Lessons from today in supporting the students of tomorrow

Students participate in 100 level chemistry labs in the Natural Sciences Complex in October 2020. Students demonstrate proper use of face coverings and other PPE while working in a research lab, in keeping with current guidelines.

Published February 1, 2021

How do we define our role supporting students in a post-pandemic world?

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The landscape of work and learning will likely be different once the COVID-19 crisis is behind us. Nonetheless, UB’s mission is the same: “groundbreaking research, transformative educational experiences and deeply engaged service to our communities.”

My team and I are assessing our response to the COVID-19 crisis, in order to better serve this mission going forward. This means inviting our students and faculty to share their experiences from this challenging time, and asking them what we can do to help them succeed in the future.

Before the pandemic, our model for student support was pretty strong. Informed by student surveys and listening sessions, we invested heavily in just-in-time support for students on campus, with UB Tech Squad, our walk-up UBIT Help Center in Silverman Library and our campus computing sites.

Then 2020 hit. We responded with a series of adjustments to our student support model, allocating greater bandwidth for off-campus network traffic and virtualizing our public sites and Tech Squad services. 

For students learning on campus, we have precise control over environmental factors, whether physical (classroom seating and lighting) or technological (internet bandwidth, audio/video equipment). But we’ve only ever had a general understanding of environmental factors affecting students outside the classroom.

When we started asking students about their remote learning environments, we saw a gap in quality that disproportionally affected some students. 

Despite the common perception that students are automatically comfortable with technology, only 11% of students we surveyed said they were “very comfortable” learning remotely in March 2020. During the Fall semester, when students responded to our annual UBIT Student Experience Survey, they outlined more challenges:

  • 27% said they were frequently distracted
  • 24% said they had trouble sticking to a schedule
  • 15% said they had problems with online learning software

In addition, more than 10% of students who responded told us their internet connection was not adequate for coursework, and about 5% reported having broken or inadequate devices.

These barriers, almost invisible to us before, became critical during the COVID-19 pandemic. Will they continue to matter? I believe so—because whether learning in a classroom or online, students will always benefit from leveraging the flexible learning power afforded them by the latest technology—and not having access to that technology puts them at a disadvantage.

With our newfound understanding of the student experience, we need to advocate, as we’ve always done, to set expectations for what a quality learning environment, physical and digital, looks like. With a clearer picture of the student experience in mind, President Tripathi is participating in Governor Cuomo’s Reimagining New York commission, advocating for, among other things, expanded broadband access in New York state. We’ve also worked to partner with SUNY and UB Libraries to provide laptop loans to students who needed them, over 300 in total. 

We know these efforts add value to the student experience; now we need to invest more in demonstrating that value to those with the power and the platform to advocate for our students and others in our community.

One thing is certain: we can’t go back to “sorry, your computer is not good enough.” UB prides itself on being the kind of learning environment where any student can succeed. This is an essential part of UB’s identity, and key to our strategy of retaining students and producing graduates who excel.

Even if many of our efforts during this crisis don’t persist, they are not wasted efforts. Because there are no wasted efforts in the fight to ensure our students succeed. It bolsters our standing as an institution, empowers our students as they look ahead to the future, and brightens our world as those students come into their own and, eventually, lead the charge.

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