Shannon Dunn on Student Engagement [podcast]

min read
Community Conversations | Season 1, Episode 6 | Originally recorded on 4/2/21

John O'Brien, EDUCAUSE President and CEO, talks with Shannon Dunn, Strategic Consultant, Vantage Technology Consulting, about the work that the University of Florida has done to provide students resources for engagement.

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John O'Brien: Welcome to our community conversation with Shannon Dunn. Shannon is the 2020 Rising Star Award recipient, and she's the assistant director with the University of Florida Information Technology, and there she manages instructional design and educational technology. Welcome, Shannon.

Shannon Dunn: Thank you so much. I'm so happy to be here.

John O'Brien: So you and I, we haven't been able to properly have the conversation about this, but I completed my master's degree in Irish literature, I think in the mid nineties. It's a too far long ago to know, and I spent my time hanging out in the early printed books room of the library about a decade later. I think you were in Ireland yourself doing archeological work in County Mayo, so did spending all that time exploring a deserted village help you prepare for what you do now?

Shannon Dunn: Absolutely, maybe surprisingly, but absolutely. My work in Ireland was all about experiential learning, from my very first time as a student at an archeological field school to all of the return trips when I was an instructor and staff at that school, and then finally, when I was doing the dissertation research, both in County Mayo and the archives in Dublin. One of the themes that I think we continue to see, because it's effective teaching practice, is how to get students involved in those experiential learning opportunities. Not everybody can go to an archeological field school in Ireland or anywhere else, but the landscape is so different now, and we have the opportunity to use technology to support, and reinforce, and extend those opportunities for students. But definitely that learning experience in Ireland shaped my approach to education now.

John O'Brien: I actually imagine that the work of trying to look at the surface of things, and figure out what's actually happening feels a lot like student success work in some respects.

Shannon Dunn: Definitely.

John O'Brien: But it could just be me. So we know so painfully well that it's been hard during this last year for our most vulnerable students to engage, and during the pandemic when they lack access to broadband connectivity, devices that are appropriate, or both. What has the university done to try to close this gap?

Shannon Dunn: Yeah. So this is such an important question, and I suspect that a lot of us feel that no matter what we do, we could do more. That said, I'm really, really proud of what the University of Florida has achieved so far. One of those programs has been additional support for our mascot branded Aid-a-Gator program, which provides direct to student financial assistance in the form of grants. So students can use those funds to purchase technologies that are required for coursework. That can include computers as well as peripheral devices. Students apply online, and in the spring of 2020 alone, nearly 3000 students received Aid-a-Gator emergency funds, totally more than two and a half million dollars.

The provost office also didn't take it for granted that they knew what the pain points were, which I think is really smart. They ran multiple surveys, student surveys, during and after our transition to remote, and one of the biggest takeaways from those surveys was that our traditional definition of at-risk students, which often includes limited income, limited access to housing or healthcare, might to expand a little bit. Angela Lindner, who is our associate provost for undergraduate affairs, has suggested that we need to consider more intersections of need, and create a more robust and holistic view of student need and the definition of risk, because while traditionally we've defined at-risk as a high risk in a single area, they're also cumulative.

So low and moderate risks in multiple areas we saw, particularly during the pandemic, created some really difficult situations for students. So part of that vulnerability is financial, but part of it is also just where students are in their academics as a result of the stressors in their lives. So Undergraduate Affairs has launched a tutoring program that is free of cost to many or most students, and it connects students who have performed well in courses previously with students who seek out support currently, which is really nice for both students.

John O'Brien: When the internet was young, there was all kinds of talk about whether technology was contributing to loneliness, and isolation, and things like that, that now in the pandemic, do you think that technology is contributing to loneliness, or connectedness, or something else? Given the focus recently on mental health and wellbeing it's a pretty timely question.

Shannon Dunn: Honestly, I might answer it differently depending on the day, and how it catches me. I also suspect that any individual's general relationship with technology might impact their response. So I'll get a little personal and say that my mom has a strong disdain for most technology, and she spends most of her time gardening, and she talks almost only to my dad and to me. On the other hand, my dad is more active on social media and with technology more generally, and he stays connected to people near and far, which is great, because he really likes to talk. During the pandemic though, I think that even though my dad has stayed connected to more people, he feels more isolated, and I think that hints at the nuance and the difficulty in your question.

So here at UF, we've put a lot of effort both before and during the pandemic into connecting students quickly and easily with the right services and with each other. This includes a recently launched Student Success website, which functions a little bit like a concierge to connect students to services and to resources regardless of where they are in our organization, which is very large and very complex. We also have a virtual student union site, and that connects students to extracurricular organizations and to events, and our counseling and wellness center expanded their online presence and remote services really quickly. We've also got a training for faculty and staff on identifying and connecting at-risk students to support resources, and it utilizes a type of basic VR simulation for social, emotional learning, and I admit that I was very skeptical of that going into it, and I actually found it really impactful, and I learned a lot from it.

So kind of more broadly and hearkening back to my mom's technology resistance, I'm not sure that the questions about modern technology right now are that much different from those that we talked about when other technologies were new. Right? Because when the printing press was new, when radio was new, and when television was new, I think we encountered similar questions, and where we have to continue to engage is around the ethics of these technologies, and making sure that we're using them to take care of one another, making sure that we're asking the right questions, and designing technologies to meet the needs that we want to see.

So I think we can do that by asking what's important to us about our in-person experiences, what we need to preserve about those experiences and why, and how we can design and utilize technology to meet truly student centered goals in our areas. And I'll acknowledge, John, that that answer was inspired a little bit at least by your presentation [inaudible 00:07:52].

John O'Brien: You manage instructional design, and I'm really curious what that was like during the great pivot. I think of instructional design as being very deliberate and planful, neither of those two words are used very often to describe the work of the last year.

Shannon Dunn: Yes. Managing instructional design during the great pivot of 2020 and in the months that followed was exhausting, if I could pick one word. It was fantastic in some ways to have instructional design, and more broadly, so many of our faculty and instructional support colleagues suddenly in such high demand, and to have their work so well recognized. And I do think that recognition and the value was exhilarating in some ways, and it gave us a little extra fuel to get through the year, but I'm sure that we're not alone in our institution, and that every semester brought a new change, a new complication, sometimes a new teaching modality every semester.

And with as large and as complex institution as ours is, that also came with a lot of challenges, not least of which was coordinating across units and communicating with faculty and partners. So we are in a central instructional design unit, but there are also instructional design units all over campus, including some solo embedded instructional designers, who are usually working just totally independently. So ultimately, I think we did a really great job, and I'm really incredibly grateful to my team and my colleagues, and I'm so proud of what we accomplished, and I have to say that we learned a lot.

One of the biggest lessons learned is the impact that affective labor that our staff provide can have a real impact on their wellbeing. We knew that that was the case pre-pandemic, but we'd always been supporting a smaller number of people, and so at the most we'd be supporting folks through an individual or personal emergency, but suddenly we were thrown into a situation where everyone was experiencing an added layer of stress, additional emergencies that they had never encountered before. So receiving the stress and the anxieties of others in the course of doing their job, while also excelling at doing their jobs, managing constant shifts and pivots in our service delivery, and then trying to do that consistently with a smile became a pretty significant burden.

I hope that faculty and administrators remember the dedication of these folks, and not just at UF, but across the globe really, and that they acknowledge the efforts and achievements of those folks in all of those types of roles to maintain business continuity, because we couldn't have done it without them.

John O'Brien: Do you think the work of instructional design has been essentially transformed?

Shannon Dunn: I hope so. In part because I think that it was undervalued before, and I think for it to be as well valued as it deserves would be transformational. I think if we can truly become partners with our faculty, that would be transformational in the way that our staff are perceived. I can also see that transpiring parallel to the increased value of IT in our organizations. I know that not all instructional design units are situated in IT units, but I do think there are some parallels there in people valuing the work of those individuals in those units more.

John O'Brien: One of the really positive outcomes of this pandemic has been this focus on student engagement, putting students at the center in ways that we maybe haven't before. Can you outline what you've learned in your work over the last year when it comes to student engagement?

Shannon Dunn: I think that a lot of folks have become aware of a tendency to draw a line between academic performance, primarily assessments, with cognitive and intellectual engagement. And during the pandemic, I think that we became more acutely aware of some of the assumptions that we're making in drawing that line. We saw immediate and strong responses, including some negative emotional impacts of things like high stakes tests and proctoring platforms in much more illustrative ways than maybe we had seen before. And that was particularly true where students didn't have access to anything from the required connection speeds, or the specific technologies, or the environments to use those tools successfully.

And I think, and I hope that prompted a lot of folks to step back, and consider the social and emotional engagement that we are either intentionally or unintentionally prompting in our students. We saw the reduction of actual physical engagement with physical spaces, of course, with the pandemic, with so many people staying home, and so students and campus services had to work a lot harder to maintain social engagement and cultural engagement. And this is particularly important, I think, to student wellbeing and mental health, because we know that even prior to the pandemic, students across the country, not just at UF, were reporting isolation, and depression, and seeking support in record numbers.

Biggest adjustment that I've seen is a shift toward in attitudes towards students and appreciation for the complexity of their lives. I think we've learned a lot more acutely that student engagement often is driven by what's happening in the moment and in the classroom, whether that's in person or remote, but not only what's happening in the classroom. We've gotten to know our students a lot more deeply, and we are starting to recognize with the complexity of their lives that students are caregivers. Students have jobs. Students have families, and roommates, and internet connections that drop, or are unreliable, and in short, that students' lives are just as complex as ours.

Another thing that I've learned, and that I continue to see in the dialogues, particularly right now, is that student engagement is a lot like student success, and that it means different things to different people. We know from an educational perspective that with student engagement we're referring to motivation and enthusiasm, and that that can correlate and lead to higher achievement, but like with student success, I think we have a hard time boiling down what student engagement means even across a single campus. So what is the promise of learning analytics, and how does student engagement with digital resources map to student engagement with the learning process?

I really want us to be cautious here, and remember that data on its own is meaningless. Data is only useful in context, and we have to remember that our goal in collecting this data and then in using this data is to help our students, which has to require humans, and human action, and caring. And I think that we can expand our approach, and this speaks a little bit to the question about the holistic experience. What does student engagement look like and mean to advisors, to student services, to mentors, to wellness coaches? And as we think about how to make our institution student centered and to value the holistic student experience, how can we expand our approach to student engagement to support those goals?

John O'Brien: I really like what you said, that student engagement, student success means understanding the whole student. And when you were talking, I was thinking of we actually published a book at a college where I was a provost awhile back, and it was all about empathy and understanding students, and the essay I remember the most was... I don't know if it was the title, but it was basically that some students are a dead car battery away from stopping out. So I loved your answer there. Like everybody, I think University of Florida did its own great pivot and moved toward online delivery for 2020. How well prepared was the institution to support students during that transition, and what adjustments or tweaks did you make to support student engagement in the course of that massive change?

Shannon Dunn: I'm extremely pleased to report that I think UF was in a really, really fortunate position when we made the transition, and a lot of that was because we'd made a huge investment in digital transformation already. It had been very thoughtful and very thorough, and units outside of IT had also already been investing in resources and in digital infrastructure for their services, and thinking very robustly about different user journeys and user paths. Our work on the Student Success Portal, for instance, connects students with a central resource to locate any service they might need across the institution.

And many advising units had already adopted what we're calling a flipped model, which supports advising as teaching, but it also creates a learning path in the learning management system. So students were already accustomed to accessing the learning management system to access advising resources, and to connect with their advisors. So it helped make that transition a little bit easier. One of the biggest lifts was to my immediate team and the folks who support UF Preview, which is the new student orientation for every undergraduate student entering University of Florida. So for that, a few of our instructional design team staff worked with the Dean of student staff and the Preview team to create nearly 70 course shells in the learning management system in just about three weeks.

They ensured accessibility of all of the digital content. They recorded and captioned over 80 videos, and that formed the basic structure for a fully online orientation experience for over 9,000 students last year. All of the co-curricular and advising activities also shifted to remote delivery for all of 2020, and UF was in a really great to make that shift, because we've been leveraging available technologies to support multiple means of engagement and mixed modality service delivery prior to the pandemic, including with flipped advising. And beyond that, we made some specific strategic investments in technologies.

So with the transition, we provided some platforms that provided curated digital resources for student and content interactions online. We also expanded the cloud storage for our video conferencing platform, which fortunately we'd already rolled out at the enterprise level, so that wasn't as big a lift for us, and then we took advantage of the opportunity to increase structural design and faculty support team coordination. Also I think it really deepened the relationships and collaborative coordinating efforts between distributed and central IT as well.

John O'Brien: In the flurry of activities is University of Florida doing anything that it's never done before?

Shannon Dunn: Yeah, actually. So one of the new things that we've launched is developing an opportunity for internships for students across IT. So as an educator, I'm really excited about this, because it provides that experiential learning opportunity that I care so much about. It gets students outside of the classroom, but still in these learning opportunities. These can be essential for skill development, and they're also helpful to students, obviously, entering the job market. But one of the things that I'm most excited about with the internships is that it's a good opportunity for our staff to participate directly in the education mission of the institution.

They get to share their own knowledge with students. They get to think about learning outcomes and objectives, and they get to participate in that teaching process. They gain a better understanding of the educational process, including some of the challenges, and then we benefit as a broader organization, because we get the student perspective on everything from the IT infrastructure. So the students tell us exactly their opinions on the registration portal and the LMS. We get their perspective on the training, on the curricula, and even feedback on our work environment. So as we're making sure that we're providing an inclusive work environment or working toward that, hearing different perspectives is really helpful.

John O'Brien: So, Shannon, you were named the 2020 Rising Star Award recipient, long line of Rising Stars, no pressure. What does that feel like?

Shannon Dunn: Being named the 2020 Rising Star is still surreal. Honestly, I'm still getting used to the fact that that happened. It's still an incredible honor, and I'm so proud of the work that my team, essentially, did to help earn that credential. Very little of what was put forth was an independent effort. I'm really, really fortunate to be surrounded by such talented and dedicated folks, and that someone on my team, one of my employees, nominated me is just so meaningful. Yeah, it's really fantastic. The recognition has been very sweet. The outreach has been really nice. It has been a very new experience to grow into a position where people are curious about my perspectives in a very different way.

John O'Brien: [crosstalk 00:21:42].

Shannon Dunn: So that's been a great learning experience for me too, to learn how to speak about themes, and challenges, and opportunities in a different way.

John O'Brien: Being a Rising Star during what I think everybody would acknowledge is the single most difficult year in the history of higher education is meaningful. Where is your Rising Star headed these days? What's captured your imagination?

Shannon Dunn: Yeah. So these days I really am engaged a lot in thinking about holistic student engagement, holistic student success, how we can make sure that we're engaging with these themes ethically, making sure that where we are moving into spaces, where we're using data, we're doing so thoughtfully, and meaningfully, and making sure that we're doing in a way that takes into consideration the students, and the student outcomes, and not just what we might want or need as administrators or instructors. I'm also really excited about the work that we were able to accomplish, regardless of the pandemic didn't get us down in completing our strategic plan, our five year strategic plan, and we've got so much work to do to achieve the very aspirational goals that we set for ourselves. I'm really, really excited to see how we're able to probably transform our organization to make sure that we achieve those, because, ultimately, the strategic plan is about supporting the mission of the institution, and I'm excited to see us complete that work.

John O'Brien: Thank you, Shannon. It's been great talking to you.

Shannon Dunn: You too. Thank you so much, John.

This episode features:

Shannon Dunn
Strategic Consultant
Vantage Technology Consulting

John O'Brien
President and CEO

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