Virtual meeting technologies can create spaces that feel personal and safe, fostering life-changing connections between participants.
"It's wonderful to see you all again!" An energetic Lea Velez greets her Zoom class of, so far, two. A clinical lecturer for Texas State University's School of Social Work, Velez teaches only a handful of students in this unique online course. Today, she leads class from Texas State's Teaching Space of Tomorrow. A laptop and an interactive tablet sit before Velez, and, just for fun, the green screen behind her projects an image of outer space. Across the room, the students' faces and chat are easily visible on four large screens. A fifth screen and mounted camera display Velez and her presentation. One by one, the remaining participants appear and return Velez's greeting, giggling with relief. Logging in to a virtual meeting space is still new to these nontraditional students, and when all five have cleared the hurdle, triumphant laughter erupts. Achieving this goal is another step forward in acquiring the workplace skills these women believe will improve their lives. Velez, the cohort's technology teacher, is committed to helping build their digital skillset.
Since 2014, Velez has served as a clinical lecturer, teaching courses in social work practice, social services in the community, human behavior in the social environment, policy practice, and community engagement. Always looking for new opportunities to connect with learners, Velez applied for and received 2022–23 residency in the university's high-tech Teaching Space of Tomorrow.Footnote1 Despite the technology learning curve she experienced getting acclimated to the space, "Change," she points out, "is good for the brain."Footnote2 This combination instructional studio and faculty office takes the online teaching and learning experience to a new level. Specifically, the space leverages technology to connect instructors and students in a far more personal way than in a traditional online classroom (see figure 1). Velez, intrigued by the possibilities such a platform might offer, began her residency with a vision based on one of the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work set forth by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare: Harnessing Technology for Social Good. To Velez, this meant finding ways of giving back to the local community.
As a lifelong social worker, Velez is a firm believer in social responsibility. "Texas State is part of the San Marcos community," she says. "We use this community's land and space. So, we can't be siloed. I believe part of our responsibility as community members is to use all the resources we have here to enhance it." Velez herself is a 1999 graduate of Texas State, and her ties to the San Marcos community run deep. She explains, "I wanted to do something using the [Teaching Space of Tomorrow] to improve the quality of life of people in the community." So when a local organization for which Velez volunteered needed a computer skills instructor in one of their programs, Velez jumped at the opportunity. The program, Hands of Hope, supports adult women emerging from hardship. As part of that support, Hands of Hope offers participants courses addressing topics such as financial literacy, résumé building, and marketable job skills. Each Tuesday, for five weeks, Velez meets with a small cohort of women determined to become the people they want to be.
Velez teaches the cohort's computer skills class. She opens today's fourth session by praising attendees for their proficiency in Zoom etiquette and then suggests starting with a mindful moment. Reading a quote aloud to the class, Velez asks the women to think about ways to find and use their own unique voices. Velez listens to each woman in turn, nodding and commenting with her own personal observation before thanking those who shared. For some women in the Hands of Hope program, speaking up is difficult, but Velez fosters safety and acceptance in their online space. "This is a group of women who are incredibly vulnerable because of where they are in their lives," she says. "They're trying to rebuild." In the group's shared space, participants are open and honest with Velez and with each other. They have formed a community of trust, and Velez is part of it. After a few minutes, the conversation concludes with more laughter, and a review of Microsoft tools begins.
In designing her computer skills course, Velez focuses on helping the Hands of Hope cohort find their own answers to this question: How do we use technology to improve our lives? For these five women striving to defy hardship and succeed in the workforce, the technology used to improve their situations includes current industry platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Word, and Microsoft PowerPoint. Velez observes, "I didn't really know what to expect, but it's been such an enhancement to my own life. The women are incredibly receptive. They are willing to be vulnerable and humble. When they're unsure of how to do Zoom, we go through that. And I use the tools the teaching space offers to teach these skills." What has emerged out of the class, though, is far more than Velez ever expected. Something much more profound.
"This course has become about how we all have a voice to share," Velez reflects, "how we honor our voices, and how technology can help us use our voices. Oftentimes, women will get emotional talking about using their voice. It's something I think we take for granted." Velez has taken a personal approach to this cohort, encouraging exploration and discussion with the use of reflective quote cards. For the cohort's final computer skills class, Velez has assigned members to create a PowerPoint presentation about themselves. She adds, "I'll share a little of who I am since they're willing to be vulnerable." Today, with only the fifth session remaining, Velez has a surprise. She's decided to conduct their final class in person and attend the group's graduation ceremony. Upon hearing this unexpected news, the women are genuinely thrilled, excitement verging on tears bubbling through their computer screens. Velez smiles and waves as the class wraps up with animated promises to meet in person the following week. When asked about the online course, participants enthuse, "This was the best computer class ever!"
Velez's collaboration with Hands of Hope is remarkable but not a surprise, given her focus on lifetime personal wellness. "My background working with women in vulnerable situations definitely helps." Velez emphasizes how engaged the women are during each session and how willing they are to talk about themselves. She is humbled by the experience. "It's very rewarding," she says, "to witness a growing willingness to honor their strengths and not just see their deficits." Whether she realizes it or not, this willingness reflects Velez's personal validation of each woman. Through her dedication to forming basic human connections with the participants, Velez's positive interactions help each woman see for herself her own potential.
Working with Hands of Hope from the Teaching Space of Tomorrow allows Velez to fulfill her vision for community outreach, and she's already looking ahead. "I would also like to engage with older adults and offer computer training. I've got a couple of connections with assisted living facilities in the area, and our older community is often separated by technology." Social work is all about improving quality of life, and, Velez adds, "voice is so important to that."
Leveraging technology embedded in the Teaching Space of Tomorrow, Velez walks alongside this cohort of women on their journey to restore identity. As it happens, her part in this journey began online, with the Teaching Space of Tomorrow. In this highly sophisticated space, with its studio-quality AV equipment and interactive technologies, unexpectedly impactful human connections can be formed. "I thought the class was going to be very technical," muses Velez, "but it's turned into something deeper than just the technical pieces. I think it's another example of how a space we look at as being very technical has a human element that I really didn't anticipate." It's also a poignant reminder of technology's power to do social good when used to extend and enrich our shared humanity. With the help of technology, and in partnership with the organization Hands of Hope, Velez is reaching beyond Texas State's campus and forming life-changing connections with some of the area's most vulnerable populations.
- For more information about the Teaching Space of Tomorrow, see Kimberly Conner, "A Face-to-Face Approach to the Online Learning Space," EDUCAUSE Review, August 16, 2022. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
- All quotations in this article are from personal communications with the author. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
Kimberly A. Conner is a publications writer for Texas State University's Division of Information Technology and a University Seminar Instructor.
© 2023 Kimberly A. Conner. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.