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Rutgers Learning Centers change operations to better serve students remotely

The Rutgers Learning Centers have provided modules on its website for students to navigate online learning, as well as expanding its virtual hours of operation to accommodate students in different time zones.  – Photo by Rutgers.edu

The Rutgers Learning Centers continue to operate during remote learning, with some additional new online services, said Stacey Blackwell, senior director of the Learning Centers.

The Learning Centers moved all operations online through Penji and Canvas, with the exception of study spaces, which are currently unavailable, Blackwell said. Services include tutoring, academic coaching, writing support, workshops, study groups and in-class learning assistants.

“Moving an entire operation online was not easy, but it was a very rewarding and capacity-building experience,” Blackwell said. “We had planned to move to a hybrid online (and) in-person model over the next few years and had begun testing different service models, so we were fortunate that the transition happened at a time when we had already been planning for an increased online presence.”

The centers normally serve more than half of the Rutgers undergraduate population, Blackwell said. Some services have seen a slight decrease in student usage since remote instruction began, though many remain the same. Other services have seen an increase in student usage. 

“Students are continuing to use our services, but they are choosing different ways to work with us than they may have in the past since we’re offering some new services, such as asynchronous learning modules and instructional videos,” Blackwell said.

One of the modules, How to Succeed in Online Courses, facilitates student learning in the virtual classroom environment, according to the Learning Centers website. The centers will also release a module called Time Management Strategies this semester.

In addition, the centers have expanded operating hours to seven days a week in order to accommodate students in different time zones. They have given additional training to their peer leaders to support the transition to remote instruction, Blackwell said.

“As a team, we were able to draw out some skills and talents that we did not even know people had, such as video editing abilities and acting skills for making instructional videos,” she said. “Collectively, we’ve learned a great deal in a short period of time and we have relied on our knowledge of best practices, as well as the evidence that exists through education research, to ensure that we are making decisions in the best interest of our students.”

Seyma Guleryuz, a tutor at the Learning Centers and a School of Engineering junior, said she tries to use every function of technology to impart information to students. She said one advantage of online tutoring is the Zoom breakout function, via which she can group students who have the same question to work on it together while she helps another student.

“In in-person tutoring, tutors usually don’t get the chance to direct students to sit in a very structured way regarding their classes or questions,” Guleryuz said.

Learning Assistant Taqiya Ehsan, a School of Engineering sophomore, said she feels online classes have made peer leaders better multitaskers by enabling them to crunch multiple activities into a constrained time frame.

Last week, students in the course Ehsan provides support for pitched ideas in their sections for the first 40 minutes of class before joining three other sections in another Zoom room, in which the top three presenters from each section pitched their ideas to the larger audience.

“This probably would not have been possible in an in-person setting,” she said. “But with everything being online, it was possible to give the students this type of experience and exposure that they greatly benefited from.”

At the same time, there is less of a personal touch than before in peer leader-student interaction due to less face-to-face interaction with students, Ehsan said. It is also difficult to map out ideas with students and conduct discussions smoothly, she said.

Joanna Bejar, a peer tutor and School of Environmental and Biological Sciences junior, said she is limited to using a virtual or smaller physical whiteboard than the large one she enjoyed using in the Learning Centers. And due to the difficulty of seeing students’ expressions and body language online making it harder to tell their emotions, she said she cannot interact with them as confidently as before.

“I try my best to mimic the in-person style I used to do as I tutor online, but there are always some differences and limitations to doing so,” Bejar said.

Meanwhile, Michael Leitner, a School of Engineering sophomore, said his interactions with students as a Learning Assistant are not so different from his interactions with the previous Learning Assistants for his class when he took it. He said he is still able to provide the same amount of support that he was given.

“I often utilize the whiteboard function on Zoom to be able to work through problems, let students show their thoughts and feel comfortable asking me questions,” Leitner said. “I also try to have a new funny / cool virtual background every week.”

Bejar said that she and students have benefited from the convenience of entering an online tutoring session because they are not restricted to taking a bus or walking to a Learning Center building, which has facilitated students’ attendance, she said.

“I am glad to still be able to help students even throughout this time of crisis,” Bejar said. “Any kind of support and guidance or even someone to talk to is really all we'd need during these hard times, so I encourage students to be part of my meetings.”

Some courses have seen increases in student requests but not across the board, Blackwell said. Many students need tutoring less now due to their instructors offering additional office hours during remote learning, while others are more likely to work with tutors to engage with the material through conversation where they cannot in asynchronous classes, Blackwell said.

“Online learning is new for many students and, like any new learning environment, requires some adjustments to new expectations, organizational strategies and communication practices,” she said. “Our tutors, coaches and study group leaders help students to navigate these changes and develop skills as well as identify resources for transitioning to this new environment.”


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