Georgetown announced today that classes will begin in about three weeks using an online format. First-year students, previously welcomed to residence halls on the Hilltop campus, learned that they, too, will experience Georgetown in a virtual mode along with sophomores, juniors and seniors. The programs of the School of Continuing Studies had moved to online earlier. Other graduate students, who were invited back into a hybrid mode with in-person components, were informed that they will begin their studies online and, if they choose, to continue online through the academic year. The university pledged to monitor the public health environment, especially testing turnaround time, to guide the timing of safe moves to hybrid mode that includes some in-person instruction.
There is a strong consensus among faculty and students that they do their best work when they are together. Such joint work nurtures empathy on both sides. The empathy is the portal into formation of the young student. It seems clear, now, that “being together” needs a new definition in this era of COVID-19.
The evidence is very strong on the importance of faculty and student bonds to improve educational outcomes. Surveys among graduates repeatedly show that the post-graduate assessment of their undergraduate experience is faculty-centric. Those who have more favorable assessment tend to have deeper connections to individual faculty members. Some of these came through year-long projects which required frequent tutorial experiences that spawned liking and respect between faculty and the student.
Further, in meetings with students over the years, it has become clear to me that when faculty display their passion for their scholarly pursuits, the students immediately become interested. In contrast to lectures that simply convey content, student interest can be enhanced with the faculty’s personal view of a field.
So, what are we to do, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with heavily technology-assisted instruction and learning? Well, it seems clear. If universities are to serve students in this new environment, we all need to invent new ways to create bonds between students and faculty.
Thinking of student behavior, we need to nurture more student proactivity, seeking out opportunities to meet and talk with faculty. It would include asking questions that go one level below the lecture and reading, digging deeper. It would be a student’s ongoing discernment of one’s own essential interests and strengths. Such discernment efforts nurture efforts to synthesize information from several courses and creative thinking. With such thinking by the student, it becomes clear how talking with someone with greater experience can be valuable.
Thinking of faculty behavior in this new world of internet assisted education, we need to create new ways of connecting to individual students. Students report that zoom office hours worked pretty well in the spring semester. I suspect much of the value in those meetings emerged from their informality. In them, students can reveal their concerns in the class and ask synthesizing questions. Faculty can set the stage for deeper conversations by starting with a question about the student’s welfare, giving him/her permission to raise other issues. These sessions are no doubt most important for those students who have been quiet in class, who might be intimidated by the faculty member, whose internet connections are unstable, who live multiple time zones away, or who feel uncertain about their abilities. Student respect for faculty guidance is a function of the faculty member’s perceived concerns for the student’s welfare. These meetings don’t have to be one on one to have value; small groups of students, particularly when they share some interests can become wonderfully rich discussions, that increase bonds among students as well.
Faculty can also work into the class discussions, details of their own work, when relevant to the goals of the class. This gives insight into the question of how the faculty member has chosen to devote their whole life to a set of intriguing questions; it reveals the approach of identifying unsolved problems and thus the critical thinking that is part of the field. The asynchronous video material faculty prepare could be a good tool for this.
Faculty can create course exercises that prompt opportunities for the faculty to interact with students, through electronic means (blogs, texts, other social media) and video links.
The value of these faculty efforts to reach out to students does not just belong to the students. These uses of electronic media can reward the faculty with renewed sense of their own purpose. It will indeed be different than long informal discussions between students and faculty in-person. But I’m convinced the steps above have merit.
Same goals; different means.