When my children returned to college in January for the second semester of their freshman year, I was missing them even more than when they left in August. My husband said to me, “They’ll be back before you know it.” Of course, at the time, we had no idea how soon.
Finding our new normal as a family with two children in college was an adjustment. Now we are navigating a completely different kind of normal, with two college students finishing their freshman year from home, two adults working from home indefinitely, and new “stay at home” restrictions in our community. Some decisions were easy—increase the WiFi bandwidth to support everything we need to do and assign laundry days to prevent the piles from forming. Some adjustments, however, are new, and I’m leaning on my own experience as an alum of the online MBA@UNC program (Go Tarheels!) and as an employee at 2U to guide aspects of my parenting.
In the past decade, I have seen first-hand the effort, creativity, and hurdles associated with taking classes traditionally taught in an on-campus setting online. And as a graduate of on-campus undergraduate and graduate degrees and an online graduate degree, I know the online student experience comes with different challenges than those endured by students on campus. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned throughout my career and education journey that I have found to be helpful while parenting my children as they adjust to learning online.
Practice patience, especially with their faculty
The faculty I’ve had the honor of working with through 2U have had months to plan and a full support system to bring their courses online. Most faculty in the past few weeks have been forced to transition their courses online in a matter of days or a week, and with far less support. They are finding what I’ve known for years to be true: it takes more than access to Zoom or Google Meet and an LMS to host classes and ensure a stimulating and effective learning experience.
There are some faculty who will have the resources and motivation to meet this virtual challenge more easily than others. One of the most encouraging things my son has told me about his online experience so far was about a faculty member who surveyed students to see what they had easy access to for their studio-based course. The instructor knew they had to meet their students where they are and a survey was a simple and smart way to evaluate how to do just that.
Online education done well can be amazing. Done poorly, the student experience can suffer. Creating a great online learning experience takes a lot of effort. Graphics might not translate well online, audio in recorded lectures has the potential to be out of sync or of poor quality, and faculty can’t read the body language of students asynchronously to observe how the material is being received. Some faculty will be able to utilize all the tools in a live class, such as breakout rooms or poll and chat features, while others will struggle to understand how to activate them effectively or choose not to use them at all. For faculty who opt not to meet in live classes, office hours will become even more critical for students to attend if they aren’t feeling confident with learning material.
I’ve asked my children to recognize that their faculty are doing their best and facing the same challenges in their personal lives as the rest of us. As we see how each course is going, we’ll talk about the support they may need to get the most out of the courses they are taking. And I’ll continue to be patient with their professors as they learn how to adapt to a new way of teaching.
Ask for schedules
When I was doing my MBA, I let my family know when I was going to be in live classes and when I was going to be studying and doing homework. I’ve asked the same of my kids. In the absence of the structure of campus life, it can be easy for them not to be intentional about setting a schedule, which could lead to falling behind.
My husband and I recognize that our college students live in a different time zone than we do. They stay up late, do their work at odd hours, and sleep much later than we do. Rather than expect them to model our schedule or the one we would have expected while they were in high school, I’ve asked my children how they are setting up their online school schedule and remember to give them the space to study on their own clocks.
Separate school space from relaxation space
I am fortunate to have a dedicated office space for myself at home, which doubled as my school space during my MBA. My children also each have desks in their rooms, but I’ve asked them to consider setting up elsewhere in the house. That way they can have separation of school space and relaxation space. While they may be used to tackling school work in their dorm rooms, some students, my daughter included, used other locations on campus for studying. So, I’m giving my kids the space and ability to make decisions on where to do what they need to do.
Keep track of university resources
Most, if not all, colleges are keeping offices that support students available remotely. That includes offices that handle academic advising, accommodations, tutoring services, and mental health support. As an online student, is it important to know how to access those services long before they are needed. I’ve told my children to keep their eyes out for information on how their universities are handling those services and to save that information for when they might need it later.
Encourage social connections with other students, but be wary of social media
Social media is something my children probably know better than I do. They are a part of a generation of digital natives who are comfortable connecting with friends over the internet and on video in real-time. However, it’s worth reminding them in this time of heightened stress that what they are exposed to through social media might not be true or useful. They may read false information or experience information overload. They may see people who are putting on their “social media” face but in actuality are struggling too. Talking about healthy ways to connect online is a topic worth revisiting.
Be kind to and respectful of each individual’s learning process
I have been telling my kids that in the coming months, we’re going to learn a lot about ourselves as individuals and as a family. They are also going to learn more about themselves as students. So many of the faculty I know who have embraced online learning found it positively impacted their on-campus teaching, and I’m sure that will happen for this new wave of online professors, too. Faculty and students alike will learn a great deal about learning through this experience. I’m encouraging my kids to be kind to themselves, their fellow students, and their professors as they engage in an experiment no one wants or willingly signed up for. The most impactful growth experiences of our lives come to us unexpectedly and often in the face of unwanted challenges.
As a parent, my hope is we all continue to be healthy—physically and mentally—and my children’s altered college experience gives them valuable lessons for the future. I hope these lessons I learned help you as much as they have helped me navigate this new normal.
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