With the fall semester being held mostly online, many Rutgers organizations have had to transition into a virtual environment. Douglass Residential College (DRC) has long used in-person activities to work with its community of students. Now missing this element, Associate Dean Elizabeth Gunn and Program Coordinator for Computer Science Initiatives Jacqueline Medina spoke on how DRC is keeping its community connected virtually.
“The pandemic was disappointing but also eye-opening,” Medina said. “We were disappointed that we were no longer developing ‘face-to-face’ programs, but transitioning to virtual programming got us to look at what we were doing — and how to make it better.”
Each semester, DRC offers approximately 100 events or opportunities for its 2,700 students in the undergraduate programs, Gunn said. The major academic programs it offers include: the Knowledge and Power course, Leadership Mentoring Practicum, Global Village Living Learning Community, Gender and Arts program and the Douglass Honors College Community.
Gunn said DRC has also developed programming focused on anti-racism for the fall. There will be a Dean’s Lecture Series, online reading circles for Audre Lorde’s "Sister Outsider," a Certificate Program in Racial and Social Justice and more, she said.
DRC has taken many steps to efficiently move these programs, as well as others, to a virtual environment, Gunn said.
“(DRC) Dean (Jacquelyn) Litt commissioned a DRC working group to review best practices for online student engagement and recommend and make available a toolkit for staff,” she said.
In addition, Gunn said she led a multi-faceted training for staff and instructors which focused on engaging diverse learnings through remote instruction. Instructors have taken additional training with the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies as well, she said.
Gunn said they read about different online practices and worked with specific online tools. They also surveyed students at the end of the Spring 2020 semester to see what areas of online learning they did well and where they could improve, she said.
“We couldn’t just take what we were doing and host it on Zoom,” Medina said. “We needed to rethink what engagement looked like, and we needed to adopt the tools that were there for us.”
The DRC course Knowledge and Power: Issues in Women’s Leadership, which is a requirement for all new Douglass women, has been adapted with specific tools to reach students inside and beyond class, Gunn said.
“While the spirit and purpose of the course has remained unchanged, we adjusted a couple of the assignments to align with best practices for online education,” she said. “Our team of instructors is highly skilled, committed, and excited to teach this course in an online setting this fall.”
Medina said she believes moving to online programming has provided opportunities for students to express themselves in new ways.
“Using a chat on a web conference is a great way for students to ask questions with less intimidation,” she said. “I have always felt most comfortable expressing myself through writing, (so) I’m glad students who are not as vocal have a way to have a voice.”
While there are benefits to online programming, there are challenges that come with it as well, Medina and Gunn said.
“One of the biggest challenges is engaging all of our students and meeting their unique needs,” Gunn said. “We strive to provide synchronous, asynchronous and other formats for programming this year so that all students have an opportunity to connect with us and with each other.”
In addition to maintaining engagement, Medina said scheduling may pose difficulties as well.
“Keeping ‘on schedule’ isn’t always easy without physical locations to be at, and some students are living in different states and in different countries, with completely different times for their daily activities,” she said.
Like Gunn, Medina said this is why having a variety of programming is so important.
“Our goal this semester is to ensure the continuity and integrity of Douglass programming while providing world class access to meaningful and transformative opportunities for a diverse student body,” Gunn said. “We want to meet each student at the level of her need, welcome her into Douglass, empower her to find or refine her voice and claim an education. Online engagement requires some different tools, but the mission remains the same.”