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With virtual learning comes a need for virtual student support — here’s how to do it well

Kevin Byrne

With the onset of COVID-19, virtual learning has become common vernacular that we use at the dinner table. We used to rush our kids out the door so they would make it to school on time, and now we make sure they have necessary Wi-Fi and connectivity to be able to join their classes remotely. It’s a big change, for both K-12 and colleges across the country.

And with the shift to virtual learning comes a shift in the role school counselors, advisors, and other staff play in fostering student success. While most of the US is getting used to the change, the Dell Scholars program has been virtual since its inception. With over 500 students in each class (more than 2,300 scholars in the program currently), there would be no way for us to meet each of our students across the country in person, and to be able to help the ones who need extra support.

Given that, I thought it might be useful to share a few key learnings of what has worked for us when it comes to supporting students virtually, for others who are having to pivot very quickly.

1. Make sure your students have the tools they need for success.

If a student is consistently showing up to class without the right supplies, his teacher will take notice. College-level educators know that their students have access to computers and a reliable internet connection on campus. But when learning goes remote, we can no longer assume or see for ourselves that students have the resources they need for success in the classroom.

Every year, the Dell Scholars program provides students with a laptop, credits to rent or purchase textbooks, and virtual tutoring resources. In the time of COVID-19, the program is pivoting to address a gap in internet access by providing Wi-Fi devices with unlimited data plans so they can stream courses and utilize internet-based services. How can we expect students to succeed in school without access to the material? By addressing these needs up front, we can ensure all students are prepared for learning.

2. Consider non-academic factors and provide the resources to support them.

When students show up for class, they aren’t leaving their personal circumstances behind. They may be getting home late from work every night, or spending the evening helping siblings with homework before beginning their own. Amid the pandemic, we know that many students are taking on even more adult responsibilities. All this while navigating the uncertainty and fear around what comes next.

While the impact of COVID-19 is unprecedented, it’s also true that for many students, the crisis is exposing challenges that have been there all along. Through personalized advising and resources like our EAP-style Scholar Resource Network, the Dell Scholar program was designed to support the whole student, not just their academic journey.

3. Put your data to work.

We know that the path to a diploma will look different for every student. Supporting each student as an individual is at the heart of our program. But with upwards of 2,000 Dell Scholars located across the country and a staff of only three retention officers, how can we understand each student’s circumstances? The Dell Scholars program uses a student management platform called GradSnapp to keep student information all in one place, so we can easily review an individual student profile or take a step back to see overall program trends. Technology helps us make sense of all this data, so our advisors can focus their efforts on what they do best – building relationships and offering personal support.

The data we collect includes transcripts and financial aid notifications that provide insight into a student’s academic and financial aid standing. We also administer surveys to learn more about the personal factors that can impact success. With all this information at our fingertips, we can easily track student progress, intervene when the time is right, and identify trends over time. Remember, there are meaningful insights to be found in your student files. Recognizing the challenges families are facing during COVID-19, seeing the whole picture may be more valuable than ever.

4. Engage in a two-way conversation.

A little communication can go a long way with students, who may be overwhelmed with the shift to virtual learning and unsure where to turn for help. A quick text or an email can serve as an important reminder that someone is there to help. Educators and advisors can also get insight directly from students about what they need and how they’re doing, to make sure their support strategy matches the reality on the ground.

The Dell Scholars program uses a texting platform in GradSnapp to reach students. While sometimes we’re just reaching out with encouragement, we also use texting campaigns to nudge students to take action or as surveys to gain critical information to support them. Multiple choice or “yes/no” questions have generally produced a strong response rate for us. (Be sure to know the research on nudges to build an effective campaign.)

Remember too that students may be feeling isolated during this time. Connecting with friends and peers is a huge part of a student’s experience at school, learning together and building relationships. Dell Scholars hosts private Facebook and Instagram channels to help keep students engaged with the program and with one another.

Building a supportive environment for virtual learning is about much more than Zoom tutorials. It all starts with putting the student at the center. With a view of each student’s experience that is both personalized and comprehensive, educators and advisors can offer the tools and support they need for success in the virtual classroom.

If you have a request for funding that is related to COVID-19, please know that we are committed to fighting this pandemic and its subsequent economic fallout. Our immediate available funding has gone to accelerating the development of therapies, increasing the supply of PPE in Texas, stabilizing small business, and assisting our portfolio of current partners.