When Oregon State University announced that spring term 2020 would be fully remote, Honors College staff, faculty and students knew they were facing an unprecedented challenge. The Honors College has offered courses through Ecampus for a number of years, but in-person classes and activities have traditionally been central to the honors experience. With just a week to plan, the entire community got to work on how to shift the full range of opportunities online.
“Spring term was a challenge for everyone, as we were asked to pivot quickly to remote delivery — of classes, advising, mixers, events like Dean & Friends, co-curricular programming, everything,” says Susan Rodgers, the Honors College interim associate dean. “A top priority was to ensure that students’ academic experience remained as high quality and intellectually engaging as possible.”
Honors College faculty took this priority seriously. With face-to-face lessons and activities no longer possible, instructors were forced to think outside the box — or, in some cases, inside the box. Without the ability to host students in his lab to modify ride-on toy cars for his colloquium Toy-Based Technologies for Children with Disabilities, Sam Logan sent each student in the course an electronics kit so they could learn the same skills they would have in person. For others, moving online meant exploring new technologies: Tom Carrico, instructor of a course on creating images of space, set up cameras in his backyard and had students control them remotely. This unique adaptation allowed students to develop the same astrophotography skills that students in previous terms had learned in-person.
“There was so much innovation happening, and for faculty who weren’t used to Zoom (which was everybody) or who hadn’t relied much on Canvas, we had a support system set up, with live help available from 8-5,” Susan adds. Canvas is the university’s learning management system.
“We had one instructor who lives in a rural area, with no internet at home, drive to campus and sit in his car to log on to Zoom!” Susan says.
Students joined faculty in working creatively to help deliver the full honors experience. Maja Engler, the president of the Honors College Student Association (HCSA), says that the HCSA found success in engaging their members to create new event programming.
“During spring term, HCSA held one remote student-led event every week,” Maja says. “Our more successful events included sign-ups for supplies that were mailed to the participants’ locations, such as painting or baking supplies.” These allowed students to participate in events such as a “Bob Ross Paint Night” and a baking challenge.
Asking students to lead events meant that they were able to each contribute something they were knowledgeable and passionate about, creating unique and highly individual experiences.
“Having one person host an event of their choice each week during the spring worked well because they were able to use their creativity and cater to those who are interested in the same things, such as video games or virtual treasure hunts,” Maja explains.
While everyone did their best, in some cases even finding new formats that will continue after the resumption of in-person learning, the spring was undeniably a learning experience. As fall term 2020 begins — again largely remote — the Honors College is working to apply those lessons to improve the experience for all.
“We had low turnout for some events [in the spring], in part, I think, because people just got tired of being on Zoom,” Susan says. “When you’re online all day, it’s difficult to log on in the evening for a social or co-curricular event.”
To combat this, Honors College staff have worked to provide opportunities this fall to engage in a variety of formats. There will be options for both in-person and online engagement, including activities around Corvallis and Honors College staples — Dean and Friends conversations, trivia nights and community coffees, among others — offered remotely.
“One way we hope to engage students is through a new initiative called Conversation Clusters,” explains LeeAnn Baker, the Honors College director of student success and engagement. “With our community learning from a variety of locations, on-campus (in Corvallis, Bend or Newport), learning remotely or through Ecampus, all students will be assigned to an HC Conversation Cluster.
“Conversation Clusters will meet via Zoom for 30 minutes each week throughout the academic year to discuss topics, play games and be in community together,” LeeAnn says. “Conversation Cluster members will get to know each other well and look out for one another as we navigate this challenging time together.”
And everyone knows that the challenges will, indeed, continue through the fall and possibly beyond. Even so, Honors College staff and students remain optimistic about the future.
“These are difficult times,” Maja says, “but if there is one thing that my Honors College peers have taught me it’s how to think critically, adapt and band together under new circumstances.”