Podcast Episode: Going Virtual and Staying Connected with Jason Johnson, UMSL

28 April 2020

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions in higher education have been forced to close their campuses and move to remote operations.

Here at Engineerica, we’ve taken steps to help educators as they move to support students virtually by releasing some additional features quickly in our Accudemia platform that enables virtual appointment scheduling and remote sign-in options. We also extended complimentary accounts through the end of the summer for those who need such a solution.

We speak to Jason Johnson, University Tutoring Center Manager for the University of Missouri-St. Louis, about the impact the pandemic has had on their services. What follows is an uplifting conversation about how their University Tutoring Center is rising to the challenge and adjusting their operations to continue to meet the needs of their students.

Episode - Going Virtual and Staying Connected with Jason Johnson, UMSL

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What follows is a transcription of the podcast:

[background music fades in]

JENELLE CONNER (host): Welcome to this episode of Student Success Heroes, a podcast by Engineerica Systems. I’m Jenelle Conner and I will be your host for this episode. At Engineerica, we know student services professionals are making a huge impact in the lives of each student they serve. Through this podcast, we wish to highlight their stories and allow them to share their insights with all of us. 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions in higher education have been forced to close their campuses and move to remote operations. Here at Engineerica, we’ve taken steps to help educators as they move to support students virtually by releasing some additional features quickly in our Accudemia platform that enables virtual appointment scheduling and remote sign-in options. We also extended complimentary accounts through the end of the summer for those who are in need of such a solution. 

We recently spoke to Jason Johnson, University Tutoring Center Manager for the University of Missouri St. Louis, about the impact the pandemic has had on their services. What follows is an uplifting conversation about how their University Tutoring Center is rising to the challenge and adjusting their operations to continue to meet the needs of their students. 

[music fades out]

JASON JOHNSON: I’m Jason Johnson and I’m the manager of the University Tutoring Center of the University of Missouri St. Louis. I have been part of the UMSL family since June of 2019 and so I'm very honored to be here and hope that I can assist any other individuals who are struggling in any way

CONNER: Awesome. Thanks so much and I've actually been with Engineerica for 3 years but before that I worked in education for 11 years with Valencia College. I really have seen in education in this situation a lot of resilience, a lot of problem-solving, a lot of positivity come out of this, and that's to take that I'm going to go with, with some of my questions for you.

JOHNSON: Yeah, I completely agree with you and I’m excited to answer your questions. Thanks.

CONNER: Awesome. So, first, tell me about your center operations prior to the pandemic mostly and what your mission is and how your operations relate to that mission.

JOHNSON: Yeah. So we are the University Tutoring Center, like I mentioned earlier, and the University Tutoring Center actually became in full operation as its own entity in June 2018. And before that it was housed and Multicultural Student Services and through the guidance and vision of a Dr. Natissia Small and other individuals within the University Leadership Team they brought forth University Tutoring Center. As a result of that, we offer a variety of tutorial support. We offer paired-peer tutoring, which students can fill out an intake form and they can receive up to five hours of tutorial support, one-on-one, with a specific tutor in the course that they're struggling with. In addition to that, we also offer/offered walk-in tutoring which is students can come and get on-the-spot assistance in our facility. And then we also offer something called NetTutor which is a service that provides online tutorial support from professional tutors through an online platform.

And then our mission is that we help students; we’re always saying, “We're trying to change your world” or “Helping you change your world.” And so in simplistic terms, basically we know that students struggle in college and that every student’s struggle is different, but because of the services that we can offer to students, we hope that we/our small part is in helping them change their world and attaining that degree or just passing that class that they're struggling with.

CONNER: I love that! I love the idea of ‘changing their world’ and helping to be more successful. Tell me now that we've reached this pandemic with COVID-19, what were some of the first challenges that presented themselves to you and your team, and how did you approach them?

JOHNSON: I don't know if they were necessarily challenges, per se, but the University Tutoring Center had to get creative in how we were going to be offering our services. Since we couldn’t offer that face-to-face tutoring anymore we needed to figure out how that would look in a virtual format and still maintain the tutorial support that students need. We knew our number one priority obviously was to still help students and we began making plans of how to move that face-to-face support, like I mentioned earlier, the walk-in tutoring and specifically the paired-peer tutoring to online formats that would still be helpful for students.

CONNER: So what kind of tools or ideas did you apply to this to go virtual?

JOHNSON: So the first thing that we did, since all 55 of our tutors typically worked in that face-to-face setting like I mentioned earlier, we implemented a best practices for online tutorial support; and this was a professional development that we required all of our tutors to attend via Zoom because they had already left the campus to continue their classes online. And basically that was to show that online tutoring can be just as effective as that in-person support. And so we started implementing things like Zoom to combat that. We also had planned to implement something under the product name called Pisces and we were going to call that Triton Online Tutoring which Louie the Triton is our mascot, so kind of working with our school mascot and the University Tutoring Center mission. So what that is, is basically it's a platform that’s very similar to NetTutor but instead earlier where I mentioned those were professional tutors that were utilizing that, now with our University tutoring center trained tutors who are assisting students through that platform

CONNER: Oh, that’s great! So are they just on-demand and waiting for students to login?

JOHNSON: Yeah, so I can kind of explain the combinations that we have. We converted walk-in tutoring into drop-in tutoring so we literally took the exact same schedule that we had from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and we offered that in drop-in support via Zoom. And then in addition to that, the Triton online tutoring we made into the evening hours on a variety of days when they can come from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. on some nights and receive tutorial support in some core classes that we know students typically struggle with - mainly math, biology and chemistry.

CONNER: Awesome. And what has the response been like? Have you seen a good amount of students still coming in for support via this way?

JOHNSON: Yes, definitely. Students, we know students just struggle and they need that support so that’s why we’re there to do is provide them with that support. So we have had a very good turnout for our online tutorial supports that we’ve offered.

CONNER: Awesome, and how have you been able to get the word out to students? I know some schools are having challenges with communicating. What have you done to communicate the options to students?

JOHNSON: We created a flyer that’s called ‘Staying Connected’ and so we listed out all of the different tutorial supports that we have now in this online format. And so that was sent out to UMSL students. In addition to that, any student who has requested services from us throughout the semester, we have a record of their email, so we have done a lot of targeting to those individuals and letting them know that we're still here for them and we can support them. In addition to that, we also have a student database where we can search for subject areas, so a lot of the courses that are tutors work in, we’ve targeted those specific students to let them know, “Hey you can receive help in college algebra on this day, this time, in this format through drop-in tutoring or you can also receive it in our Triton Online Tutoring platform as well.”

CONNER: And are you still able to track which students are coming in tutoring?

JOHNSON: Yeah, so, we use Accudemia for our walk-in or now in drop-in format. What we've done is we've just had our tutors manually input that and then with the recent developments that you guys have sent out to us, we’re in the process of getting that set-up to where they would just sign-in through the Accudemia platform and then be taken to the Zoom rooms as a result of that.

CONNER: Excellent! Yeah, we were really excited that our developers put in this work to make that remote sign-in possible, so it's great that you guys are using that.

JOHNSON: Oh yes! We’re just really excited to get that up and running because you know the manual tracking has been fine but it's just going to be a great addition to where that kind of takes an extra step off of our tutors and we can just accurately track our data to show that students really do need tutorial support and that we’re there for them.

CONNER: That's great. Tell me, what have you found to be some of the positives that have come from the situation? What kind of lessons have you learned?

JOHNSON: Yeah, there has been a lot of positive outcomes as a result of this time. We've learned that no matter what's going on in the world around us if we stay dedicated to our mission to help students change their world, then we’ve succeeded. Overall, UTC has had a lot of plans. We have plans to execute that new online tutorial platform that I mentioned earlier and before the endemic struck we were just in the beginning stages of that, and because of everything that was going on we knew that we needed to move forward and move forward with that quickly and it’s been to much success.

CONNER: Awesome. How have you been able to coordinate with your team while being remote?

JOHNSON: What we have decided to do is that as a team we maintain consistent communication through video meetings, through emails, and then we also just do check-ins with one another to make sure that we're trying to still go for that goal of achieving student success and allowing our students to continue to change their world.

CONNER: Wonderful. Do you have any way to supervise what the tutors are doing with the students, like an assessment or notes or comments or anything?

JOHNSON: Yes. So, we’ve always implemented a tutor observation guide and so our tutoring coordinators and graduate assistants would check up on them and you know in the face-to-face situation and they would fill out this form. So now we can still implement that the same as we normally would except for it’s just in a different format now; we just do it through online video which is honestly a little bit easier because we can just hop on and see when they're with a student and fill out that form accordingly. And then we always provide a copy of that form to our tutors to let them know how they're doing and if there's anything that maybe they could have improved a little bit on in that session as well.

CONNER: Well that sounds like it's working great for you. So tell me have you had any stress during this situation and how have you overcome these stressors?

JOHNSON: Yeah, you know at times it’s been stressful but you know we're all dealing with our first pandemic per se. There’ve been a lot of emotions that accompany that and we dealt the best that we can. We’ve then implemented several modes of communication to let the students know that we're still here for them; we offer that same caliber of soft touches as we previously did. But now we just try to reach out to the students more often to let them know that we are here for them and that they can seek that tutorials support and get the assistance that they need to be successful college students and beyond.

CONNER: So what do your operations look like going forward? How soon do you think you'll be returning to normal so to speak?

JOHNSON: I don’t know if we as we move out of the pandemic, we just know that we want to continue to practice meeting our students' needs. This pandemic has proven that no matter what students have a need for those additional resources and as we move forward we plan to whenever we get back to the university and students can start meeting with tutors in that face-to-face format we’re going to maintain that but we also are going to maintain those virtual tutorial supports that we’ve also implemented because of this pandemic to continue to assist our services and like I said help them change their world!

CONNER: Awesome. So it sounds like you have a great team. And do you have any particular team members that have really stepped up and shown what great leaders they are in the situation?

JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah, I’d say we have a great team who is really dedicated to maintaining that student success. I definitely want to give a shout out to a lot of individuals. Like I mentioned earlier our Assistant Provost for Student Success, Dr. Natissia Small has been a great leader in helping us prioritize and just really focus on what we need to do to make our students successful. Our Tutoring Coordinators, Rebecca Malloy and Janeece Woodson have put in countless hours to ensure that they're making those pairings, checking on our tutors. There’s four graduate assistants as well who have dedicated their time to making sure that we're checking in on the students; that they're reaching out to them ensuring the pairings are going successfully. And then also, like I mentioned we have 55 tutors who without them we couldn’t provide the support that we provide to the students and so I want to give a huge shout out to all those tutors because they have really stepped up to the plate and are just really excited to maintain the quality tutorial support that we provide to all of the students at UMSL.

CONNER: I’m very impressed with your team and really the resiliency of many of the different support staff teams that I've spoken to. So I really commend you and all your efforts.

JOHNSON: Oh, thank you so much. I know like you kind of mentioned earlier, educators are just very resilient, and they just step in at any time that there's a crisis or something that needs fixed and they can just magically fix it. I've been in education 11 years before this and they can, education professionals, just take that lead and know that their number one priority is serving students and they'll do whatever they can to best help those students. And I can say that’s the same for the University of Missouri-St. Louis. They’ve diligently worked to ensure that we have the best plans in place to continue to help students and our staff and students are really lucky because of that.

CONNER: For sure! So tell me a little bit about you and your motivation to get into education.

JOHNSON: Oh, I started off as a high school English teacher. My grandma was a teacher so in elementary school that definitely motivated me. I can remember playing in school and sitting in my classroom and then I had an amazing high school English teacher who I had for luckily for three years of my high school career who just made me love English and education even more and I was fortunate enough to work with her for those 11 years that I was teaching high school English. She was my curriculum instructional coach and she just had a very positive impact on me on the way that she would reach out to students and always let them know that she was there for them and I just hope that I’ve been able to model that same, that same thing that she's always done for everyone.

CONNER: Well it sounds like you have and you are. So congrats on that!

JOHNSON: Thank you.

CONNER: Any final words of advice to people who are going through a similar situation as you and your team?

JOHNSON: Yeah. The best advice that I can just give them is to remain calm. We can’t just magically make this pandemic go away. The only thing that we can still continue to do as educational professionals is adapt to help our students. We have to change what support looks like for them, we have to get creative, think outside the box because we're in a world of uncertainty at this time and regardless of that we all have to work together and continue to adjust to provide that positive student experience for them.

CONNER: Definitely. I totally agree.

JOHNSON: Yes, it's an interesting time and I’m just happy that we’ve been able to provide the support that we’ve been able to provide to students and hope that they are trying to enjoy this as best as they possibly can.

CONNER: Yes, I'm sure it's very stressful for some of them who wanted to be on campus and in-class learning and have now had to convert to online learning and I'm sure the instructors who are normally teaching face-to-face, it's been a little bit of a struggle for them as well.

JOHNSON: Again, education professionals I think are resilient, but even more resilient are the students. I remember whenever we converted over to a one-to-one at the high school that I taught at, we are all very nervous of how the students were going to take this and how if they were going to be receptive, is this going to be the best learning for them, all these questions were swimming in our heads. And what we realized was that the students adapted faster than what the teachers and administrators did. So I kind of think the same thing is happening here is that the students are just resilient and are determined to get that degree and to learn and so we're just really seeing that students are kind of stand out in this as well, that they’re doing their part in making this a smooth transition so definitely want to give a shout out to those students because they're definitely great.

CONNER: Have you seen any new types of needs that students have identified for you?

JOHNSON: Not really at this time. We’ve had a couple students you know just ask about text issues and how to combat those and what they could do and so we’ve just been a resource for that as well, in assisting them on you know directing them to reach out to their professors through Canvas or email or providing them with resources that the University of Missouri St. Louis has set up for them and so we’ve noticed that it's just the same type of questions the same type of needs that the students have it’s just in a little bit of a different format now.

CONNER: Thank you so much, Jason. This has been very helpful to me and I hope helpful to others as well and we're planning to do a few more interviews with a few other centers like yours so that hopefully we can get some really great ideas generated and at least share the lessons learned and the experiences with one another.

JOHNSON:  Yeah, I think that this is great. I’m very thankful that you chose to include the University Tutoring Center in this and I look forward to whenever you guys release it. Thank you guys for all that you do to support education as well.

CONNER: Thank you.

[background music fades in]

CONNER: We enjoyed talking to Jason Johnson, University Tutoring Center Manager and we want to thank him and The University of Missouri St. Louis for allowing us to share and celebrate their successes. And we want to thank you, our listeners, for tuning in for this episode of Student Success Heroes, presented by Engineerica Systems.

For over 25 years, Engineerica has partnered with colleges and universities to bring them helpful tools and technology to aid them in their mission. Currently, Engineerica offers attendance tracking and student service center management systems, such as Accudemia, student retention and success applications like AccuCampus, as well as professional development and continuing education training and conferencing software.

We love our higher ed heroes and hope that we can all learn from them and their inspiring stories. And we want to hear from you and invite you to share your stories and ideas with us. If you are interested in learning more about our solutions and systems, like Accudemia, please visit engineerica.com. I’ll leave a link in the show notes. We look forward to helping you.

Please subscribe, share, and review this podcast to help us keep it going. To all our educators out there, we want to wish you thanks for all you do and wish you safety at this time. Until next time, take care!

--end of transcription--


Complimentary accounts of Accudemia are currently being offered through the rest of the summer semester to assist educators who must move to virtual operations.

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