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When Disruption Breeds Innovation: How 2U’s Placement Team Supported Learners During a Pandemic

Written by Jessica Wang on Dec 2, 2020

Related content: Graduate Programs, Outcomes, Digital Education

More than half of the students in 2U-powered graduate programs are required to spend hundreds or thousands of hours in local healthcare, social service, or education facilities to practice their skills with live patients, clients, and students. In order to complete their degree, and, in many cases, gain credentials or licensure, students in service-oriented programs across all 50 states must engage their skills in hands-on settings. For these future healthcare workers, therapists, counselors, and teachers, clinical placement is an essential component of their education.

As the senior vice president of placement at 2U, I spent this past spring with my team creating COVID-19-era solutions for the thousands of degree program students who, although already attending classes online, were challenged by the closures of offices across the country that serve as the settings for their in-program field placements. Whenever I am faced with a crisis or challenge, I lean on my core beliefs to help carve a path forward. And when COVID-19 struck this March, my instincts were no different. Personally and professionally, the pandemic forced me and my colleagues to dig deep and adapt to an ever-evolving new normal.

To say the pandemic disrupted this essential component of many of our degree programs is an understatement. But disruption breeds innovation and adaptation. With thousands of students in the balance, my team leaned on 2U’s guiding principles to effectively support learners to achieve their goals in the midst of unprecedented times.

Strive for excellence. Don’t settle for second best.

At 2U, our mission is to eliminate the back row in education. For the more than 200 people who work on the Placement team, that mission is exponential as we support students who will be our nation’s healthcare providers, social workers, mental health counselors, and speech therapists. So when the pandemic spread, our mission took on new meaning. Ensuring students were able to move forward in their programs also meant they would be able to move forward in their careers and become the very professionals the nation needed—now, more than ever—as the pandemic endured and as social unrest pervaded cities and towns around the world.

Inspired by students and their communities, our team made thousands of phone calls and sent thousands of emails qualifying and re-qualifying placement sites and supervisors as the landscape changed on a daily basis. We adapted to evolving circumstances with care and an eye toward appropriate training no matter the shifting climate.

While the need to support students was a priority for the Placement team, so too was coping with our own isolation of working from home and the stresses and responsibilities of caring for our health and that of those around us. Yet still, the team persevered, striving for a level of excellence that would translate into immediate impact for students and communities across the nation.

Relationships matter. Build trust, value differences, and invest the time.

As healthcare workers became the front line of the pandemic, our first reaction was to reach out to our university partners to make sure they (and their loved ones) knew we were there and that we care. We made phone calls, sent emails, and provided meals to those who have served us and those in need so well for so long.

Over the past 12 years, we have learned the importance of nurturing the relationships we have with universities. The trust we have built and the track record we have sustained has made us a reliable partner; a partner that can be leaned on in times of uncertainty. And that’s exactly what happened during the pandemic.

While many placement sites closed as COVID-19 spread, we believed the people who supported students in the past and who understood the importance of creating the next generation of professionals would return to hosting students as soon as they could. Since nearly two-thirds of sites host students in 2U-powered programs repeatedly, we were confident that these locations would follow through—even in a pandemic situation. And they did. With the trust instilled in us by our university partners and the relationships we’ve created with more than 67,000 placement sites across the country, more than 5,000 students have been able to start their placement experiences since May—despite the challenges the pandemic presented.

Don’t let the skeptic win. “No” is easy. “Yes” is hard. Fight for “yes.”

With an increase in demand for services like domestic violence- and abuse-related care and employee assistance plans, we developed new placement relationships with national entities that provide care and therapy to thousands of people via hotlines that are either open to the public or provided by employers. And we worked with our university partners to adjust students’ field placement experiences to encompass these new opportunities, as well as new modalities and delivery methods like telehealth and teletherapy. Together, we created hundreds of placements for students in critical areas where help was and continues to be needed.

These partnerships were not easy or obvious. Our will to work together to continue care and learning was imperative to success. And it’s been worth it. These new opportunities will last beyond the pandemic, and students will continue to be a source of strength for those who are in need.

Be bold and fearless. Question the status quo and embrace change.

During the pandemic, the shut down of physical locations has limited the ability for first-year social work students to enter agencies to practice delivering care to groups, individuals, families, and children. To remedy this challenge, 2U developed the Virtual Field eXperience (VFX) in 10 short weeks.

The VFX is a bold innovation in social work education that combines technology and people to simulate field placement. It enables students to interact with dynamic, asynchronous course work that instructs them on key skills all social workers must master. Then, students enter a weekly live class with their professor and peers to interact with a highly-trained actor who simulates a social work client, preparing pre-professionals for actual work with clients in live settings.

Conceived in a moment of need, this product is one that will continue to benefit students and their eventual clients into the future. When students can gain the necessary skill set and receive in-the-moment feedback, they can succeed (and sometimes stumble) in a safe space that ensures no moment goes unlearned.

The pandemic has undoubtedly shaped us in ways we have yet to entirely appreciate. We are challenged to continue working and caring for one another in this world, which brings me to one final guiding principle....

Make service your mission. Give the highest level of support to our partners and one another.

This guiding principle contains no asterisk, timeframe, or exception. For us at 2U, we are committed to serving students—even in the face of a pandemic—with the highest level of support and quality.

Learn more about us.

At 2U, we’re on a mission—to eliminate the back row in higher education and help universities thrive in the digital age. To learn more about who we are and what we do, follow the links below.