and other efforts are designed to recreate some of the natural conversations that might occur between students in the hallways after a test in a difficult class, says Elizabeth C. Young, associate dean and director of First Year Advising and Programs. Learning that others struggled with a set of questions on an exam can ease a first-year student’s anxiety. “One thing about MIT's community is that it’s so built on our upperclassmen,” Young says. “It’s the upperclassmen who really help calibrate these first-semester students to let them know a problem set is going to be hard, and it's okay, if you get your first C in life.”
Adding boom to your Zoom
In addition to all these extracurricular efforts, instructors are figuring out creative ways to make their Zoom sessions less dry. Robin Hillary Kravets, a professor of computer science at The Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, has worn funny hats to different sessions, including a wizard’s hat, and has also played with backgrounds. She’ll ask students where they are from and then include a corresponding background and ask the student to talk about their country or hometown. She also uses backgrounds that relate to class material.
Another simple but helpful technique Kravets uses to add energy to her Zoom class is she always stands, which allows her to use her hands to describe material as she would in class, and avoid a dry reading of a powerpoint. “I'm so used to standing when I teach, and if I sit down, my energy goes down, my shoulders go down,” Kravets says. “When I’m standing up it helps me stay engaged in the teaching mindset that I need.”