Sustaining Online Academic Resources Post-Pandemic
Many institutions offered new virtual support services for online learners during the pandemic, and plan to continue offering them for the foreseeable future. This presentation will focus on best practices for online academic support, primarily approaches that make maintaining resources sustainable and integrating academic support into larger DEI institutional initiatives.
This 15-minute asynchronous, interactive PlayPosit discovery session will offer the opportunity for attendees to adapt two critical practices for supporting online learners at their home institutions. First, principles to make maintaining, monitoring, and managing virtual academic support resources sustainable. Secondly, fostering multi-departmental collaborations based on shared goals (such as positioning academic support resources within the framework of equity and inclusion).
Many institutions have created or expanded existing virtual resources for online learnings since March of 2020. What most institutions are discovering is that the flexibility of online resources is a benefit students would like to see continued in the future. The 2021 CHLOE report listed academic support as “the highest priority for 43% of institutions” but “only about half of respondents felt those services were working well online” (Kelly, 2021). Students are busier than ever, and, even for students who come to campus for courses, arriving on campus before or remaining on campus afterwards is not always a possibility. Paired with increases in fully online enrollments as well as an increase in students electing to take some coursework virtually, the diverse needs of students have expanded in recent years. Students “enrolled in distance courses tend to be enrolled in those distance courses over multiple terms, but not all of them” (Smalley, 2021). Given budget restraints, duplicating in-person academic support resources virtually is not always possible; nor does it need to be. So how can institutions accommodate learners in all modalities? Leveraging existing high-quality resources to meet the needs of both residential and online learners is both a financially savvy approach and one that eases the bandwidth strains for academic support staff with an already high burnout rate during a time in which many are leaving higher education. It is also vital to student success, especially for new students. While “ninety percent of first-year students who said their college emphasized using learning support services, such as tutoring or writing centers, also said they intended to return the following year …About 10 percent fewer first-year students said they intended to return if their college provided ‘very little’ or ‘some’ emphasis on learning support services” (Anderson, 2021).
Creating a sustainable philosophy to academic support resources that meets the needs of students in multiple modalities is only the first part of addressing this increasing concern. Maintaining and managing these resources is a long-term struggle for many institutions, but is critical – if the quality of a resource is perceived to be marginal to students, they will likely turn elsewhere for support. This presentation will highlight two specific examples that demonstrate best practices for maintaining high quality resources while also reducing bandwidth constraints.
The first example highlighted will be an FAQ database. We currently host approximately 1,500 online FAQs of internally-created content that is difficult to maintain. Many FAQs include images, videos, or policy language that can be time-consuming to update. Two approaches have worked over the past ten years to ensure these remain current. First, we created a rotating assessment schedule for each FAQ as it is created to make sure it is reviewed before critical periods of time (i.e. when the next student handbook is released). Secondly, we assign FAQs to each team member with consideration to areas of expertise. It is quicker, for example, for a School of Nursing Librarian to update a Nursing FAQ than for another team member to learn needed knowledge and then update it. Third, we partner with departments to provide input when needed. The financial aid department, for instance, is a reviewer for FAQs that require departmental expertise. Tangentially, this also helps remind other departments to promote their FAQs to students. Included in these reviews are peer tutors. Though current students, they often are able to review basic-level FAQs and provide phrasing that resonates with fellow students. While these are ultimately still reviewed by a full-time staff member, there are typically minimal edits needed. Lastly, our FAQs offer a comment space for students. Regular checks for new comments take only a brief amount of time but are often the quickest indicator an FAQ needs to be updated.
The second example this presentation will highlight involves Peer Tutoring. Unlike the first example, assessing Peer Tutors is quite different from a static resource. The principles covered here could also apply to any staff member, though the content in the evaluation process would differ. While there is much more to be said around the transition Peer Tutoring programs have made during the pandemic (and would be welcomed in the interactive design of this PlayPosit session as well as in the asynchronous discussion accompanying this presentation), the primary purpose of this example will be on the assessment of semi-virtual employees. Research has shown that both training and evaluation make significant differences in the academic impact that Peer Tutors can make in working with students. “Tutoring, if done right, is ‘among the most effective education intentions ever to be subjected to rigorous evaluation” (Levin and Lohman, 2022). Evaluations play a critical role in ensuring Peer Tutors benefit fully from the professional development experience of the role in ways they can articulate and leverage to their advantage in professional interviews after graduating. There are several approaches that can both provide critical professional development input and maintain the bandwidth of already stretched staff (it is not uncommon for staff to oversee upwards of 100 work-study employees). The first way to make this manageable is to create a prioritized assessment schedule so that not every support resource is assessed at the same time. Norton and Agee (2014) provide an example of such a model in Assessment of Learning Assistance Programs: Supporting Professionals in the Field. A critical piece to this is prioritizing when employees can most benefit from this important feedback – this presentation will recommend at the end of the first term in the role as a means of ensuring extensive onboarding practices are integrated in sessions. Significant onboarding can help with the steep learning curve of new employees. Utilizing an active, growing repository of resources (we use a LibGuide) is one approach that can provide timely support for new employees. We have also found that putting our training course in a CBE format is a benefit to our adult learners. Since the range of work-study employees stretches from those in their first professional job experience to those who have worked in a professional field for upwards of 15 years, the flexibility of a Competency Based Modality course allows new employees to spend their onboarding reviewing the most relevant and useful information for their needs. Lastly, we utilize experienced staff members to provide feedback and coaching to those growing into the role. This both frees up the full-time staff member to work primarily with new or struggling employees and it provides supervisory experience for experienced students to take to their post-graduation careers. Advancing to providing feedback from an online tutoring appointment observation, for example, allows for the staff member to then provide advanced coaching on how to best provide supervisory feedback, and to offer suggestions for employees to consider as they develop their leadership style – all much more meaningful and challenging professional preparation than remaining complacent as solely an experienced Peer Tutor.
The final piece of this presentation will focus on developing a more sustainable approach to expanding resources through fostering collaborative relationships with multiple other departments. More specifically, positioning academic support through the lens of DEI initiatives allows for the development of mutually-supported goals related to access and inclusion. This is not a stretch, rather, it is common for academic support to be included in the conversation of ensuring adequate supports for diverse student bodies. Phillips, Jr. and Custer offer academic support as part of “4 Key Steps to Support Justice-Impacted Students” (Phillips, Jr. and Custer, 2021). Mintz (2022) includes it as part of “Tackling Educational Equity Head-On). Farris and Chan (2022) name it as a “program[ming] that truly focus[es] on helping such often-marginalized student groups.” This session will end with an example of a multi-departmental initiative based on this centering point, and focusing on the benefits for each department in the university-wide initiative.
Anderson, G. (2021, March 16). As Students Dispersed, Tutoring Services Adapted. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/03/16/face-face-peer-tutoring-decimated-pandemic-universities-turn-new-tools-times-and
Norton, J. and Agee, K. (2014). Assessment of Learning Assistance Programs: Supporting Professionals in the Field [White paper]. College Reading and Learning Association. https://crla.net/index.php/publications/crla-white-papers.
Farris, J. and Chan, C. (2022, February 8). Guiding First-Generation Students to Success. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2022/02/08/research-based-advice-how-support-first-gen-students-opinion
Kelly, R. (2021, June 16). How Institutions Met Student Needs During the Pandemic. Campus Technology. https://campustechnology.com/articles/2021/06/16/how-institutions-met-student-needs-during-the-pandemic.aspx
Levin, K. and Lohman, I. (2022, May 23). Gov. Whitmer proposes $280 million tutoring investment for Michigan. Chalkbeat Detroit. https://detroit.chalkbeat.org/2022/5/23/23138805/whitmer-tutoring-proposal-learning-loss-280-million-kids-back-track
Mintz, S. (2022, January 25). Tacking Educational Equity Head-On. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/higher-ed-gamma/tackling-educational-equity-head
Phillips Jr., E. and Custer, B. (2021, August 4). 4 Key Steps to Support Justice-Impacted Students. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2021/08/04/need-support-justice-impacted-students-opinion
Smalley, S. (2021, October 13). Half of All College Students Take Online Courses. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/10/13/new-us-data-show-jump-college-students-learning-onlin