The University Insider is The Daily’s first faculty and staff-oriented newsletter. This weekly newsletter will give U-M faculty and staff the ability to see the most important issues on campus and in Ann Arbor — particularly those related to administrative decisions — from the perspective of an independent news organization. It will also provide a better understanding of student perspectives.

With Early Action decisions for the Class of 2025 having been released Jan. 29, the newly admitted Wolverines are likely excited to begin working on the “academic experiences,” “exciting projects” and “strong partnerships” that the University of Michigan promotes at the top of their “Prospective Students” webpage.

Though University President Schlissel is optimistic the Fall 2021 semester will be much closer to a normal, in-person semester, many current U-M students told The Michigan Daily they continue to feel disconnected from peers and professors in the winter semester’s online environment.

However, students and faculty said they are striving to socially reconnect with one another by facilitating opportunities for collaboration and community-building both in and outside of the virtual classroom.

Welcome to the collaborative class-‘zoom’

The Ross School of Business annually encourages undergraduate students to participate in their Ross Experiences in Action-Based Learning program, or REAL, which integrates students into the professional business community in a productive and authentic way.

Mike Barger, executive director of Ross Online and clinical assistant professor, has taught the Living Business Leadership Experience course as a core part of REAL for several semesters. The class connects teams of undergraduate and graduate students with executives from locally-based companies. It aims to challenge students to apply their knowledge of business to real-world situations by advising the company and potentially shape the decisions the company makes.

In an email to The Daily, Barger wrote the online setting of his LBLE class has increased the authenticity of the experience. This semester, the sponsor companies are increasingly looking to the students as equal partners in developing new business strategies in the midst of the pandemic, Barger said.

“The University’s response to the pandemic has paralleled the way businesses have responded, which means students have been immersed in the same sorts of challenges that employees around the world have experienced,” Barger wrote. “Our students aren’t just preparing for their futures, they are shaping them.”

While Barger found success translating his class to a virtual setting, Nicholas Henriksen, an associate professor of Spanish linguistics, created an entirely new class specifically tailored to the assets and challenges presented by virtual learning.

In Winter 2020, Henriksen said he noticed his students were eager to regain a sense of community in their online class. To accommodate this desire, Henriksen obtained a grant from Instructional Support Services to create his new “Do you speak Andalusian?” course. 

The curriculum not only enables students to collaborate with each other on a final research project, but also connects them with Andalusian informants from the Universidad de Cádiz in Cádiz, Spain. Through WhatsApp, Henriksen asked the students to call their informant weekly and engage in a conversation about politics, culture and their personal experiences in Spain.

“I think having my students connect with the Andalusians personally really helped to build relationships in a way that they probably weren’t expecting,” Henriksen said. “It gave students the ability to process information on a deeper level, because suddenly it becomes meaningful when you see how it impacts somebody’s life.”

Henriksen said he is excited to be teaching the course once again this semester. As he continues to build upon this new international community, a group of students who finished the Andalusian course last spring co-authored and published a reflection detailing their newfound appreciation for the possibilities that online learning helped them realize.

“Our class’s ability to remain engaged, build an international support system and apply our knowledge to real-time research is a promising glimpse of the invigorating possibilities of an education online,” Henriksen’s previous students wrote.

Creating academic communities through small virtual gatherings

Students without a considerable degree of collaboration built into their classes’ curriculums have discovered other innovative methods of virtually engaging with academic communities. The student-created StudyBuddies site facilitates GroupMe group chats for the majority of U-M classes. Students can interact via text message through StudyBuddies or can use the group chats to arrange video meetings with peers.

Business freshman Maxym Wolberg said he enjoyed regularly studying with a consistent group of people on Zoom for his statistics class last semester.

“I loved having the opportunity to talk about statistics even if I never got to meet the other people in person,” Wolberg said. “I think working together made it so we all understood whatever topic, and felt a little less alone.”

For students like Wolberg who enjoy virtual learning in a small-group dynamic, Julie Harrell, a lecturer in the Spanish department, facilitates a weekly event where Spanish students can practice their speaking skills with peers in a casual environment. 

“La Tertulia Virtual” is an adaptation of the in-person Spanish “coffeehouse” conversation hour that Harrell had routinely held in-person in the commons of the Modern Languages Building for the past five years. When her students asked her to create an online La Tertulia, Harrell said she was excited to oblige.

“I think it’s wonderful how students are taking charge of their own learning,” Harrell said. “They want to come to Tertulia and practice, and so I want to provide a space where they can do that.” 

LSA senior Madalasa Chaudhari has attended La Tertulia since freshman year, said she thinks La Tertulia Virtual is especially helpful for those facing challenges with practicing their listening and speaking skills in online foreign language classes.

“Tertulia helps build those interpersonal communications that you would have naturally in a classroom setting,” Chaudhari said.

Similar to La Tertulia, the Science Learning Center Peer-Led Study Groups Program is attempting to build small, tight-knit communities centered around academic learning. Supervised by undergraduate student leaders, study groups meet weekly to review material from a specific introductory science course.

Santiago Bukovsky, the Study Group Program Manager, said the SLC Study Groups have always brought students together to collaborate on problems, but this year, increased icebreakers and social activities have made the groups even more important for students who are searching for a supportive, intellectual community.

“This year, we added a ten minute break in the middle of each session, so that people can, one, get a break from Zoom fatigue, but also to encourage conversation and community building among the members of the groups,” Bukovsky said. “Without a study group or a tutoring service, you might not get a chance to talk to many people about the work that you’re doing.”

U-M learning centers accommodate for individualized online instruction

The SLC, along with the Sweetland Writing Center and Math Lab, is also offering one-on-one tutoring for students who want to collaborate on academic projects, but need more personalized support.

Emily Edgerton, the Tutoring Program Manager at the SLC, said the SLC had already begun piloting an online tutoring option before the pandemic to make tutoring instantly accessible for all students who want help.

“As long as you have WiFi, you can access (tutoring) anywhere, so you don’t have to walk to a physical location,” Edgerton said. “It just makes it a lot easier for all students to access the service.”

LSA senior Noah Luntzlara, a tutor in the Math Lab, echoed Edgerton’s appreciation for the ease of attending the Math Lab online “at the click of a button.” He emphasized the value of having a knowledgeable peer to talk to about course content, especially when asynchronous or large online lectures make it difficult to obtain individualized assistance.

“Nowadays it’s often challenging to connect with classmates, so the Math Lab is a good alternative way to talk to someone about your math problems,” Luntzlara wrote in an email to The Daily. “If you’re not getting a concept from lecture, we’ll try to explain it in as many different ways as possible until something makes sense to you.”

Like the SLC and Math Lab, the Sweetland Writing Center offers several options for individual writing help. Similar to its in-person operations, the virtual Sweetland allows students to meet with peer tutors individually or in groups, work with faculty members in Writing Workshops and to submit a paper for asynchronous revision. 

Daniel Hartlep, the Undergraduate Program Coordinator for Sweetland, noted an increase in students choosing the asynchronous “e-tutoring” option this year. Though he said he supports reaching out to Sweetland for writing support in any capacity, Hartlep encouraged students to collaborate synchronously with writing advisors as much as possible in a virtual semester.

“I’ve heard from students that I’m working with that they’re really missing that peer-to-peer connection in class, and so in a lot of ways, being able to talk about one’s writing with someone who is considered not only an instructor, but a peer, is very valuable,” Hartlep said.

Shelley Manis, a lecturer who works with Sweetland, also suggested students use the Sweetland tutoring program as a way to organize and get suggestions on small-group collaborative projects. She noted an increase in podcasts and videos being assigned in online English classes and said the Sweetland staff are available to help facilitate this collaboration.

“This might be a good opportunity for people to come to us for projects that are multimodal,” Manis said. “For example, students are creating podcasts or videos, or infographics, things that require you to be working on computers. That’s now approachable in such a different way than it used to be.”

Overall, Manis said having to transition to Sweetland services online has made them look at collaboration and the relationships between students and faculty with a new appreciation for flexibility and patience.

“We’ve actually been able to get even more collaborative in some ways, because having this interaction on Zoom allows for people who are maybe a little bit more shy to participate in whatever way is comfortable for them,” Manis said. “While we lose a little bit of the social part online, I would say we learned about how students learn by not being able to be in the same room. Overall, we might gain from approaching collaboration with a focus on flexibility.”

Daily Staff Reporter Roni Kane can be reached at ronikane@umich.edu.

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