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Virtual Town Halls At Jackson State University Aim To Ensure Productive Environment In COVID-19 Era

(JACKSON, Miss.) — Staying ahead of concerns spurred by COVID-19 changes,
JSU administrators and students have been holding virtual faculty and
student town halls to improve learning and educational instruction for
all.

“Our return to campus centered on our desire for students to progress in
their studies and complete their degrees. We are learning lessons on
improving instruction daily, and we are unafraid of making changes in
students’ best interests,” said Dr. Alisa Mosley, interim provost and vice
president of Academic Affairs.

This past spring, the university transitioned 80 percent of traditional
courses online. Since the fall, JSU has offered a hybrid mix of
face-to-face classes and online instruction while keeping recommended
safety guidelines intact.

“We are committed to acquiring needed resources for faculty development
and student engagement. Our efforts to support students will be recorded
in history, and I would want that history to reflect a willingness for us
to build community,” Mosley said.

Throughout the fall term, the university has been hosting Zoom sessions
with student representatives, faculty and staff to discuss higher-ed
experiences, including highlights. Students also give feedback on areas
that need adjustment.

“There is a greater responsibility here as well. We are designing
instructional systems to affect higher education for the future, and we
are teaching students another core competency needed for their
career-resiliency. We continue to listen to emails, social media, phone
conversations, and survey commentary, ensuring that we have the pulse of
student and faculty perceptions,” she said.

For example, explained Dr. Brandi Newkirk-Turner, interim associate
provost, the university implemented a midterm course evaluation, where
students provide anonymous feedback on their academic experience for each
registered course. The information is then reviewed in efforts to enhance
student learning for the second semester.

“The evaluation allows faculty to make necessary changes or pivot their
approach,” she said. “Because by the end of the semester, it’s too late to
address issues.”

The student assessments further allow the university to make needed
adjustments and accommodations. For instance, when concerns over internet
connectivity arose, professors extended the time allotted for students to
take examinations.

Additionally, professors and instructors were encouraged to post recorded
lectures giving students more time to process and understand course
content.

“So these issues are not impossible to resolve. They are not
deal-breakers. Dr. Mosley and others are always looking for solutions. And
I really think we’ve been successful is because we’ve been maintaining an
open dialogue,” Newkirk-Turner said.

“It’s not something we all did at the beginning of the semester, but it’s
something we continued to do. We review Twitter and social media. We look
for problems to actively solve, and that’s a difference-maker.”

The survey results, she said, provide evidence “that learning and teaching
are going on here.”

Although the pandemic has made life hard for everyone, including faculty,
staff and students, Newkirk-Turner said she believes people are doing a
good job dealing with an unanticipated situation.

Aside from university-sponsored town halls, academic colleges and student
organizations also have been hosting individual sessions. 

The student body held a virtual town hall inviting specific faculty and
staff to participate. Jacori Daniels, president of the Student Government
Association, said faculty and staff gave updates from their respective
departments and then fielded questions during a Q&A session.

“After the town hall, my leadership council and I have meetings with the
faculty and staff to see what we can do to resolve the issues discussed in
the town hall,” said the biology pre-med major. “The process has been
beneficial during this school year as we all work together to have a
productive year.”

Justin Standifer, president of the College Activities Board, shared that
some issues are fixed the same day, which makes a big difference.

He agrees that the platform allows for a better academic experience. “In
some cases, there are professors who have extreme course content, and the
virtual environment is new for all of us. So, it’s imperative that we
tackle these issues early on so we don’t have to deal with these things in
the upcoming semester.”

Dr. Candis Pizzetta, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, shared that the
CoLA began hosting town halls in July so that students could ask about
plans for the fall semester.

“We see this group of student leaders and the town halls as a way to
create a consistent dialogue about current issues, students’ needs, and
future directions for the college,” Pizzetta said. “Of course, we started
the town halls to increase a sense of connection with students, but the
town halls have given us much more insight into how to improve the overall
student experience.”

From those meetings, a student advisory committee emerged. Right now,
shared Pizzetta, the advisory committee is working on plans for a
student-led podcast about the HBCU experience.

“We began by trying to connect the students to JSU, but they have taken it
a step further, aiming to create their own virtual environment to inhabit
while they are still away from campus. I’d definitely say we learned a
good bit about how resourceful and resilient our students are,” she said.

The Department of Communicative Disorders holds a “Tea with UPC,” where
students meet with Dr. Whitney Perkins, undergraduate program coordinator.

“It originated as a simple idea I had to help connect and engage with my
students during these virtual times,” Perkins said. “I had to be
innovative in my thinking of ways to fully engage my students during the
current climate.”

The virtual meetings have allowed students in the department to discuss
academics, their social and emotional well-being, graduation requirements,
and course concerns, among other various topics.

“It is very important, as a student, to connect with faculty within their
respective departments. By connecting with faculty, students gain
first-hand knowledge of various opportunities within the department and
the field of communicative disorders,” said Perkins. “I love getting to
know my students and developing long-lasting professional relationships
with them.”

Perkins said the platform allows her to offer students additional
resources, strategies and tips on how to study and clarify any
course-related miscommunications.

Some resources and programs for students include NET Tutoring,
DuBois-Harvey Honors College peer tutoring, and an Academic IT device
loaner program.

As for faculty assistance with navigating a virtual environment,
Newkirk-Turner shared that as skills are retooled faculties are offered
regular training sessions.

“Provost Mosley has a schedule of very intensive trainings that focus on
universal design for learning. We will start those trainings at the end of
the semester. Over our break, she’ll be bringing in consultants and
experts to gear us up for a successful spring semester.”