Faculty need flexibility to teach and support students’ mental health

U.S. higher education can learn lessons from the suicides of students displaced from campuses in China

Faculty at Clarion University of Pennsylvania had plenty of flexibility to adjust their courses when in-person classes were suspended at the public institution that has offered an online learning program since the year 2000.

Lynne Lander Fleisher
Lynne Lander Fleisher

Some instructors offer synchronous classes, so students working from home can stick to some semblance their regular campus routines. Other faculty are teaching asynchronously to accommodate students who are more comfortable moving at their own pace or who can’t attend the live courses, says Lynne Lander Fleisher, director of Clarion Online.

“Our provost came out loud and proud and said, ‘We want to give you the autonomy to do what’s right for your discipline and what’s right for your students,” Fleisher says, adding that about 30% of Clarion’s students take all their classes online.

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Meanwhile, instructional designers from the school’s Learning Technology Center continue to provide training and support for faculty adapting their courses to the virtual environment.

One challenge has been moving science labs online. Faculty members have been using platforms such as Zoom to conduct experiments at home, and also using online videos to replicate other lab work, Fleisher says.

Meanwhile, the university’s financial aid and career counseling offices remain open to help students prepare for the future, such as by building resumes and seeking professional experiences, Fleisher says.

“We know the economy is going to come back and jobs are going to come back,” Fleisher says. “We need to prepare our students for the changing climate and how they can promote themselves and still get rich experiences during the months they are at home.”

Supporting mental health

Helen Crompton
Helen Crompton

Providing students with emotional support has become even more critical in the online environment, says Helen Crompton, an associate professor of instructional technology at Old Dominion University in Virginia.

Students are now even more anxious about graduating on time, their final grades, missing campus activities and other disruptions, says Crompton, who is also part of a team at the United Nations’ UNESCO agency that is studying the impact of campuses closures on college students.

In the early days of the pandemic, a number of college students in China committed suicide after being displaced from their campuses, Crompton says.

“Education is extremely social, even if you’re just going to sit in front of someone lecturing,” Crompton says. “But technology can be a social tool—look at how phones are keeping us connected.”

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Synchronous learning platforms can give students and instructors a sense of human contact. Faculty also should hesitate to inject some humor into online sessions, such as by allowing pets to participate, Crompton says.

“You have to have an emotional release,” Crompton says. “That keeps us even more connected.”

At the same time, faculty should be wary of giving too much leeway in the form of open-ended or less-than-rigorous assignments, Crompton says.

“You have to have some leniency and understand students’ different situations, but at the same time hold students to some type of accountability that life is going on and so is education, and they should focus on that rather constantly checking on the news,” Crompton says.

The big shift to online learning will likely have a lasting impact, Crompton adds.

“You’ll see a huge trend once this is all over of some instructors thinking, ‘I do face-to-face, but I’m going to carry on using some of these tools because they will be beneficial for learners.”

UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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