The pandemic brought abrupt changes to higher education on a global scale. Institutions either canceled courses completely or hurriedly restructured their classes to be taught entirely online.
Although the industry experienced a chaotic onset of reactive online teaching amid a global emergency, it came with some positives, such as normalizing the utilization of educational technology, the growth of digital data to support learning, and more flexibility and scalability. However, there are some challenges that cannot be overlooked. An entire cohort of students suddenly felt a sense of loss on multiple levels: loss of social engagement, structure, control and direction. Essentially, they lost their academic home.
Academic homelessness, a term coined by former colleague Monica L. Hill, began to reveal itself in informal conversations our team had with students in fall 2021. Through these real-world, firsthand perspectives of learning during the pandemic, it became clear why students’ need to feel a sense of belonging was emerging as a top issue.
Now, three years into this new construct for higher education, there are ways institutions can ensure they make the necessary adjustments to online programming to meet the needs of all students so they are on the right path to success. In addition, evidence-based models of hybrid and fully online learning have emerged to help support these new directives and expectations from university administration, faculty, and to an extent, students.
Give students a home
Student comments indicate academic homelessness has been a continuing saga in their academic lives. These students want instructors and administration to know that even though they are digital natives, they still want to interact, be part of something outside their dorm/apartment, and feel like they have a place to go when they need help. During the pandemic, on-campus students felt robbed of a full learning experience, and they are still craving that interpersonal communication.
To address this need for more inclusivity and connection, institutions and faculty should consider providing learning communities for students through the campus’ learning management system so they can regularly engage on their own time. It’s also valuable to offer in-person and online office hours for students. If meeting with students online, turn the camera on so they can see a friendly face. In addition, it is critical to be aware of the pandemic’s impact on students, so be sure to provide a list of services in the course syllabus for on-campus mental health care facilities (virtual and in-person care).
Personal engagement cannot be overstated
Students crave engagement more than ever since the years of isolation during the pandemic. Students had rarely been known to desire group projects until the pandemic took away their social engagement in college. “More group projects” is now a main request of students, proving they want more interaction: engagement with each other, instructors and course content.
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Institutions can promote engagement in a predominantly online community and personalize the experience by leveraging tools within the LMS to hold regular audio and video recordings of lectures, exam reviews and recordings for grading. Also, instructors should consider using knowledge checks throughout reading assignments so students feel more engaged with the content rather than just reading what is on their screen.
Academic homelessness and practice-based learning
Internships, cooperative education experiences and assistantships, among other work and career-related experiences, were missed during the pandemic. The lack of these experiences significantly impacted the expected learning experience students had signed up for when they started college. As an example, juniors and seniors graduated without the opportunity for key professional learning experiences that often catapulted them into full-time careers post-graduation.
A way to remedy this loss of community and professional engagement is for institutions to develop partnerships with local businesses to encourage hybrid internships so students may experience the best of both worlds—gaining in-person experience and learning how to work remotely.
While considering improvements to teaching and learning at a distance, keep in mind that the push to remote work and online learning has yet to be completely accepted by everyone. The more institutions can prioritize online learning by supplementing communication strategies, providing effective engagement and centering on personalized learning opportunities, the more successful these experiences will be in eliminating academic homelessness for students, faculty and the institution as a whole.