When the ball dropped on January 1 of this year, no one expected the reality that is 2020. COVID-19 is undoubtedly making its mark on history – not just in terms of lives lost but also ways the threat has caused families, businesses, and organizations to alter their everyday lives. For most schools and universities, that has meant a transition from in-person to online learning. Thankfully, Frontier Nursing University (FNU) has been using a distance education model for more than 30 years, causing us to need significantly fewer adjustments than many universities. However, like all organizations, we still needed to reconsider our usual way of life in a few areas.
We decided to keep an open mind as we innovated new program models and focused on self-care for our students, staff and faculty. We hope that what we have learned in the past few months, combined with our decades of distance education experience can positively impact other educators as the new school year kicks off.
Here are four tips for educators making the switch to online learning during COVID-19:
Don’t Be Afraid to Innovate New Course and Program Models.
It’s unlikely most schools and universities had a “Pandemic Plan” pre-2020 – but when life throws you lemons…well, you know the rest. In the wake of such uncertain times, it’s essential to be willing to adapt usual course models or programs in the interest of student and faculty safety. The adjustments can be challenging, especially for institutions that have operated the same way for decades, but the educators willing to make these changes will thrive.
Although FNU relies on a distance education model, there are also in-person portions of each student’s journey that we quickly realized we needed to redesign effectively. As we began to look at reinventing our in-person programming, we had two main concerns – maintaining a sense of trust and community in the new learning environment and upholding the top-quality education standards that FNU has held for almost 100 years.
To maintain community, we centered our new programs around video technology like Zoom to keep students and educators engaged with each other throughout the experience. We expanded this model by incorporating small groups and break out sessions with an emphasis on team-building and fellowship while still following curriculum guidelines.
Our second challenge was upholding excellence in our courses as we transitioned intensive hands-on skills training to a digital platform. Reimagining activities like instructing students to remove sutures, or asking patients about their medical history without in-person conduct, took great innovation and creativity to remain comprehensive. However, we were ultimately able to meet these goals by working as a team and embracing new technologies. As a school, we were able to provide each student with the physical props needed to train from home in specific procedures and tasks. We then leaned again on Zoom and similar platforms for instruction and have been able to grade accurately through videos of students reenacting the skills taught to them via state-of-the-art simulation programs. We are grateful that the adaptive, persevering nature of our students and staff has allowed us to reinvent some of our most vital programing in a truly successful way.
As the old saying goes – you can’t change the direction of the wind, but you can adjust your sails. Now is the time to reevaluate and make the creative adjustments necessary to keep safety your priority while continuing to provide quality education.
Create a Safe Space for Students to Process.
As educators rush to find ways to maintain valuable student learning, it is also important to remember that another vital element of success lies in mental health. The educators who genuinely care for the wellbeing of their students will stand out from the rest.
Throughout this trying year, FNU instructors have implemented several new ways to check how students are coping mentally as they continuously open up new outlets of connection and communication. Some of the methods FNU instructors have found success in engaging students during this time include message boards, pre-class discussions, and Facebook groups. These tools allow students to vent frustrations, fears, and anxieties. They have also begun spreading inspirational messages, sharing meditation practices, and offering encouragement to one another. This simple digital platform has resulted in a greater sense of community throughout our student body, providing students who may be feeling isolated a place to connect.
How can you support the mental health of your students? Don’t be afraid to leverage social media platforms or new technologies to check in on your student body.
Remember your Own Mental Health.
While your students’ mental health is essential, your staff and faculty’s mental health is just as vital. It is easy to overexert yourself as an educator. To best help students with their educational and mental health needs, you cannot forget to prioritize your well-being.
As one of our nursing instructors, Dr. Vicki Burns, wisely explains, “We cannot hope to bring comfort, community, and support to others if we are trying to access those things from an empty well. We must achieve a healthy work-life balance and care for ourselves physically, spiritually, and emotionally. We must keep as many healing rituals and routines in place as possible under the circumstances, and be careful guardians of what we allow ourselves to dwell upon. What we focus on can quickly become who we are, so we must be vigilant about how we wish that to look.”
Many FNU instructors are involved in the student message boards, but they have also established additional ways to check-in with themselves and their co-workers. Faculty/staff Zoom lunches and support sessions have created a time to vent and chat, email chains of positive messages have offered encouragement, and an overall dedication to checking in and being kind has helped provide stability to our team and, in turn, our students.
Take the time you need to prioritize self-care and implement ways to check in on your colleagues.
Let us all remember the value of grace during these unsettling times. A Pandemic has a way of bringing life and what really matters into focus.
Throughout the past six months, FNU has been carefully reevaluating our policies and how they impact students in the wake of uncertainty. We’ve adjusted systems to allow for additional flexibility with deadlines, as many of our students are also working out on the Pandemic frontlines.
Dr. Jane Houston, our DNP Program Director, helps us to remember how vital kindness and understanding are this year.
“A little empathy can go a long way,” said Dr. Houston. “Remember how challenging it was to be a student before the advent of COVID-19? We cannot even comprehend what today’s students are going through- balancing work, life, family, school, and possibly illness. Right now, it is our responsibility to balance empathy with rigor.”
The end goal is always for students to get a full-quality education. However, if we can achieve that while giving allowances for the unexpected circumstances of 2020, our students will be better prepared to step into their new nursing roles with a kind heart and a strong spirit.
Give grace to your students. Give grace to your colleagues. Give grace to yourself. We’ll get through this together!