Covid-19 & Personalized Learning

Below is an excerpt from a book chapter I’ve submitted for ‘Implementing Transformative Student-Centred Pedagogies’ (slated for pub later this year). While the writing is focused on post-secondary education, the guidance is equally applicable to K-12 and Adult Ed. – mm

Covid-19 & Personalized Learning: Beginning in spring 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted higher education more significantly than any other event in the teaching lives of most educators. Soon after its detection in 2020, and through subsequent virus-variant waves, campuses worldwide enacted shutdowns to in-person learning and relegated learning to online scenarios. Numerous education issues have arisen from shutdowns, including issues of access to services and hardware, technological competency, isolation, and course and program interruption. Public health authorities project the future endemicity of Covid-19 but, as of this writing, the world is not yet clear of the pandemic and higher education scenarios continue to vacillate between online and in-person learning. 

Research reported in 2021 of more than 500,00 university and college students attending American institutions into effects of the pandemic show far-ranging and deep effects were registered by many students. These included many aspects of schooling anxiety, food, job and housing insecurity, family worries, physical health problems (including overcoming Covid-19) and numerous mental and emotional health issues (Leshner & Scherer, 2021; The Hope Center, 2021). Institutes of higher education continue to offer many kinds of support to students in this crisis, rooted in humane, compassionate gestures, ranging from food banks to free counselling to loan extensions, for which they have been commended and earned respect. Institutional gestures have also included many forms of personal outreach and offers of care by faculty who have, at times, struggled to fulfill professional obligations while battling technological frustrations, administrative demands and being empathetic with struggling students. 

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education (2022), writing professor Deborah Simms shared an approach to personalizing learning for her students that also enabled students to better see her wrestling her own personal challenges:  

I already check in with my students regularly to chart not just their intellectual growth but also their emotional and mental health: Do they need support? Are they using campus resources? Are they attending to their physical well-being? I train them to identify and ask for what they need, to talk to counselors, and to advocate for themselves. 

Who, then, is advocating for me? Like so many other aspects of faculty life, this is a task that no one else will do for me. So be it. I pledge this semester to routinely check in with myself: Do I need support? Am I using campus resources? Am I attending to my physical well-being?

The goal: Show my students what adult accountability really looks like. Demonstrate that we are each responsible, above all else, for ourselves.

Student Voice survey of 2,003 students conducted by Inside Higher Ed in 2021 reports that nearly two-thirds of students feel “seen” by their professors and academic advisors, with fewer (43 percent) reporting being seen by administrators. In this case, “being seen” is identified as literally being seen onscreen with the help of videoconferencing necessitated by the pandemic’s online turn, as well as denoting some understanding of personal challenges facing students due to race, gender, identity and other circumstances, including those arising directly to the pandemic. The study also pointed out significant gaps in faculty and administrations perceiving systemic issues confronting students related especially to social equity, access to opportunities by minority groups, and trauma-related challenges (Ezarik, 2022). 

If and when the pandemic recedes, a worthy question to ponder is the composition of higher education in the near and extended future. Evidently, effects of the pandemic, will continue to be felt in higher education for some time to come. These cannot be brushed aside nor resolved through a return to pre-pandemic “normal”. That is not an appropriate gesture for a student and educator population that is seeking to heal from this very human crisis. It calls for an ongoing, human response and personalized learning should be recognized and pursued as an option to nurture healing.

Lingering pandemic effects on student mental health may comprise significant, ongoing challenges, according to health researcher and instructor Mays Imad, who implores higher education administrators to recognize the gravity of this and embrace a personalized approach to student health care. Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, she writes, 

I am calling for higher education to cultivate our moral imagination where every student is seen, where we invest in the well-being of the whole student, and where we ground all of our work in an ethics of care (Imad, 2021).

 Later, Imad identifies the importance of moving away from inundating students with platitudes of success and persistence, but really listening to them and meet them “where they’re at.” That’s the ground and promise of authentic personalized learning. 

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