Has ENMU’s Virtual Semester Caused Decline in Student Engagement?

Long, long ago in an ancient time before masks, social distancing, and “the new normal,” Eastern New Mexico University offered many classes online in conjunction with traditional schooling. Back in 2019 and the days before, (pre-COVID19 and a world-wide pandemic) online classes were an option for many students – though few degree-plans at the university offered a completely online education program. Fast-forward to the fall semester of 2020, the option to pursue one’s education in-person or online is no longer available to ENMU students.

As the country began to shut down in the early spring due to the corona virus, colleges across the country cancelled in-person classes. For Eastern students, it meant they never returned to campus after spring break. All classes at the university were tasked with transitioning to an online format within the span of a few weeks. Seniors with only half of a semester left until graduation had to accept that they wouldn’t see the inside of an ENMU classroom again. They would later discover that they also wouldn’t get to walk across the stage or have an in-person commencement ceremony at all. Many senior student athletes were faced with a cancelled college sport, and the prospect of never competing as a student athlete again.

Kaden Schulte, an ENMU graduate of the 2020 class and a former student athlete who competed on a scholarship for the ENMU rodeo team, recalls her final semester at the university.

“I had no idea going into it that my last college rodeo would be my last,” said Schulte.

Indeed, the cancelled season was far from anticipated. After having only one rodeo for the semester in late February, the ENMU rodeo team got the news that the remainder of their spring rodeos were cancelled, and even worse news that the College National Finals Rodeo would be cancelled as well – a prestigious event that determines the collegiate individual and team champions in college rodeo for the entire nation.

Schulte shared that it was difficult to accept the way her final year as an Eastern student ended. But in a way, she said she was also glad that it was over when it was.

“Hearing now how things are…I just wouldn’t like it. I have nothing against online classes, and I took a lot while I was in school. But not having the option to choose? No thanks,” said Schulte. “I’m so glad I’m done.”

With the announcement of the “virtual semester” beginning in the fall of 2020 for ENMU, the option for students to choose between online and in-person classes was indeed taken away. This development has resulted in a mixed response from both students and faculty. While some students are loving the freedom that online learning provides, other students are struggling in the absence of learning in an interpersonal setting.

Tyleen Caffrey, an instructor in the social work program at ENMU, may have a unique perspective on the subject.

The social work program at ENMU is one that in the past has offered students the option to complete the program through online and distance learning, while also offering the classes in a traditional setting. Caffrey, who served as a social worker for many years before becoming an instructor, became interested several years ago in researching the effectiveness of online education – particularly with underrepresented, underprepared and first-generation students. As she conducted her research, Caffrey made sure to recognize the many positive aspects of online and distance learning, while also examining the ways in which online learning can fall short.

“While online education provides some amazing opportunities for students who may not [otherwise] have it – think about students who live in very rural areas and can’t come to Eastern, that’s an opportunity for them to still get an education. If you’re in the military, there’s an opportunity for education. Non-traditional students who must work a full-time job, it gives them the opportunity for education. But for students who are more traditional age, first gen, underprepared, underrepresented? Online education is a challenge,” said Caffrey.

But why is this? What’s so challenging about online classes? Caffrey has answers.

She is a firm believer that there is not a one-size-fits-all method to education. Each student is different, and with that, each student learns differently.

“I provide all three methods of learning styles. Obviously, I do lectures, so that’s for the oral learners. I always do a Power Point – so for my visual learners, they can actually see it. I do classroom activities for my kinesthetic learners. If you come to my class, every single class has something that falls into one of those three learning styles, with the hope that I will then reach every student – because not every student learns the same. That’s already hard to do in a synchronous online format, but it’s definitely hard to do in an asynchronous fully online format,” said Caffrey.

For students who rely on fellowship in the classroom, frequent interpersonal communication, group study, and immediate feedback, a completely online education format has been devastating.

“This is what I was seeing,” said Caffrey. “This is why I was wanting to study and research these impeding factors on the effectiveness of online education. Now recent studies are showing that students are on the struggle bus with online education, and it has me in the background thinking, I told you so. Online education is not for everyone.”

She shared that despite her best efforts, without being able to see and interact with students in the classroom, it is difficult to assess if they are struggling or in need of help, and not only concerning their education, but also for their overall mental health needs.

Beyond this, Caffrey pointed out other complications that have served to make the virtual semester more difficult for both students and faculty.

“Instructors who have been teaching for years, but not online, they’re right on that struggle bus with the students,” said Caffrey in reference to the technological learning curve many instructors have faced transitioning to a fully online teaching format.

“So you have the technology aspect of it, then you have the part that has complicated things even more since COVID, which is that we in New Mexico have a large population of students who don’t have access to high-speed internet,” said Caffrey. Along with this, there has also been recent internet crashes across the state due to the large influx of internet usage. When instructors are relying on programs like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, high-speed and reliable internet are essential.

A recent report from Inside Higher Education reveals multiple surveys showing that an alarming proportion of college students are currently struggling with depression, anxiety, and their overall mental health. While she believes there are multiple factors that have led to this rise, Caffrey believes that there is a correlation between social isolation and the decline in students’ mental health.

Caffrey said that with a fully online semester, there is a strong component of collegiality that is missing from student’s lives; a component that for many students is the reason they attended ENMU in the first place.

“There’s many reasons that students come to campus,” said Caffrey. “It’s a chance for them to be independent, it’s a chance for them to build their own sense of person.”

Caffrey pointed out that while students are still able to continue their education, the education itself may have only be a partial factor in some students’ decision to attend ENMU.

“Obviously for athletes or students who come to Eastern for scholarship opportunities – not that the scholarship is gone, but the reason that they came here is gone,” said Caffrey.

For a substantial amount of ENMU students, a huge part of their college experience has been taken away, and Caffrey believes this is impacting their performance in the virtual classroom.

“For those students, the students that live in the dorms, the students who come here for scholarships and sports and music and all those reasons, they’re really missing out on that collegiality that they thrive on, and that can make them academically successful,” said Caffrey. “And one does relate to the other. Being academically successful also depends on your social interactions. There is an aspect of that social isolation that is preventing student success.”

One thing that ENMU is known for is their strong commitment to student success. Caffrey has long believed that a school’s commitment to student success means an ongoing challenge to instructors to create and maintain student engagement.

“Self-regulation, self-motivation and self-discipline. Those are key aspects to learning. When you throw online learning into that, you still have to find engagement with students. It’s still key to their success. We must put the tools into the student’s toolbox to be self-regulated, and to be self-disciplined, and to be self-motivated. Those are aspects of learning that are especially crucial to the online environment because you don’t have the other pieces, like the collegiality of being on campus. It’s still important for faculty to really pursue and try for student engagement,” said Caffrey. “And to me, student engagement isn’t throwing up a recorded lecture, tell students to read a chapter and take a quiz or do an assignment, with no virtual conferencing or live interaction. We lose student engagement because we’ve lost that classroom community.”

Caffrey strongly believes that the loss of student engagement in the classroom, along with the lack of collegiality that many students thrive on, coupled with the uncertainty of the future could be taking a serious toll on some students’ mental health.

“It’s important for faculty to understand what students are going through,” said Caffrey. “But how can we assess what we don’t know when we don’t see you, and we’re not hearing from you?”

One solution to these struggles is for both students and faculty to be flexible with one another, said Caffrey.

“We’re all living in the unknown. We’re all going through crazy times right now,” she said. “But what I would say to my fellow faculty, as we’re transitioning to this fully online format, is to really know the importance of building that classroom community. We must be proactive in conversations with our students, being there for students, and checking in on our students. We have to take care of each other. I think it’s important for faculty to find that different mindset in order to build that classroom community virtually, so that you can have student engagement, which then builds student success.”

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