Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

How the Foundation of Student Success at Delaware State University Prepared It for Covid-19

By Jeffrey Selingo

In 2016, Delaware State University deployed predictive analytics to bolster student success. Among the changes the historically Black university with more than 5,000 students made was to centralize advising and make it more proactive and structured rather than waiting for undergraduates to ask for help. The university also developed individualized development plans for every incoming student to keep them on track to graduation.

Recently, higher education author and expert Jeff Selingo caught up with Saundra DeLauder, the university’s provost and chief academic officer, and Alexa Silver, a professor of history and political science and chairperson of the faculty senate, to see how the university has continued its student success efforts and managed the shift to remote learning in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Q: Delaware State University was already offering online courses before the pandemic, in part to help students lighten their in-person course load during the semester. How did that experience help in making the pivot to remote learning last spring?

Silver: We’ve offered online courses for quite some time. They are 100 percent online, offered in an asynchronous format, meaning that the faculty and the students do not meet together at any particular time. Professors create the curriculum, lectures, and assignments. Students view lectures, complete assignments every week and professors grade them. Students can email faculty members, but there’s no required shared time together.

When we moved to remote education in the spring, we wanted to offer virtual classes that were synchronous so that the students could maintain their schedules. We have our class meeting during that time period, just like we would if we were on campus. We meet on Blackboard or some faculty use WebEx or Zoom for video.

It has been more challenging to deliver synchronous courses virtually compared to asynchronous online courses. But we’re already getting more comfortable with it, and faculty and students are figuring out ways to be more engaged with one another.

Q: How would you describe this academic year in terms of remote learning compared to last spring?

DeLauder: In the spring, we moved all of our classes—some 1,400 courses—to remote in about a week and that was no small feat. After the spring semester, I held a faculty forum to give the faculty some idea of how we were envisioning the fall.

The transition plan was to be a little more thoughtful in how we were going to open for fall. We still wanted to keep as low a footprint on campus as possible. We decreased our housing by about 25 percent, to 1,900 students. We are able to offer students housing because we have a rigorous testing protocol on campus. We are testing twice a week. Courses that have to be offered in person are being offered in person. But that’s only about 15 percent of all courses. Everything else is being offered in a virtual format.

Silver: Even before COVID-19 hit, we were planning a summer course to help faculty members transition from face-to-face to online courses. We weren’t planning for a pandemic; we were just trying to expose people to the idea of how you can deliver a course online.

Twelve of us had taken training with Quality Matters to learn how to design and teach in the online environment. The idea of our course was to share best practices, discuss how to engage students, and gave faculty access to different digital applications that they could use in the classroom.

It was incredibly fortuitous timing. We had 120 people sign up for the course. About 85 percent were faculty and another 15 percent were staff members. Most of the faculty completed the course. Every module of the course had a discussion piece where they could talk with each other about the challenges they face and ideas they came up with.

I’m chair of our faculty senate, and I have to say from talking to faculty, they were a lot more comfortable coming into the fall. There was a lot of discomfort in the spring. Some didn’t know where to begin. They were overwhelmed with digital applications.

So, in the summer we told them to try one or two at a time to see what they liked. We created online portals so they could access different tools.

Q: What hasn’t worked well in the remote environment?

Silver: The biggest challenge we’re facing is technological access. My students come into my class and some of them have bad connections, so they’re dropping in and out.

DeLauder: I have a different take on this because there were some things that were not working well before the pandemic: COVID-19 has forced faculty to really take a look at their students as people, and not just students.

We have students who are sharing their technology with other members of their family, so sometimes they can’t sign on to class at the scheduled time. Some students have sick parents, and so they have to become the breadwinner. Some are at home taking care of younger siblings, and working, and trying to go to school, all at the same time.

So this was an opportunity for us to actually just stop for a moment and see each other as people and not just faculty and students. I think the technology allowed some of those barriers to come down in a way that they may not have if we were face-to-face.

Q: Your student success efforts require student engagement with advisers and faculty members. How are you ensuring that engagement in a virtual environment?

Silver: When we left campus in March, I don’t think students realized what an oasis it was to have the freedom and the space to do their studies and not have to be dealing with family, health, and work issues.

It’s made them a little more mature in how they approach their classes. This experience has made all of us grow up a lot faster than we wanted to, faculty and students alike. Faculty are taking on more responsibility for how they teach and engage students. They can’t be on auto-pilot anymore, and students feel like they’re taking more responsibility for their learning.

Students are realizing that they can no longer be passive recipients. They’re starting to get that they actually can learn more when they actively participate in their learning and that’s a good thing. I would say that’s been my most pleasant surprise during this pandemic.

The students and faculty feel like they are in this together, and the students are actually kind of having more mercy on faculty members than they would normally. We’re a very caring institution, and I think through this experience our students see that even more, and so everyone is willing to go the extra mile.

Q: What do you think might stick from this experience in the long run?

DeLauder: From a resources standpoint, holding more administrative and faculty meetings virtually in the future is going to enable us to get a lot more done than constantly running from face-to-face meetings. Before the pandemic, we also had a lot of manual processes. We had to figure out how to do student orientation virtually and nearly all aspects of enrollment management. I don’t think everything will go back 100 percent to the way it was done before.

Silver: I agree that as chair of the faculty senate that I intend to keep a lot of the virtual work in how committees can get their work done even once we’re on campus.

In the classroom, I’m hoping that a lot of teaching practices will continue, including using all this technology that’s in our hands. Part of our digital initiatives for students was about getting them to use technology for whatever purpose, not just Instagram. We want to prepare them to be professionals using these technologies, and so I think the last several months is going to be positive on that front. I have a feeling we’re never going to go back to where we were.

On the other hand, I really miss seeing our students. I think that’s the greatest challenge, so one of the things we keep pushing is that faculty members must create a sense of community in this virtual environment. As a faculty member, I start every class with a couple of personal questions to engage them in some human conversation before we get into the content. Hopefully, that new way of engaging students will stay with us.