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Superstar Support: Academic Staff Take on Crucial Roles in Otis College’s Transition Online

Students “want to get back to work, to reconnect with their faculty and classmates,” says instructional designer Jean-Marie Venturini.
Anna Raya

This is the third story in a series about how Otis College’s department chairs, instructors, support staff, and academic leadership are preparing for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester to be conducted online, out of health and safety concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic. To read the previous stories, about some of the ideas instructors are planning, click here and here

Now that the extended spring break has ended, and Otis College students and faculty have started finding their way in a completely online environment for the remainder of the semester, the work of the support staff at the Teaching and Learning Center, Technical Support Services, and Academic Computing are stepping in to help with any gaps in the transition. 

“A significant number of our student population is equipped to carry on classes remotely. That being said, there are still numerous students who don’t have a computer fast enough, or the right software at home,” says Felipe Gutierrez, Senior Director of End-User Computing at Otis. To help, the Academic Computing department configured HP Workstations and Apple computers to loan out to students for the remainder of the semester that they started picking up last week. The computers can access and run all the same programs that were available in Otis’ computer labs. “This provides them with a familiar and reliable setup that they were used to.” The Academic Computing team also compiled a list of software programs that currently are being provided for free by various companies—such as Adobe Creative Cloud, Pixologic, and Cinema 4D—for use at home.

One of the biggest concerns is how the lack of access to the labs and shops will impact students who are working remotely. The staff in Technical Support Services who oversee Otis’s labs, shops, and studios are working on solutions. They have produced a list of vendors who are fulfilling mail orders for materials like paint, paper, and mold-making supplies, and such services as 3-D printing and photo processing. As non-essential businesses have had to close their doors, finding providers that were still operating and able to ship orders was the first order of business. “My staff were some of the last members of the college to leave, as the type of work they do could not easily migrate online,” says Andrew Armstrong, Director of TSS. “Now we are researching these outside agencies and businesses that are still providing services, developing scripts and protocols for particular technical demonstrations, researching new techniques and possible new tools and equipment for acquisition, and doing software training. The goal at the end of this is to have developed new skills and resources that are immediately useful to our community, particularly our students.”

Getting students primed for their online classrooms was a goal for Jean-Marie Venturini, one of two instructional designers in the Teaching and Learning Center. An instructional video was shared with students introducing course expectations and various technologies used in the classroom. These instructional tools include the video conferencing app Zoom, the learning management systems O-Space and the Nest, and Google Drive. The TLC also hosted several live webinars last week during which students could ask questions and express any concerns they had in the lead-up to the resumption of classes. “What is exciting is that many of the students who have joined these webinars want to get back to work, to reconnect with their faculty and classmates,” Venturini says. 

Venturini and Natalie Salvador, also an instructional designer in the TLC, have spent the past two weeks working closely with faculty as they adapted their classes for the online environment. “I think many faculty at first thought they had to teach the same way they did in the physical classroom, that they had to have the same outcomes,” Venturini says. “We try to allow faculty to be more open and more creative. There are many pathways that can lead to achievement of the learning goals for their course. I see the innovation happen when faculty let go of that on-campus classroom expectation.” 

Venturini and Salvador advocate for Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which is a set of principles for incorporating learners’ diverse needs into one’s teaching practices, in much the same way universal design is used in product design or architecture to ensure accessibility for a variety of users. UDL has been an essential part of the development of several eLearning courses at Otis College for over 10 years, providing an advantageous framework during this crucial time. “Existing research shows that many students with various learning needs, and students developing fluency with a language, tend to do better in virtual environments because the instructional modes have to shift,” Venturini says. “Part of the work now with faculty and instructors in the TLC is to ensure the virtual learning spaces are dynamic and varied and can meet the needs and challenges of many students. This online transition has been positive in raising awareness on how to increase the accessibility of information to support the diverse needs of learners.”

Getting what remains of the spring semester up and running has been a giant collaborative undertaking across all academic departments. But support staff like Gutierrez, Venturini, and Armstrong have been continually optimistic and supportive as they’ve helped faculty and now students. Says Armstrong: “I would remind each student that as a creator/maker they should rely on and lean into their individual creative abilities to rethink their usual processes and modes of production and come up with new ways to create under these challenging circumstances.”  

Venturini also sees a crucial upside to the adaptations students are now making. “They are learning new skills that are also valuable,” she says. “They are learning how to interact and engage and work in a digital environment—which is a useful skill as a professional artist and designer.”