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In this episode, Phil Hill, Jeanette Wiseman, and Kevin Kelly discuss value of getting student input while making plans for Fall 2020. But that’s not always simple to do, or at least common to do. The discussion built on some of the concepts in in this blog post.


  • Phil Hill
  • Jeanette Wiseman
  • Kevin Kelly


Phil: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of MindWires COVID Transitions. I’m here with Janette Wisemen and Kevin Kelly and looking forward to our conversation today.

What we mentioned in our last podcast that we wanted to explore in more detail is getting more of the student perspective.

Kevin, you mentioned this in your recent blog post talking about that COVID-19 recovery and planning must include student perspective. And if you don’t mind me quoting you to you. You made a good point saying “to increase student success with the planning, we have to include students in the conversation. Right now, for the most part, we talk about students without talking to them.”

I think that’s a really important point that we’d like to go through today, is that whole challenge and experience and ideas about getting student input.

In particular, because there’s been a really significant shift over the past week or two where most focus is now on what’s going to happen in the fall. Colleges and universities have big decisions to make and they’re making it worth partial information. And this is a key theme of your posts were saying, well, as you do that, you need to understand what the student perspective is.

Kevin, it might be worthwhile if you could just describe a little bit more of what motivated you to write the post and how you see this challenge, including what we’re not doing so far and what we need to do more of on getting student perspective.

Kevin: Well, what motivated me to write the post? I teach a class called How to Learn with your mobile device. It’s the flip side of the coin where my day job I teach faculty how to teach online my night job grading papers related to how students are learning with their mobile devices. And the student voice has always been important to me throughout my career. So what’s interesting is the consistency with the comments my own students made at the bottom of the blog post you referenced with some of the quantitative data from surveys that are out there in the sphere that have recently been produced and publicized. There are some themes out there that we can touch on throughout today’s conversation that are consistent in both areas.

Phil: But before we get into those themes, I guess I want to first acknowledge or deal with what I believe we’re saying, which is we’re not doing a good job of of talking with students, getting their input and more of that perspective.

So part of the question is why is it so difficult to get student perspective?

I mean, one of the most obvious issues is the numbers that you have far more students than you have faculty.

But there are also other challenges, I think that we have any time we’re trying to get student perspective and this is not just a matter of COVID-19 planning.

This is something that I’ve seen throughout my consulting career whenever doing a needs assessment on a campus. A lot of times what happens is we say, well, we need to get student input, whether it’s while doing an LMS evaluation, looking at online education strategy, figuring out student support or whatever the case may be. Whenever we go try to get student input, one of the things that happens is they don’t respond typically to the same methods that you see with with that work with faculty and with staff at a university.

One of the examples is as I was working with the University of Iowa, this is a long time ago and we tried to do focus groups. When we wanted to get faculty involved in focus groups, we had rich discussions, and it allowed us to dive deeper into topics and not just get a quick hit answer, but actually explore topics and what things be discovered. Try the same thing with students and it just didn’t work. Either the students, particularly undergraduate, they just were not comfortable in a focus group type of arrangement or they’re just not available for it. And one of the things we did is we changed our approach and we did things such as ‘let’s go to the coffee shop’. Kids these days, they love their coffee. They love their sugar. We would just show up at the coffee shop and say that they would get a free coffee drink if they would come and talk to us. And that worked much better. We got a lot more students coming to talk to us. And similar approach with a town hall. Not that there’s an easy answer, but one of the things I’ve seen is that just students react differently to different methods of data collection, if you will, than do faculty and staff. I’m not sure if either of you two have run into a similar situation about the difficulty of getting student input.

Jeanette: I would say for me, I think that you have to go back, and I look at it as students are consumers. And this is an issue across any industry is trying to get really authentic feedback from your customer, from your consumer. And that’s one of the places where any industry has issues with. I think that I’ve seen in my experiences, especially with student focus groups, not necessarily with online surveying, is you have to figure out why the students showing up there and focus groups especially. These are more product-based focus groups that I was involved with, where I feel the problem is finding authentic voices within those groups. Because typically the people that show up to those are the ones that either already interested in the product, interested in the discipline. In my case, this was in publishing where their favorite professor asked them to. And so they usually were a little bit more sunshine and roses. And I wasn’t getting the critical feedback that I felt like we needed, I think in these cases. I always question why a student’s showing up, why a student might be completing that survey. Is that they really just want the coffee? Is it because they know it’s going to maybe be some brownie points for their professor? Maybe. Sometimes those professors are also offering extra credit. Is that feedback really going to be authentic? I think that’s the hardest part in any survey, regardless of what industry you’re in.

Phil: I’ve even seen it. It’s almost a role or an identity for students that when you start looking at them, you’ll find out these are the students that happen to be in all of the committees or in the student Senate. And you start saying you tend to always show up to give your perspective on what students want, which also means a lot of other students just defer to them, and this is sort of another angle which gets to why you’re actually there. Kevin, what about you from your experience, particularly at San Francisco State, on trying to get student input. Have you found that to be a challenge compared to the faculty and staff?

Kevin: I do believe that there are challenges getting the student perspective in the traditional ways that you just both described. However, I think the challenges can be mitigated by taking some steps. One, we need to do a good job of seeking the appropriate voices. When I worked at San Francisco State University full time, we needed student perspective. We go to the student government and ask them either to go out to their networks, get as much data as they could, and be the voice for the students at all different levels and needs. Or we would prepare the students in advance.

So then they’re not coming in cold, and are able to give a thoughtful response on the fly, because faculty and staff are typically engaged in the types of questions and thinking that we’re asking and these focus groups or surveys or what have you. And so, yes, you can. We used pizza instead of coffee, and we would be able to fill the room with students. But having an intelligent conversation with those students makes means requiring a little prep work, even if it’s the first 10 to 15 minutes of the session dedicated to laying out what we’re trying to do, helping to paint a picture that they can see themselves in, and then providing an avenue for them to provide critical feedback and making sure that they understand it’s not only encouraged but desired that that feedback is going to inform what’s going to happen. It’s the same reason in the instructions for surveys that you include. This is how we’re going to use the results.

Phil: I don’t think it’s that it can’t be done. I think part of the point is it takes additional planning and preparation. And I suspect this is a large reason that we’re not seeing what you were noting in the blog posts, that we’re not seeing as much about student support during the crisis as we are about faculty support. It’s a reminder of this.

Kevin: I think that the reason we’re not seeing as much about students is because we’re not asking the students. Full stop. We’re putting our focus on ‘we need to get those classes online’. ‘We need to help the instructors’. And we left the students out into the ether without communicating with them. You see that in some of these surveys that students who are entering college next year are frustrated that 40 percent of them didn’t get any communication from the campus that accepted them. So they are worried about the status of their enrollment and we’re not communicating. My own students, when they commented on my blog post, gave feedback about the impact that some faculty members are confusing them with their communication. Some lack structure, and they gave some great suggestions to be present by reaching out more, to be human. By asking students what they need to be flexible, by providing alternate office hours and to be multi-modal by using video and text or Remind.com Text messages as alternate pathways for students to consume communication information.

Phil: Let’s talk a little bit about when where are the different channels or what is out there, in this time right now as we’re trying to understand what students perceive that’s happening? I mean, what they’re living through. They’ve gone through this mass transition to virtual over the past two months.

They have immediate experience on how that’s gone for them. But they’re also thinking strongly, as you mentioned, about what’s going to happen in the fall time.

Where are the places that we’ve that we have seen some of the examples that you’ve mentioned in the blog post? But there are other things as well. You mentioned Campus Sonar as a source to get some interesting student input. For people who haven’t looked at it, they do social listening, and they actually go out – and they’re reading and looking at all kinds of social media. And it’s a mass technique in general, saying out of these tens of thousands of tweets, what are the common themes that we’re seeing? One of the things that I find most interesting from Campus Sonar actually gets in to where students are talking. And I had heard this from my daughters before – but I had never really jumped into it – of just what how important Reddit is as a place where students tend to talk to each other and share their thoughts about what’s happening in their college experience. I found that that’s one of the things that jumped out at me. I had no idea until I was reading campus sonar just how much students use Reddit as a forum for discussing things. And it becomes a great resource for trying to understand what students are saying. Have you guys worked with or looked at Reddit in terms of student discussions before?

Jeanette: My use of Reddit hasn’t really been around standard discussion.

I’ve always going there for other little things that I need to find out. But I can see why it would be a really good place. It seems like a very honest place sometimes. Maybe too honest. But a place where students do feel like they can be unfiltered, or anyone can be unfiltered and kind of give their opinions on a huge variety of topics. And I can see why that would be a really good place to look. I haven’t personally done that, though, except for just recently. Because we found it to be such a good collection of voices.

Kevin: I actually have used Reddit, in part because the students in my class have talked about it enough that I started going there. And a few years back I changed one of my assignments to become a debate based on the Reddit ‘Change my View’ paradigm where students pose an idea and then challenged the rest of the class to change their view about that particular thought that they provided. Having Reddit, what I find interesting about the Campus Sonar data: One, there is the highest concentration of chatter around the fall semester falls in the news outlets, not necessarily in students’ own communications through social media or blogs. That’s interesting. When we do get to the information, that’s the student perspective – it’s around 3 percent of the total. They had like one hundred and forty-nine thousand posts or social media entries that they scanned, and only around 3 percent of that was the first-person perspective where they could identify it. It was a student or a student’s family member at a particular institution and then they could dive into that.

Phil: But even within that data. If you saw that section where they would talk about students speculating about fall 2020 on Reddit. They mention – and it’s not as big as the numbers on some of the other discussions – about 300 of them shared how they would react if their campus announced that the fall semester would go online. A lot of the comments and the way they categorize this – first of all, this strikes home for me – is students saying they would be annoyed if they have to continue living with their parents. Then there’s also they mentioned panic, particularly from a STEM student who has multiple lab courses being very upset. This is the one that’s got to worry schools the most, cancel enrollment and wait another year. And that’s probably one of the scenarios that it’s the most concerning. But it is interesting to hear how students describe it. Even within this small sample set.

Kevin: Agreed. And I think some of the key issues that we’re maybe not paying attention to, students are aware that the learning experience this semester hasn’t been the highest quality, because faculty members and instructional designers are doing everything they can just to get the courses up so that students can complete the semester. I think the expectations for the fall are going to be much higher, and if they students get the perception that they won’t be a higher quality experience, then they will avoid it at all costs. It’s something that my colleague from the City University of New York mentioned as a potential risk as well. However, the other factors that come into play. The Barnes and Noble survey talked about the human connection. Fifty five percent were concerned about lack of social interactions. Those are things that are not being considered as much because we’re so focused on getting courses online. And you brought up a specific type of course, STEM courses, and there are a bunch of others, career and technical, education, clinical. All these different courses that have hands-on experiences as a requirement that really need a physical presence. I know that Jeanette brought up the concept last time of having the large classes potentially staying online and the smaller classes, and potentially the lab classes, being the ones that happen on a campus. My own wife is a former chemist and she was talking last night about how she can’t imagine what the workforce is going to have at the end of this experience, because there’s going to be a gap in student experience in labs. She had the opportunity to work at UC Santa Cruz and the professor’s lab, and it was one of the factors that helped her get a job in the biotech industry. She mused about something that made me wonder, does industry have a responsibility to start spinning up things like apprenticeships and internships to to fill that void?

Phil: That’s definitely has to be a challenge.

Jeanette, any anything else that struck you from either the Campus Sonar or the Barnes and Noble survey that he had mentioned?

Jeanette: I think there’s a couple of things that are running through my mind right now.

One is this idea that students are missing – it’s universal right now that people are missing – the social interactions that we all crave, especially for college students. That experience, being non-traditional or a traditional student, you still want that commodity that you’ve meet your classmates, with your instructors, with your professors. You’re looking for that mentorship and it’s not there right now online. I don’t think that it is impossible. It’s just – even with everything everyone’s doing – it’s not there. And I think that’s where schools need to be looking at, is seeing how they can maybe recreate those experiences. I’m really worried about, if I was if I was a student right now, what I would be worried about and fall is not only having my courses online, but if I’m not a local student, I’m usually supposed to be on campus and there’s another breakout. What’s going to happen? I think that’s going through the institutions’ minds. I’m sure it’s also the students that they don’t want to show up all semester in September, October, August, – whenever their school start is – and then by the end of October, November, being sent back home and have this whole thing happen again.

Are those students looking to skip the year? Are those students looking to maybe … there’s the big brand names that have always been really successful with online courses. I think the announcement this week of what Southern New Hampshire is doing is remarkable. I think it’s a fantastic strategy on their part. If you didn’t see it, they’re offering freshman course for next year is free and a guarantee that whether you’re on campus, online or hybrid, it’s ten thousand dollars a year moving forward for your tuition. I think it’s those types of moves that are going to make people be more assured in their selection for colleges. I think it’s those types of things that students are looking for. And if you’re not a freshman, but you’re a sophomore, you’re going back to your second, third, fourth year, I think that’s the concern is not only what am I spending my money on, but what’s this experience going to be? Is my school prepared to give me the social interactions and the other support systems that I’m craving from my school, but also the education that I’m expecting?

Phil: Let me turn to a little bit more specifics for a while. One thing that was interesting to me – and it’s a small sample set, but it allows you to talk specifics – is that Kevin successfully got his own students commenting on his blog post, which gave us specific feedback on what they happen to think.

And as an example, as I’m reading their comments, one thing that came across to me is their perception of Zoom classrooms, where teachers have just taken their face-to-face and gone online with Zoom as the basis, there were a lot more positive comments about Zoom and that blog post comment thread than I was expecting. I don’t know if that surprised you, Kevin, based on who the students are, but that certainly jumped out to me, and at the very least it made me say, hey, we need to be careful about the assumptions that we’re making if we’re not listening to what students are actually saying. But did that surprise you at all, Kevin?

Kevin: A little, I would say. I think probably three or four out of the nine students who did participate in providing comments mentioned Zoom being helpful in some way. One said it decreased the classroom distractions, the distractions other students provide. Another mentioned that it increased the flexibility by being able to go asynchronous and reviewing the recordings because their sleep schedule had changed as a result of living at home. And some just like that social interaction that we brought up. One person did mention an equity issue that they realized some of their classmates didn’t have computers or internet access, advocating for asking students what they have at home. That’s something that I pushed in one of my blog posts recently, rather than asking every instructor to survey their students, institutions should be surveying the students once so that we have a consistent set of data that we can make decisions around how to support them.

Phil: Any other notes that came out of that comment thread because it’s actually pretty rich? These weren’t just quick comments that they made.

Kevin: A few things. One, they gave some great advice for instructors about the coursework itself, the learning experience. They asked faculty to make the coursework relatable. For instance, one said, use the pandemic so that I can learn about my surroundings and myself. Another said, focus on understanding quality rather than quantity. A lot of pushback against the extra work. Just because we’re online, faculty are providing more assignments, incorporating different learning approaches, providing work samples, because there’s no way to get strong explanations online from some of the instructors. Reducing the intensity of the assignments, not the goals, but the intensity. So those are some pretty good advice from the students. I would say one of the things that’s supported by some of the surveys out there is the need for some student support. They want it to be easier to contact staff on campus, and they’re having a really hard time finding out how to do so. That’s something that institutions really need to work on this – how to increase the visibility of student support staff and make sure that they can be reached in a distance capacity.

Phil: On that previous point you were making, I find that interesting about students giving advice to instructors. Jeanette had mentioned earlier in this episode about students as consumers, and that’s sort of a fraught term. And I think it can get in the way sometimes, as educators think about this, is there’s a concern that we’re trying to consumerize education and make it purely transactional and not based on deeper learning. And unfortunately, there’s a lot of merit to that view. However, I think it can also make it too easy for faculty, for staff or instructional design to not listen to student input, such as what you just listed on valuable suggestions. The examples that you shared, Kevin, those are not just simplistic, consumer oriented. It sounds like the students really were being thoughtful – these are things that would help me learn and help my engagement with the topic and where it is. To me, that’s a good example of where we could do a better job of listening to students. We don’t want to go to the point of just asking their sentiment, no depth to it, but there’s a lot that we can learn. Even instructors, by listening to the people that we’re teaching,

Kevin: Agreed. Again, I’ll go back to the premise that I proposed earlier, which is make sure the students are prepared. We just happen to have a class of 50 students where the focus of that class is learning how to learn. And not every student has done that. They may be reacting in a way that some of these students did as well. They love more leniency with deadlines, more flexible exam schedules, so they can take it within a 24- or 48-hour period instead of at a specific time. But as you mentioned, there were some pretty thoughtful responses and the prompts that I provided them in a long discussion forum in my class. They specifically pulled examples from what they’d been learning in the class about learning and put it out there for faculty as a suggestion. I’m hopeful that we’ll see more of that. And that’s the call I made, that request for increased student perspective in the planning that we’re doing for fall.

Phil: These students were ringers. You had this whole thing set up.

Kevin: In some ways, but in some ways that’s what you want, right? People with enough knowledge and information about a topic to give valuable feedback, as opposed to what you might hear sometimes on the news soundbites from people who are just reacting emotionally without really thinking about. The topic itself.

Phil: On the opposite side – and what I mean by opposite is instead of just individual students with well-thought out answers but more of a broader survey approach of students – it seems like there are more examples right now of surveying high school students, high school seniors in particular, and figuring out are they going to enter college in the fall or not.

What we’re not hearing enough of yet are surveys of current college students, at least surveys that are shared so that the community can learn. And a recent one from Simpson Scarborough, they surveyed both high school students and existing college students, and they gave broader based views. Some of the examples there were interesting to me. They looked at their perception of the schools, COVID-19 response and communication in general. Like the question, how do you feel your college or university is handling the COVID-19 outbreak? Twenty one percent of current college students said excellent. Forty one percent said good. Twenty nine percent said fair, and only 8 percent said poor. But in general, it seems like students’ appreciation of what colleges and universities are going through is they’re saying, hey, you guys are handling this well in general. It even goes into the communication they felt. Thirty seven percent that the college communications are excellent, and 36 percent are good.

Yet at the same time, if you ask them what’s your overall impression of the school? The majority of them are saying that their perception of their school is getting worse. And there was one interesting crosstab saying, for the students who said that their schools had good or excellent communications, 32 percent of those students said their opinion of the current school has gotten worse. It’s not great, but it’s out there. But if you now take the subset of students who rated their school communications as poor, sixty seven percent of those students said that their opinion of the current school has gotten worse.

That difference really highlights the importance for an institution of having a good open communication channel with students and frequently and regularly letting them know what’s happening, because that is going to impact what schools think about, I mean what students think about their school, which obviously impacts whether they’re going to go back to it. Jeanette, any other did that surprise you at all? I mean, I know it’s high level views, but anything from The Simpson Scarborough survey that jumped out at you, any surprises?

Jeanette: My take away from the those surveys were that especially at the time – and I think we don’t know who those students were and what their individual circumstances were – but it seems like there was just a level of frustration of either lack of communication or how things were rolled out. I think you equal that with, students having been kicked off campus really quickly. Phil, you mentioned your daughter and some of the frustrations just where they were asked to leave campus right away, and there’s dorm rooms full of their full belongings with really no communication about when to pick up their stuff. I think a lot of the survey that we’ve seen reflects those frustrations, with institutions were doing the best they could. I think faculty are doing the best they could. What I’m interested in seeing is hopefully some of these students will be surveyed again at the end of the semester, and we’ll have a better sense of what their thoughts were, and their feelings were around that. I think that’s really going to be telling for summer courses if anyone is doing that. And certainly, for the fall.

Phil: We would like to get deeper in to particularly with the survey and the data, and there’s some demographic questions. What type of school they go to that impacts how to interpret some of this data? It’s part of that. We’ll give just a little bit a little teaser – Top Hat has run a survey and gotten responses for more than 3000 students, and they’ve asked us to work with them, that we can look at the survey results and help them with the description of the survey so that it comes across fairly, and it removes some of the potential or perception of bias on their part. They’re obviously an EdTech vendor, even though the survey itself did not at all ask about their product.

I mentioned this, that this is going to be coming up within  the next week or two where we will have this survey available, and we are going to have the opportunity to look at the details that they collected so that we could do a deeper set of analysis on a student survey. And I’m looking forward to that. I think that some of the themes that we’ve mentioned here, I think that we see in the Top Hat survey, but there’s a lot of additional data I think we’ll be able to pull out of that as we work with them. That’s something that should be coming up soon and would love to share that with you. Overall, we want to point out just how important it is to get the student perspective. I’ll remind people that part of the situation is getting ready for the fall. This is such a big challenge for schools with so many unknowns. And the last thing we should be doing is doing that without getting multiple perspectives to make effective decisions and students. As Kevin has pointed out in his blog post, their perspective is crucial as we do this planning.

We’ll look forward to going into more detail once we get additional survey data. And we also look forward to covering some of the institutional decision-making that we’re starting to see in another episode about whether schools go online face to face or some hybrid mix of them going into the fall 2020. We’re starting to see more news reports about what schools intend to do. And we’d like to jump into that and describe it accurately and explore that subject. Expect both of those topics coming up in an episode soon. Thank you very much.