As organizations pivot to remote learning for students, many are scratching their heads, trying to find the right approach. But before you have another staff meeting discussing how to engage students, we wonder: why not just ask them? You’ll be surprised how much including students into the decision-making process (for example, by inviting them to give feedback or help prototype) will improve your programs.
Not engaging students in program design happens for a lot of reasons – capacity, the desire to move quickly, an assumption that we already know what students want, or a fear of overwhelming students with inquires – but these reasons are no excuse.
We asked our Fellows (ambitious, first-gen college students) their pet peeves about remote learning, and what they wish organizations and colleges would keep in mind. We learned a lot! Here’s some advice from our Fellows.
We’ve heard that video chatting increases engagement, and online classes often start with urges to “turn your video on!” While this can be a great option, keep in mind that there may be good reasons someone doesn’t want to be on video. With close quarters and family members juggling multiple responsibilities, students are getting creative to find space to concentrate. Some have had to resort to taking video classes in bathrooms, closets, balconies, or rooms filled with other people. Video might not be on because of the environment or a lack of privacy. For students not using video, they’ve told us they’re likely to be ignored or rarely called on. So while you can still encourage video, let students know you understand it’s not ideal for some and offer options to engage in discussions, like chat sidebars.
Students are overwhelmed with new platforms and systems. Whenever possible, use something students are likely to be familiar with and can already access. Don’t make students create a new account or download unnecessary software, and don’t assume that everyone has Excel or Word on their computer, let alone more major- and industry-specific programs. Flexibility is key—accept multiple formats for student deliverables (for example, responses in the body of an email, Word, or Google docs) to make things easier.
We know staff and professors are learning as we go too, but many students are frustrated and overwhelmed with constant changes in grading information and course expectations. Many are unclear about how to be successful and wary that at any moment the grading system or syllabus could change again. They encourage us to minimize changes to class content, grading processes, and expectations. If things do change, communicate clearly and offer flexibility. A related pet peeve was a lack of responsiveness from professors or staff. If you’re asking students to keep on top of new information, please respond to their questions and feedback in a timely manner!
As you roll out new programs, if possible, consider that many users may access content through their phones. If you live in a household where there is a computer for every person, recognize your unique privilege. And while many people don’t have smartphones either, taking a moment to see how your content works on different devices before making it public will make life easier for you and your students.
Students are having trouble managing the influx of emails they are now receiving, in addition to notifications from learning management systems (LMSs) like Blackboard. We’re generally told to err on the side of overcommunication, but must admit when we’ve gone too far! At ANY, we’ve put key program info up on our website, understanding that things can get lost in crowded inboxes. And, nonprofit and education folks, well, we’re not always the most succinct. Take the extra time to format your emails with a clear headline first and provide or link to more detail at the bottom.
We also asked Fellows to share more about what the transition to remote learning has felt like overall.
Overall, Fellows reported that the adjustment to remote learning has been a struggle, and almost all said they learn better with face-to-face interaction. The number one challenge that came up is prioritization and time management—especially with the pull of social media and news! Setting and keeping a routine is a common struggle, as is finding a comfortable physical workspace, and creating and managing boundaries around school, work (many students have remote jobs), and home life. There is also the added stress from lost wages and the financial instability of our current moment. Finally, for many first-generation college students missing out on the often dreamed-about graduation ceremony is heartbreaking.
In spite of the many challenges of our new normal, students shared some bright moments. Many expressed gratitude for the family connection these times offer, as well as time to devote to personal and professional projects that have been on the back burner, like searching for internships or informational interviews. The number one highlight of physical distancing? No more commutes!
Thank you to all the Fellows who shared their thoughts with us. ANY, like many of your organizations, is not a remote-learning expert, but we have the best teachers—our Fellows—if we make the time to listen and learn from them! We know your students can do the same for you. Fellow, we appreciate you helping us continue to get better, and please keep the advice coming for us and all of our peers.