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Creating community during the coronavirus crisis: VU students and faculty staying connected virtually

from Staff Reports

VINCENNES, Ind. - Humans are social creatures. Relationships and being surrounded by familiar faces are key to our well-being. Vincennes University is unique because of our small classroom sizes, hands-on learning, and the special connection our team has with students. In the era of social distancing, VU students, faculty, and staff are coming together and creating a community virtually, and they're having fun with it.

VU's Information Technology Department is using Slack, which is essentially a chat room, to keep students and faculty connected, and they're not only discussing coursework. Earlier this week, assistant professors Greg Hirsch and Lorrie Ann Thompson asked students how their pets felt about stay-at-home orders. Students responded by sharing their pet photos and thoughts. Assistant professor Kris Locklin engaged students by sharing a coronavirus toilet paper calculator with the group. When students do attendance check-ins, they're sharing information like what shows they're watching and what they're doing in their free time.

Connections and interactions like these are erasing the barriers caused by physical distance due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has led VU and other institutions to finish the semester via remote learning.

"It's a nice community that makes you feel close together even though we are our separate ways right now," said VU IT student Drew Davis. "I like in-person classes because I like getting to know my classmates, getting to joke around with them before class, and talking to them about what they have going on, and to be able to do that on Slack and have that option to bring us all together into an online world is very nice. The thing I really enjoy is that social interaction and even though we're apart, we're still able to get it."

Davis, who lives in Washington, Ind. and is pursuing a bachelor's degree in Information Technology, is one of many students who are also staying connected with friends and classmates using group text messaging.

Creating a community online was a priority for IT Department Chair and Associate Professor Jaci Lederman and the rest of the IT department.

"We knew we would be fine as far as technology goes and getting our students to use technology, but we wanted to make sure we put something in place that would allow our students on campus to really get that sense of community that they were going to be missing," Lederman said.

It has been a smooth transition to remote teaching for VU's Information Technology faculty. Since many teach both in-person and online courses, the department's lecture videos, resources and course content were already online.

"That allowed us to focus in on what are we going to do about the sense of community," Lederman said. "On campus that's why students go to college on campus is for that community. For our IT students, we call it birds of feather flocking together.

"I am so proud of my faculty for jumping in and making this all work."

Around 125 IT students are using Slack to communicate and faculty monitors the channel Mondays through Saturdays. There's a main channel plus channels for each course.

"The Slack channel is a great way for the VUIT program's students to interact and share information as well as have a good time," VU student Evan Wagoner said. "Slack makes it easy for students to ask the professors as well as other students in the class questions. It also allows us to maintain that feeling of actually being in class with the class group chats. Slack keeps the students and faculty more connected."



VU faculty and staff are using multiple platforms to stay connected with students like Wagoner, who lives in Shoals, Ind. and is working toward an associate degree in Information Technology. They're communicating via virtual office hours using Blackboard Collaborate. Social media is also helping them stay in touch.



Wagoner has worked on assignments with Lederman using Slack by sharing images with her. She's also provided him access to Blackboard Collaborate, which allows her to see his screen and better answer his questions.



"It is very important to me to be connected to other students and the VU faculty," Wagoner said. "It is important from the learning standpoint because I can ask my professors questions as well as being able to have group discussions with other students about difficult assignments."



Maintaining social interaction is hard when people are under stay-at-home orders, must remain six feet apart in gatherings of 10 or fewer people, and with basically everything closed. However, VU students, staff, and faculty are proving it can be done and done with fun.



"I had a couple of online courses before, but in those online classes, I didn't really feel connected to the rest of the class," Davis said. "You may see names in the class that you know, but there wasn't really a group communication. The way Professor Lederman and the IT staff is doing it, it makes it feel like we're closer to being in an actual classroom than your typical online class."

We at Vincennes University encourage learning environments that allow for distancing while still being social.

Together, VU is pulling through this!



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