Making students feel cared for, connected and empowered is crucial for student retention in the midst of a crisis. Innovative use of technagogy (technology + pedagogy) is a powerful tool in this cause, as I discovered while serving as CSSO (Chief Student Success Officer) for Omega Graduate School (OGS) in Dayton, Tennessee.
OGS, like many other institutions, had toyed with the idea of how much of our academic program we could deliver online. We were a hybrid form to begin with—one week residencies followed by research and assignments completed online while at home. the Coronavirus quarantine forced us to offer entire sessions online for a week at a time. We were driven into wholesale technagogy before careful and thoughtful pre-planning could be entertained in leisure. It is amazing how a crisis can force an institution to become a learning organization at warp speed!
Technagogy was first identified as a viable methodology of learning in online, competency-based instructional design as early as 2005 (Bellefeuille, Martin & Buck). This instructional design takes into account the social dimension of pedagogy to the extent that relational, multi-dimensional, and mutual aspects of education were taking place. Lowe and Lowe (2018) pushed the boundaries of the technagogical model further by demonstrating how digital technology can contribute to spiritual growth and transformation. It is this life-affirming potential of the digital age that has informed our approach here at OGS.
As with any opportunity for growth, it was the practical issues and problems that our students were bringing to the forefront that forced this new wholesale technagogy upon us. Because of our unique graduate program, we educate global and local Christian leaders in their chosen professions. These leaders were suddenly thrust into the role of taking on workloads of two or three persons, or two or three departments in their work environment because of Coronavirus layoffs.
Students were petitioning us with requests for deadline extensions for their assignments. International students were banned from traveling to the United States to commence or continue their academic program with us. One of our students lost 50% of their income in three days. Consequently, we had to scramble to encourage students in such a way that they felt cared for, connected and empowered. To accomplish this, we employed three practices and principles:
Prayer: Asking students how I could pray for them seemed to make them feel we care. In my new role as CSSO (effective January 1, 2020), I intentionally dovetailed prayer with being the OGS Chaplain. This has enabled me to specifically inquire about students’ needs and desires, and what each student really wants me to pray to God for on their behalf. I have intentionally created an instrument and tool that helps me keep track of whom I have prayed for, when I prayed for them, and what the specifics of the prayer requests were. As with any Chaplain, I realize that I have my own theology of prayer. Without wading into the weeds on this as a point of discussion, suffice it to say, that I profoundly believe what the apostle James affirms about prayer: “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective”(James 5:16).
The student-oriented principle is this: students who are prayed for feel cared for!
Continuous Contact: I also had to determine and devise a specific program of intentionality in contacting our students. I quickly discovered that the student determined the type of contact and that became time-consuming because some students prefer WhatsApp, some students prefer texting, some students prefer Skype, Google Hangouts or Zoom. The methods of contact, however, have one thing in common—providing a lifeline for the CSSO to listen empathetically to students’ plights. Lowe and Lowe (2018) maintain that it is the reciprocal actions of one-another in community that provides the context for transformation to occur.For such transformation to occur, students need to feel that they can reach out at any moment to the CSSO and our DPhil and MLitt tutors for help and understanding. Long gone is the day when academia can sequester itself behind closed doors and narrowly-defined office hours. On the contrary, I convey to students that my role is to be “the wind beneath their wings” so that they can achieve their life dreams and goals.
The student-oriented principle is this: students who are constantly contacted feel connected!
Encouragement: I have also had to become an embodiment of the New Testament personage Barnabas. His name in Acts comes from a Semitic root which means “Son of Encouragement.” I love to encourage students; and believe me, students have a lot to be discouraged about. The recent issue of the Harvard Crimson student newspaper reveals that students are now dealing with mental health issues that are born with the convergence of several overwhelming factors at once: lack of finances, lack of technical support while switching to online classes, lack of prior collegial relationships, lack of meaning, purpose and identity when suddenly propelled back home, etc.Because our students are adults in the workplace, additional overwhelming factors for them are matters like supporting a family, taking on broader professional responsibilities, and trying to meet assignment deadlines.
Mental health is witnessed in ways of coping. I’ve encouraged students who drop out for a while because of finances that they are not failing. They merely had to push the “pause” button for a little bit. I encourage them by letting them know our support and contact with them has not waned; and in fact, they are now a permanent part of our OGS family. The family dimension is affirmed when they receive, like all other students, a form of contact in an e-newsletter, “Aulus Academia.” I compose and send it digitally to all students. The stated purpose of this e-newsletter is that it is a weekly encouragement for graduate students.
The student-oriented principle is this: students who are encouraged feel empowered!
The Coronavirus has indeed presented challenges. A new technagogy is demanded because students’ welfare and institutional survival are at stake. Perhaps now, more than ever, academic institutions that function from the stance of a Christian worldview can avail themselves of this crisis to engage in modeling a type of academic leadership that sees student retention from a deeper level of transformation.
A virus spreads because of personal contact. May the good news of a transformational technagogy spread from one faith-based institution to another, whereby students feel cared for, connected, and empowered because of our practices and principles.
Bellefeuille, G., Martin, R. R., & Buck, M. P. (2005). From pedagogy to technagogy in social work education: A constructivist approach to instructional design in an online, competency-based child welfare practice course. Child and Youth Care Forum, 34(5), 371-389.
Lowe, S. D., & Lowe, M. E. (2018). Ecologies of faith in a digital age: Spiritual growth through online education. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.