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Flexibility, Whole-Person Approach, and Individualization Key to Online Learning

by  Bernadette Howlett     Jun 1, 2022
IndividualizationKeytoOnlineLearning_blog_1200w630h

 

Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed insights and opportunities for improving the student experience in higher education, including for institutions that offer predominantly online programs. However, students attending primarily online programs, as well as their institutions, also faced significant challenges. Much has been written about the difficulties of in-person colleges and universities making sudden transitions to online delivery. Lack of awareness of the harms experienced by students in online programs resulted in the first round of federal support related to COVID-19 excluding online students. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES)[1] Act included a fund titled Higher Education Emergency Relief (HEERF), which provided grants for students “negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic” but excluded students attending online programs. 

 

Online Students Were Impacted by the Pandemic Too

Online students are more likely than brick-and-mortar students to be working adults with families, including simultaneous caring responsibilities for aging parents and children.[2] Online students experienced academic and personal problems throughout the pandemic that caused significant delays, stress, stop-outs, and program withdrawals. Academic disruptions included loss of access to professional licensure services and course assessments, as online providers experienced outages due to sudden overwhelming demand. Personal challenges compounded these academic problems. Students in online programs faced significant non-academic issues including job loss or overwhelming work demands (e.g., for students employed in health professions, teaching, essential workers, and more), having children who required home-schooling (while also often lacking needed equipment and sufficient internet access), health risks and crises for themselves and their families, loss of childcare, and interpersonal isolation. One of the most pressing needs was a significant rise in mental health problems.[3] 

Responding to the Online Students’ Challenges with Listening and Flexibility

Strategies that supported student success included maintaining engagement, responding to students and their families with personalized support, policy flexibility, financial aid grants, equipment, internet access funds, and listening.[4] Listening paired with flexibility is the main lesson of the pandemic. Perhaps more than any other strategy listening, in the form of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), has been the most important intervention. SEL employed by faculty and staff across institutions allowed them to provide student support at each interaction opportunity, direct students to resources, and learn about their needs to align resources and adopt policies and procedures. Institutions with expertise in online learning possessed the technical infrastructure to connect with students. Still, they may have needed to develop new competencies in student support for those connections to be more than simply technical. Some universities and colleges have begun to train personnel to interact with students using SEL strategies. The concepts and skills of SEL were developed for and are widely used in K-12 settings. SEL has been recommended and adopted by several higher education institutions for in-person and online programs.[5,6,7] 

An SEL approach to student support involves a set of emotional intelligence strategies designed to foster resilience. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, provides a well-researched resilience training program that teaches self-awareness, self-regulation, mental agility, strengths of character, connection, and optimism.[8] At Western Governors University, students and faculty are provided resilience assessments and training. Employees refer students to help resources as applicable to the student’s situation and interact in emotionally competent ways. An SEL-based student interaction means the faculty member or other employee uses active listening to understand the student’s emotional state, acknowledging their experiences by naming the emotions or helping the student to name their emotions. The employee offers compassion in the form of an apology statement, such as “I’m sorry you are having such a difficult time.” The employee is careful to ask questions, clarify understanding, reiterate what they have understood the student to say, and collaborate with the student in finding a solution or a next step. 

In addition to employing social and emotional support in all student interactions, some online programs deployed policy and procedure flexibility to facilitate continued enrollment. This was enabled, at least partly, by the CARES Act,[1] which allowed financial aid extensions related to satisfactory academic progress. However, having the option to offer students flexibility in terms of Title IV of the US Code of Federal Regulations[9] did not mean all institutions were agile enough to do so. Some institutions successfully modified policy, developed new procedures and adapted information systems that are often designed to operate according to policy and procedure.[4] 

A key takeaway from these two essential strategies of listening and flexibility is that a personalized approach, which defines the individual needs of the student as the central governing purpose over and above institutional policies and systems, can be a critical factor in the quality of the student experience and, ultimately, in retention and graduation. Latino summarized the potential higher education has exhibited for making this type of change. “If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has shattered the stereotype that higher ed institutions are slow to respond to change and wedded to tradition. On the contrary, we’ve seen that institutions have pivoted rapidly and successfully.”[4]

 

About the Author

Bernadette Howlett, PhD, is a researcher, educator, and author with extensive expertise in online education in health sciences, evidence-based practice, and education technology. She is the lead author of Evidence-based Practice for Health Professionals: An Interprofessional Approach (Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2020). Dr. Howlett currently leads a team of education innovation researchers and data scientists at Western Governors University focused on studying models of faculty interventions, student engagement, and student outcomes.

 

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Flexibility, Whole-Person Approach, and Individualization Key to Online Learning

by  Bernadette Howlett     Jun 1, 2022
IndividualizationKeytoOnlineLearning_blog_1200w630h

 

Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed insights and opportunities for improving the student experience in higher education, including for institutions that offer predominantly online programs. However, students attending primarily online programs, as well as their institutions, also faced significant challenges. Much has been written about the difficulties of in-person colleges and universities making sudden transitions to online delivery. Lack of awareness of the harms experienced by students in online programs resulted in the first round of federal support related to COVID-19 excluding online students. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES)[1] Act included a fund titled Higher Education Emergency Relief (HEERF), which provided grants for students “negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic” but excluded students attending online programs. 

 

Online Students Were Impacted by the Pandemic Too

Online students are more likely than brick-and-mortar students to be working adults with families, including simultaneous caring responsibilities for aging parents and children.[2] Online students experienced academic and personal problems throughout the pandemic that caused significant delays, stress, stop-outs, and program withdrawals. Academic disruptions included loss of access to professional licensure services and course assessments, as online providers experienced outages due to sudden overwhelming demand. Personal challenges compounded these academic problems. Students in online programs faced significant non-academic issues including job loss or overwhelming work demands (e.g., for students employed in health professions, teaching, essential workers, and more), having children who required home-schooling (while also often lacking needed equipment and sufficient internet access), health risks and crises for themselves and their families, loss of childcare, and interpersonal isolation. One of the most pressing needs was a significant rise in mental health problems.[3] 

Responding to the Online Students’ Challenges with Listening and Flexibility

Strategies that supported student success included maintaining engagement, responding to students and their families with personalized support, policy flexibility, financial aid grants, equipment, internet access funds, and listening.[4] Listening paired with flexibility is the main lesson of the pandemic. Perhaps more than any other strategy listening, in the form of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), has been the most important intervention. SEL employed by faculty and staff across institutions allowed them to provide student support at each interaction opportunity, direct students to resources, and learn about their needs to align resources and adopt policies and procedures. Institutions with expertise in online learning possessed the technical infrastructure to connect with students. Still, they may have needed to develop new competencies in student support for those connections to be more than simply technical. Some universities and colleges have begun to train personnel to interact with students using SEL strategies. The concepts and skills of SEL were developed for and are widely used in K-12 settings. SEL has been recommended and adopted by several higher education institutions for in-person and online programs.[5,6,7] 

An SEL approach to student support involves a set of emotional intelligence strategies designed to foster resilience. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, provides a well-researched resilience training program that teaches self-awareness, self-regulation, mental agility, strengths of character, connection, and optimism.[8] At Western Governors University, students and faculty are provided resilience assessments and training. Employees refer students to help resources as applicable to the student’s situation and interact in emotionally competent ways. An SEL-based student interaction means the faculty member or other employee uses active listening to understand the student’s emotional state, acknowledging their experiences by naming the emotions or helping the student to name their emotions. The employee offers compassion in the form of an apology statement, such as “I’m sorry you are having such a difficult time.” The employee is careful to ask questions, clarify understanding, reiterate what they have understood the student to say, and collaborate with the student in finding a solution or a next step. 

In addition to employing social and emotional support in all student interactions, some online programs deployed policy and procedure flexibility to facilitate continued enrollment. This was enabled, at least partly, by the CARES Act,[1] which allowed financial aid extensions related to satisfactory academic progress. However, having the option to offer students flexibility in terms of Title IV of the US Code of Federal Regulations[9] did not mean all institutions were agile enough to do so. Some institutions successfully modified policy, developed new procedures and adapted information systems that are often designed to operate according to policy and procedure.[4] 

A key takeaway from these two essential strategies of listening and flexibility is that a personalized approach, which defines the individual needs of the student as the central governing purpose over and above institutional policies and systems, can be a critical factor in the quality of the student experience and, ultimately, in retention and graduation. Latino summarized the potential higher education has exhibited for making this type of change. “If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has shattered the stereotype that higher ed institutions are slow to respond to change and wedded to tradition. On the contrary, we’ve seen that institutions have pivoted rapidly and successfully.”[4]

 

About the Author

Bernadette Howlett, PhD, is a researcher, educator, and author with extensive expertise in online education in health sciences, evidence-based practice, and education technology. She is the lead author of Evidence-based Practice for Health Professionals: An Interprofessional Approach (Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2020). Dr. Howlett currently leads a team of education innovation researchers and data scientists at Western Governors University focused on studying models of faculty interventions, student engagement, and student outcomes.

 

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