Faculty Learn How to Cultivate Inclusive Communities Online Targeting At-Risk Students

Posted on 2/11/2021 3:58:58 PM

More than 100 faculty members at Indiana University of Pennsylvania spent a week over winter break learning how to better serve at-risk populations in the online environment.

The course, Creating Community Online, was organized using funds from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act given to the university.

IUP was one of 34 schools in Pennsylvania to receive these CARES Act funds, administered through the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA), to schools that operate Act 101 programs. Act 101 programs provide services to academically and financially disadvantaged students to assist them in completing postsecondary education.

The transition to online learning, or partial online class delivery, was done in response to the global coronavirus pandemic.

The curriculum and workshop content were designed and implemented by members of the IUP Department of Developmental Studies and was open to faculty throughout the university.

Faculty members who developed and delivered the workshop content included Melvin Jenkins (chair, Department of Development Studies); Stephanie Taylor-Davis (director, Center for Teaching Excellence and faculty  member in the Department of Food and Nutrition); Rachel DeSoto-Jackson (Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance); Erin Conlin (Department of History); Amber Racchini (Department of Developmental Studies); and Jacqueline McGinty (Department of Professional Studies in Education).

The goal of the workshop was to support and inform faculty who teach first- and second-year students to better understand challenges that online learning poses to at-risk populations. The content was conceived, written, uploaded to an online learning system, and delivered in a matter of weeks.

“It was a whirlwind fall semester of 2020,” Jenkins said. “With the encouragement of (College of Education and Communications) Dean Lara Luetkehans, the planning team and I brainstormed the best way to address this issue.

“Because of my background in developmental education, I was keenly aware of the challenges students were facing because of the pandemic. With that in mind, we developed a week-long training focused on educating faculty about best practices for teaching in the online environment; more specifically, looking at how to connect and aid students that might be at risk of withdrawing from the university.”

Sessions were designed to be delivered synchronously and asynchronously. Morning and afternoon workshops, keynote speakers, and breakout groups called PODS helped faculty members interact with colleagues from across the university. The workshop also included a panel discussion, “Difficult Student Dialogues,” that featured students sharing personal experiences about the struggles of learning in the online environment.

Jenkins believes IUP was the only Pennsylvania university that used the funding to create original content to train faculty about how to be successful reaching and teaching students who are learning remotely. 

Jenkins said he has received positive feedback from the workshops from participants across the university.

“This funding was put to its intended use: to benefit students,” Jenkins said. “I know the faculty that were a part of the workshop are incorporating what they learned to bridge the gap to our students who might be questioning whether they can continue to learn in this remote environment. Faculty care. They want to help. We’re giving them the tools to meet students where they are.”

Stories shared by students in the five-day workshops were eye-opening, Jenkins said. 

For example, students addressed the issue of faculty requiring students to turn their cameras on to participate in classes being delivered online. One student shared that keeping their camera off is a preference because they aren’t comfortable “seeing themselves” on camera when they are trying to focus on what the professor is teaching.

 “At-risk doesn’t just mean on particular type of student or demographic,” Jenkins said. “We explored the whole spectrum. For example, a female student in a male-dominated major might be at-risk. A transgender student might be at-risk because maybe the community isn’t welcoming. In some ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused most, if not all, students to be ‘at-risk,’ given the challenges it has presented to the learning process. Faculty need the tools to navigate this new framework of teaching in a remote environment. That’s what this workshop helped to do.”