COVID-19 Recovery and Planning Must Include Student Perspectives

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission returning to earth safely after a potentially fatal explosion damaged the spacecraft. During the emergency the 3-person crew survived by shutting down the command module and scrambling into a 2-person lunar module. Needless to say, it wasn’t an ideal situation. An interview with astronaut Ken Mattingly provided behind the scenes details about how they created a carbon dioxide scrubber to make sure the astronauts survived with clean air until they returned to Earth. To make the scrubber the mission control team had to devise a solution with whatever the astronauts had on board – the final product used duct tape, tube socks and spacesuit parts. As The Next Web put it, “Ingenuity saved Apollo 13.”

Image of Apollo 13's CO2 scrubber

Apollo 13 CO2 Scrubber – public domain

Like NASA, over the last month our academic mission control (campus leaders and units) has supported our edu-nauts (faculty and students) who had to shut down their classrooms and scramble into online modules (and course shells). To survive this spring semester, our edu-nauts are using whatever they have at their disposal. Veteran faculty, instructional designers and more have all pitched in to help correct our course(s) and keep people teaching and learning. Ingenuity and hard work may have saved the spring term.

That said, the support for students has been less visible than the support for faculty. In my “View from the trenches” post I mentioned the power of collaboration, citing an example of instructional continuity sites shared on the Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network listserv. A good number of the sites for faculty focus more on using tools like Canvas and Zoom, and less on viewing the course experience from their students’ perspective.

To be fair, as of yesterday 1) That Psych Prof’s blog post included a helpful graph to determine what causes anxiety for online learners, and 2) on the same POD Network listserv, a few people began sharing resources to support new remote learners:

There are more out there, but the sharing about student support has been much less intense. Looking at these examples, there is plenty we can learn and plenty of room to grow. I love that Texas A&M pulled in a student to create a video speaking directly to fellow students. As I’ll describe in the next section, we need more student voices in the current conversations related to remote teaching AND remote learning, as well as the pending conversations related to the future – fall 2020 and beyond.

It’s time to start planning for fall – with student input

Ken Mattingly shared that the NASA team was actually more prepared for the emergency than the 1995 movie suggested. They had previously done a lot of scenario-based training to get astronauts (and mission control teams) to expect the unexpected. NASA took what it learned from the Apollo 13 experience – with input from the astronauts – and addressed a number of safety issues to prevent future catastrophes.

Today we’re still in an academic recovery mode – using precious fuel to point our online modules toward a safe landing. However, we do not have the time to wait to revise our planning for our course launch in the fall – Phase 3 of Phil Hill’s timeline of the Higher Ed Response to COVID-19. Our window to finish the planning for Phase 3 really ends in the second half of May.

Graphic showing four phases of higher education response to COVID-19 in terms of online learning adoption.

To increase student success with that planning, we have to include students in the conversation. Right now for the most part, we talk about students without talking to them. In a recent blog post, Ithaka S+R staff called for more student-informed decision-making as well. I mentioned the same issues last week, calling for collecting student feedback, paying attention to equity issues, and considering the student experience. While co-facilitating the AAEEBL Meetup online event yesterday, I challenged the participants to put themselves in their students’ shoes – could they successfully complete and submit their own assignments using only a smartphone?

The New York Times collected “What students are saying about remote learning” – it’s mostly high school student voices, so at first I thought we would have to extrapolate our higher ed students’ thoughts. Thankfully we don’t have to. Here are a few recent attempts to inject the student voice into the national dialogue:

Student-focused ideas

During New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily coronavirus briefing today, he said “You don’t build back what was, you build better than before.” We have known for some time that some students face additional challenges or barriers to completing online courses successfully. So here’s our chance to “build better than before.” The COVID-19 disruption of the academic enterprise offers opportunities for investment in student success and learning equity. Here is one student-focused idea to get us started:

Online Learning Mentors: In my last post, I briefly described using work study funds to pay veteran online learners to be peer mentors. I mentioned a formal mentorship program at Western Governors University and what started as a self-organizing, informal mentorship program (SUERTE) at San Jose State University. Here are some other successful models to emulate:

I’m going to stop here. If you’ve read my other posts, this may surprise you. I’m good at making lists, but have just stated that we need more student voices, and I am not a student (at the moment). My call to action is for you, the reader – yes, I mean you specifically – to go find some higher ed students and ask them to read this article and contribute their ideas in the comments section. What should campuses do differently to support student success in online classes in the fall and beyond? What should faculty do differently? I will be sharing it with my own class, for sure. Please do the same with your class, your family and friends, and anyone else you know who is enrolled now or will be in the fall.

Update 4/19: Corrected attribution for Texas A&M video.