Personalization, accessibility key to adapting to virtual academic support

Writing Center Tutoring Sign

Academic support services are a key part of the educational experience at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, and providers of these services – on all three campuses – are ensuring that doesn’t change with the move to alternative delivery.

Academic Support Programs on the UW-Platteville main campus has adapted to virtually provide all of its services. This includes academic advising, academic coaching, three types of tutoring and writing center services.

“In moving to alternative delivery, our main goal was to make sure our services were as equitable as possible,” said Kathryn Weller, Writing Center coordinator. “We had a lot of conversations around what to do if students have technology issues.”

To address these issues, the staff found that offering flexible options is important, whether it’s working synchronously through Zoom, asynchronously via email, or even by phone.

“After that, our main goal was to keep the same level of service,” said Weller. ‘We wanted to provide whatever help a student might need even though we are virtual.”

When the university announced that classes would move to alternative delivery methods in March, Donna Gavin, senior lecturer of computer science and software engineering at UW-Platteville, provided Zoom training for the tutoring coordinators, who then spent the two-week extended spring break training student tutors. The tutors rely extensively on Zoom and the features it offers, especially for drop-in tutoring hours, during which student managers move students to various breakout rooms, within Zoom, based on tutor capacity and individual courses.

“A lot of our student tutors put in time over their spring break to learn Zoom,” said Weller, who added that they are proud to be able to retain their student staff throughout this time, which consists of more than 40 peer tutors.

“When students use our tutoring services, it’s a double benefit,” said Weller. “It helps them with their courses, and it helps us keep their peers employed.”

In moving to remote delivery of its services, one of the first tasks Academic Support Programs took on was a collaboration with multiple areas across campus, including Academic Affairs, to create a Canvas course with resources for online learning. All students were enrolled in the course, and according to Weller, approximately 1,700 students have accessed it.

Leveraging the results of a student needs survey administered last month by the Office of Assessment and Strategic Initiatives, the Academic Support Programs staff has been able to personalize the help provided to students by responding to specific needs. If students indicated struggles with remote learning, the team reached out to those particular students with academic coaching recommendations.

Many students, like Michaela Acherman, are finding comfort in knowing they can still rely on the extra support. Acherman, a freshman elementary education major from Mineral Point, Wisconsin, said she utilized the Writing Center services several times throughout the fall semester and had no doubt she would continue to find help remotely.

“My experience with the Writing Center has been fantastic,” said Acherman. “The staff are amazing and make the process easy and fun. It has been easy to do appointments virtually, and it definitely has taken a weight off of my shoulders knowing that I have extra help if I need it. I feel that the Writing Center transitioned to virtual learning smoothly and efficiently. I have not had any problems, and it feels like I am still learning how to become a better writer.”

UW-Platteville’s branch campuses are also finding students appreciate the flexibility in support options. The Academic Success Center on the UW-Platteville Baraboo Sauk County campus also offers students options for either synchronous or asynchronous support using Zoom and email for tutoring appointments.

“Whatever the student wants, we are here to deliver,” said Claire Reinke, Academic Success Center coordinator.

Similar to the main campus, the Academic Success Center also relies on student tutors, and according to Reinke, they have been instrumental in implementing the new processes.

“They easily accepted the challenge and worked through any learning curve,” said Reinke. “I couldn’t be happier with the level of dedication and professionalism of our student tutors. One specific goal is to offer the same level of service, just in a different mode, and based on anecdotal student feedback, I believe the Academic Success Center tutors are meeting that goal.”

At UW-Platteville Richland, support staff agreed that their main goals when converting to virtual delivery were to ensure services remain accessible to everyone, as well as proactively reach out to students to check in.

“When we first realized the need to transition to virtual delivery, our primary concern was whether students had the technology they were going to need for their coursework,” said Stephanie Joyce, interim director of Student Services at UW-Platteville Richland. “Our IT staff and Student Services staff communicated with students and responded to those who reached out with a need. Our other primary consideration was checking in with students. We wanted to know how students were doing with the alternative delivery of classes, as well as how they were doing physically, mentally and emotionally. It was important to make sure that students were engaging in their courses and were able to communicate effectively with their instructors if there were any issues.”

As the semester comes to an end, staff on all three campuses will evaluate their services with an eye toward identifying long-term improvements they can incorporate into their standard offerings once students return to campus.

“We are definitely looking forward to reviewing this semester and finding what the pros and cons are and what parts we want to carry over into our standing offerings,” said Weller. “What place does virtual tutoring have alongside face-to-face tutoring? We’re looking forward to finding out what is the best way to do that for our students.”

Reinke added, “I am currently surveying students to determine what time of day they are likely to seek out tutoring – morning, afternoon or evening.  This will help with planning whether we remain in alternate delivery mode or are on campus in the coming months. The silver-lining is that this new normal is helping me to better meet the needs of students.”