The College of Idaho
One morning back in February, amidst the start of a spring semester teaching all online, one of the librarians at my college emailed me. He wanted to chat about how students were feeling about the increased reliance on technology in their daily lives on our small liberal arts campus. Though it is no secret that today’s college students are often attached to their technology, the circumstances of the pandemic and online education had required a new type of screen use over the past year. Screen use that was not voluntarily chosen. Screen use that crept into all aspects of their lives. Screen use that was exhausting.
We chatted back and forth for quite some time, with me interjecting a variety of thoughts and ideas from my perspective as a professor and researcher of media psychology. Throughout the ebb and flow of our conversation, my increasing realization was that students sat in a somewhat odd digital space at this moment in time. With so much screen use thrust upon them over the last year, they had simultaneously become more reliant on their screens for daily functioning while also feeling more and more burnt out by their screen use. Hints of these juxtaposing experiences and emotions were often evident in my virtual classes; they desired to break free of their screens and finally get outside, see people, and mingle, but the current context prevented them from fully doing so.
As we neared the end of this unanticipated year online together, the moment seemed ripe to reflect and consider the future together. Inspired by my conversation with the librarian a few months prior, I decided to toss one of my class’ usual term projects out the window. Instead, I wanted to create a meaningful active learning experience for students that would speak to this moment in time.
Together we reflected on our experiences with education during the pandemic. It was clear that my students had the end of the pandemic in sight. First and foremost, they very much wanted to see faces again. They were often tired of starring at little circles on a virtual call as opposed to being with actual people in a classroom. They recognized that online learning had its place as well, but they missed the close-knit community that characterized the small residential college that they had chosen to attend. They worried about their peers too. Maybe half of their peers had never even stepped foot on campus. They also repeatedly referred to the desire to reactivate student-mode for fall semester. Many habits had developed over the last year that they would need to undo, such as waking up just a few minutes before class or doing laundry during class. Students worried about complacency in their study habits, noting the need for a stricter schedule and better time management. That said, they also thought that some of the digital tools they had learned were neat. They had some concerns that they’d never be used again, and all of our time becoming more online learning-savvy would be for naught.
Following their reflections, I posed our next step: let us design interventions, activities, and policies together that could help our campus when we return for fall semester. In small teams, students brainstormed, collaborated, and designed what proved to be a sound list of suggestions for fall semester. It became clear that what is required for fall semester is a systematic approach to rebuilding a sense of community on campus. Such efforts needed to be campus-wide and involve all constituencies – students, staff, and faculty. I mentioned earlier the pairing of screen reliance with feelings of burnout. Agreeably, student initiatives often reflected their attempts to reduce problematic screen use habits. Paired with pandemic-related behaviors like quarantining, students felt that the negative effects of their reliance on the screen had been exacerbated throughout the year. As one example, they had not been able to bond with other students as closely. That said, they often also spoke to the fact that we needed to not just throw our newly acquired digital skills and apps out with the bathwater. Reflecting a good moral from media psychology, they emphasized that we could reap benefits when we had the just-right amount of technology in our lives.
Below, I share some of the ideas and initiatives inspired by our class conversations and projects. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of all colleges and universities to actively take steps to help students transition back to campus life, recognizing that we can’t just step right back into old patterns from almost 1 ½ years ago. Many students weren’t even our students then. We must have a plan in place to build a welcoming, inclusive environment and set our new normal.
Offer welcome back events. These initial welcome back events are more important than ever. They help students to meet people, get acquainted with campus, unplug from screens, and connect to campus life. Some activities can encourage student bonding and collaboration from day one, such as campus scavenger hunts and intramural sports. Other options can encourage students to connect with new activities or like-minded others, such as booths advertising different clubs or lunch tables organized by hobbies. And yet additional activities can represent the unprecedented, shared experience we just had, such as faculty or staff-led forums emphasizing how to rebuild study habits and maintain mental health.
Build student and faculty connections. Activities similar to speed dating could help facilitate quick get-to-know-you introductions on campus to meet new people and avoid potentially awkward introductions after such a long time apart. A student-student circle, with students rotating to the next seat every few minutes, would help students quickly get to know some of their peers. A faculty-student circle conducted in the same manner could help both students and faculty get to know each other before the first day of class.
Spend the first day of class building community. The first day will be an adjustment in so many ways. It has been a significant amount of time since most students and faculty were in the physical classroom. Spend the day getting to know each other. Do icebreakers. Place students into study groups that they can work with throughout the entire semester. Consider setting up office hours visits to chat with the professor, either as individuals or in small groups.
Have a technology policy and use new digital tools positively. Given the increased use of screens over the past year, having a technology policy in place will help remind students of their expected use in learning and the classroom. But students and faculty also just invested a lot of time into learning new digital tools. In our case, we mastered Microsoft Teams as a virtual learning and conversational platform and encouraged use of supplemental tools like PollEverywhere and Kahoot for participation. Plan for positive use of these tools for learning, such as to complement exam review, conduct student surveys, or hold virtual office hours in off-hours.
Consider more flexibility and active learning when planning your class. Any adjustment comes with its own challenges. Recognizing that this time WILL be an adjustment is key. Students are transitioning back to campus life, and lingering effects of the pandemic are still in play. Thus, extra flexibility in terms of attendance or late assignment policies or similar may benefit the classroom environment. Students also haven’t had the chance to have in-person discussions or move around with others in the classroom in some time. Incorporate active learning into your semester’s activities.
Encourage mental health awareness. Life has been stressful and traumatic for some. Students will need time to readjust. Consider on-campus seminars on mental health topics. Consider syllabus statements that recognize mental health and connect students with resources. Consider activities like meditation, therapy dogs, and yoga across the semester. Consider continuing to offer virtual mental health services on top of in-person services. And, importantly, don’t simply ignore that this past year and a half has been a mental struggle.
The pandemic undoubtedly increased stress for many students and will have ripple effects for some time to come in as-yet undefined ways. When we welcome our students back to our institutions in the fall, we must address that the time is now different. Let’s listen to our students. Let’s build our new community. Together, we can move forward.