Navigating coursework, campus life in a virtual world

UC Berkeley campus leaders Thursday tackled a host of questions centered on what student life will look like in this era of COVID-19, which has forced campuses here and across the globe to migrate to a virtual world.

Panelists from several corners of the university participated in a rare evening Campus Conversations on student engagement and services, the fourth such discussion meant to offer clarity and set expectations for students, staff and faculty as the campus prepares for the arrival of a limited number of them  in late August.

"It’s going to be different than what it typically is," Stephen Sutton, vice chancellor for student affairs, said regarding the student experience, which customarily plays out in classrooms and dorms, at student clubs and events, and elsewhere on the 1,232-acre campus.

Yet, Sutton - along with co-panelists Catherine Koshland, vice chancellor for Undergraduate Education; Oscar Dubón, vice chancellor for equity and inclusion; Lisa García Bedolla, vice provost for graduate studies and dean of the Graduate Division; and Sharon Inkelas, special faculty advisor to the chancellor on sexual violence/sexual harassment - emphasized that considerable work is being done to ensure that students have as robust an experience as possible, whether they are on campus or not.

For example, faculty have spent the past few months immersing themselves in best practices aimed at building high-quality online courses and delivering leading-edge remote instruction, Koshland said.

But even as plans are being formulated, panelists said they might have to change gears, depending on how the coronavirus pandemic progresses in the time leading up to the first day of classes on Aug. 26. Every decision on housing, dining, extracurricular activities and dorm life, for example, will be made with an overabundance of safety in mind, the panelists agreed.

"It’s an iterative process. We’re not making these plans and then saying that, ’We’re done,’’’ said García Bedolla. "Uncertainty is hard, and we are all learning as we go. We will all have to keep each other safe and be flexible."

At the heart of the hourlong talk was the fact that first-year and transfer students, in particular, sometimes struggle to make connections to their new campus environs, even in normal times. Since the coronavirus pandemic has exploded the typical routes to relationship building, how will students create a sense of belonging in a virtual space?

García Bedolla, noting that she has spent many office hours alone in her career, urged students to reach out to their professors early and often. Koshland added that students should be intentional about helping to build some of the contact that could get lost in a virtual world, though, Inkelas said that students could also put to use many tech tools and techniques to build virtual communities with their peers.

For Dubón, no matter what the challenges, he expects the very best of Berkeley will shine through.

"You are a remarkable, amazing group that will join a remarkable, amazing community," he said, addressing the student viewers. "We are resilient, and we’ll find ways to navigate through these challenges together. That, to me, epitomizes the creativity of what Berkeley is all about."


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