The pandemic has forced the majority of colleges to transition online.
Many schools have shared their plans, however, few remote learning plans have focused on helping students manage their own radical (and stressful) personal life change. Within a week, students at Make School rushed home hundreds of miles away, supported parents who were sick or laid off, faced visa & flight issues, debated with family on proper PPE, and dashed to get food before shortages. On top of this, students have had to keep up with classes and worry about the fate of our world.
Any college not directly addressing these realities is missing the point: our responsibility as educators is to provide support structures through these turbulent times.
Our primary focus at Make School has been hacking Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for our students. We think beyond technology platforms and into the safety and social ties of our students.
This post outlines our overall strategy — technical and non-technical — for student success in the era of COVID-19.
Rapid response team: Addressing personal concerns
We created a Rapid Response team. Like these teams in the medical field, we meet with each student, understand their current state and triage them to the right resources and people for support.
1. First, we coach students on their unique situation. Each of our 160 students is paired with a coach throughout their time at Make School. This coach establishes a personal relationship with students, learning details about their hobbies, family, friends, hopes and worries. At the start of the crisis, coaches immediately checked in with each student over text:
Question 1: What are you excited to code this term and why?
This question anchors on the positives instead of problems. We share their excitement and foreshadow the benefits of their efforts.
Question 2: On a scale of 1–10 how do you feel about this transition to remote work and your current state? What frustrated thoughts pop up, if any?
This question uncovers their current emotional status. The frustrating thoughts question pulls out specific moments of frustration we can coach. The 1–10 scale question helps us gauge which students may require extra attention.
Question 3: What tactics can you use to ensure your success?
This question helps them improve their own situation. An additional question that works well is, “What would it take to move your score to a 9 out of 10?” etc.
Coaches then used these follow up powerful coaching questions to unlock new ways of thinking and make use of resources. One such resource students use is a mental health counselor, such as…
2. Better Help: online mental health help. This platform connects students with a state licensed mental health counselor for therapy. Students can access the platform for free due to a partnership we’ve developed with the organization (offer for free). We also created an extensive list of mental health resources. A common mental health issue many students face now is feeling isolated. We are creating more connectedness through a …
3. Huddle: a daily online check-in with 15 students and a staff member. These groups have fun. They play collaborative online games like Jackbox Party Pack, share photos and stories from childhood and sometimes take a professional angle by doing a work “stand-up’’ common in the software engineering field. The point of huddles is to enjoy the community and accountability already present at our school. The huddle also allows staff to gauge how the students are feeling. We can then quickly escalate issues if students are absent or visibly not well, with the …
4. Student Experience Triage Team: In times of crisis, it is essential to implement best practices to help community members. This includes 1) aggregating local resource lists for physical and emotional needs and 2) discussion forums for students with similar issues such as family members resistant to using PPE, adjusting to remote work, etc. Our student experience team expertly assembles and facilitates these conversations. However, as we’ve progressed, we realized that some challenges require persistent attention. So we created the…
5. Slacking #remote-tips channel: There are no quick fixes to adjusting to radical lifestyle change. Students need consistent practice and reminders to succeed in remote work. For this reason, we created a slack channel — a focused thread on the communication platform our school uses — where students and staff can post remote work tips:
6. Polling remote work strategies in class: instructors will often poll students on how well they are transitioning to remote work and what strategies are useful for them.
These polls keep best practices top of mind so our whole community can learn and adapt together.
We have also fostered new ways of forming connections within the classroom:
- Energizers and community builder activities in class: these 5 minute activities can be laced into classes as a warm up or transition between projects:
- Be sure to remind students of the purpose and value of these activities. Also, try to seed a volunteer or two before class to kick the activity off.
- Harry Potter Simulation: we created “houses” inspired by Harry Potter for fun and community. Students self-select into “houses” that center on different themes of interest: social justice, health and wellness, entrepreneurship, coding skills. They also participate in a number of inter-house challenges to foster intimacy, fun, joy, and engagement. See our extensive post on execution and success (coming soon).
- Staff led weekly sessions: meditation, gaming, exercise, cooking class. These are optional to all students and happen over Zoom.
These strategies provide students with a solid emotional foundation as they enter class.
In the classroom: Heat Seeking Missiles > Help Desk
We ensure every student gets face time with an instructor every week. This is best captured in an analogy:
This one-on-one focus ensures that personal connections strengthen during the pandemic.
Part of the way we make time for personal connections is by transitioning much of our in-person curriculum into online tutorials created by our instructors. Students work on these tutorials during class and for homework. Our classes are long — 2 hours and 45 minutes — with nearly two hours of it being hands-on work time. Students work on the tutorial during class time, unblock each other, and get support from the instructor 1:1. Tutorials allow for better pacing, differentiation, ability to review concepts, and offer lots of mini-challenges along the way to help them gain confidence. We’ve made a tutorial making guide to pool our best practices.
Some of our instructors have adapted to involve more choice in activities. To meet a learning objective, students could a) code something for it b) write a blog post about it or c) record a video. This choice gives students freedom at a time when they’ve lost it.
Other instructors are favoring more pair-programming and collaborative activities in class.
It turns out, as we explored tools and platforms, we discovered some unique learning opportunities.
For 5 years Make School has modeled our Computer Science College on the actual workforce. Students use Google Calendar for meetings, Slack for class and school wide communication, and have daily standups like on most engineering teams. They are expected to message the teacher if they are going to miss class.
These norms made it easy for us to transition online — like most workplaces. We are even finding some unique benefits from online tools.
Zoom has been a terrific tool. Here’s how we use it:
Other benefits: zoom has also allowed us to more easily breakout into randomized groups than in person classrooms. We can also have private one-on-one conversations online about their emotional concerns which is hard to do around peers in a classroom.
Gradescope has allowed us to save 3x time in grading. The platform enables hyper-personalized and specific feedback and easy ways to return grades on each assignment. Students always know where they stand in the course and where to improve.
Other tools have been explored by our teammate Ian:
We’ve also favored information-rich communication — such as videos and images — to better capture student attention. For example, here’s our announcement about where to find office hours:
Thesis for the future of Remote Learning in the Fall
We will see different phases of colleges’ response to the pandemic.
Phase one is where most colleges are now: getting the technology for remote learning up and working.
Phase two will be recreating the connection, joy, and safety of in-person community. This phase will require ingenuity of administrators and faculty.
As we’ve found, you’ll need to mobilize your entire team to ensure students thrive in remote learning.
Thanks to Ian Birnam, Alice Lee, Rebecca Goldman for editing the post and to all the instructors at Make School for the strategies listed above.