Leveraging Data and Technology to Support Faculty and Students in the Age of COVID-19

Photo: Jason Ordaz/IAIA

Early in the pandemic, the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), a Tribal College & University located in Santa Fe, New Mexico, recognized that a shift in infrastructure was essential to student success. Like other colleges and universities nationwide, IAIA pivoted to online learning.

IAIA students represent 93 tribal nations from 35 states as well as from Canada, Colombia, Japan, China, and Taiwan. Its mission is to “empower creativity and leadership in Native arts and cultures through higher education, lifelong learning and outreach.”

To meet the changing needs of its diverse community during the COVID-19 pandemic, IAIA students, faculty, and staff rallied together to generate solutions. They also devised strategies to meet some of the unique challenges faced by students throughout the transition. 

Equipping students for online learning

In March 2020, IAIA conducted a student preparedness survey to identify any technology and internet connectivity gaps. They learned that:

  • 29.2 percent of the student body have slow and unreliable internet access;
  • 11.3 percent of students have no internet access at all;
  • 14.4 percent of faculty have slow or unreliable access, including the use of 4G cellular hotspots; and
  • 2.8 percent of faculty have no access to internet.

The data was shared among the Student Success Center, Information Technology, Finance department, and the Institutional Research and Academic Technology departments, all of which then coordinated to accommodate individual student and faculty needs. IAIA purchased laptops and tablets for distribution to students with limited access to technology, payed to install or increase wi-fi for students with connectivity issues, and payed for increased mobile phone plans for students to use on their own devices.

Early on, the IAIA Faculty Council held a special session to approve a proposal for faculty to schedule Zoom meetings for all ongoing courses at the normal class time for the first two weeks after Spring Break. After that two-week period, faculty could adjust their class meeting schedule if it better served students’ needs. This decision provided continuity for returning students and ensured that teachers maintained a personal connection during the sudden shift to online learning. The initial two-week online sessions worked for most courses, but a fully online course schedule wasn’t feasible — students are required to take certain studio classes to graduate. To accommodate this requirement, the studios were reconfigured to comply with social distancing guidelines.

Photo: Jason Ordaz/IAIA
Photo: Jason Ordaz/IAIA

Preparing for fall

Spring and summer planning prepared IAIA for the incoming fall cohort of new students. For the 2020–21 academic year, the institute developed new placement exams that were administered early, rather than the typical week before classes. English and math placement tests were complete and ready for students to access by July. By way of a student hub, incoming and continuing students who needed placement assessment could access the tests, take them online, and have them corrected within days, sometimes hours.

Through this experience, IAIA learned that new students, upon admission, should take their placement exams and register for their classes, including Summer Bridge and Orientation as part of the process, several weeks prior to the start of the semester. 

IAIA conducted online orientations for new and transfer students as well as returning students in Canvas. A key topic during these sessions was the IAIA Online Student Bill of Rights, which expresses the responsibilities of online faculty from the student’s point of view. These online orientations helped set students’ expectations for timely and effective responses to their needs throughout the term.

Putting students’ needs first

The pandemic has caused financial strain and hardship for many IAIA students, most of whom are already supported by scholarships and additional funds from the school and other entities. In response to this, IAIA lowered tuition by 10 percent and online-only tuition by 25 percent. Additionally, departments and course requirements were adjusted to better serve students. For example, the IAIA Business and Entrepreneurship Program waived many course pre-requisites to ensure the revised courses were accessible to the wider IAIA student body.

IAIA also implemented a variety of communication methods to reach out to students, faculty, and staff. In March of 2020, LiveChat was installed on the IAIA website to assist with real-time communication for students and constituents. To date, LiveChat staff have serviced over 1,229 chats. IAIA is also piloting an instant messaging system, Pronto, that integrates with its learning management system, Canvas, allowing faculty to message and conduct ad hoc video calls with their students without having to give out personal phone numbers.

Photo: Jason Ordaz/IAIA

Additionally, the Student Success Center staff began its outreach efforts early in the summer to ensure new students would adjust to the new online platforms. The team made phone calls to students to provide essential information about the changes in the fall semester and COVID-19 campus issues. The Admissions staff also continued to stay in close contact with new students and connected with the Student Success Center through AirTable, which facilitated sharing the most up-to-date information regarding outreach efforts.

To provide a sense of IAIA community for students in this new virtual reality, the college created Undergraduate Student and Faculty “Hub” courses in Canvas. These courses provide information resources and updates on course schedules, COVID-19 policies, etc. The Hub courses also facilitate announcements, reducing the volume of email messages since students check Canvas more often than email.

Meeting the moment

During June and July, IAIA conducted multiple faculty trainings. Breakout sessions provided extensive opportunities to compare notes with other faculty members and discuss adjustments for the fall term. The training established standards for the delivery of online courses, making them more consistent and approachable for students and faculty, and taught skills for the integration of online resources for in-person classes.

In addition to the trainings, a taskforce composed of several IAIA departments met weekly for most of the summer to give updates on topics including: ongoing course schedule changes, preparedness surveys of students and faculty, and logistics of remote student and faculty support.

The Institute of American Indian Arts brought its community together during a time of uncertainty and increased need. The creative solutions through institutional collaboration, clear communication, and personal outreach are a clear embodiment of its mission. Join IAIA for one of their virtual open houses during Native American Heritage month from Nov. 16–20. Learn more here.

Contributed by Anita Gavin, Institutional Researcher; Jessie Ryker-Crawford, Associate Professor of Museum Studies; and Andrea Otero, Assistant Professor of Mathematics.

Photo: Jason Ordaz/IAIA
Photos: Jason Ordaz/IAIA


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