Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts on how public university honors colleges and programs across the nation are maintaining “the honors difference” during the COVID-19 crisis.
Our thanks to Virginia Tech Honors College for contributing this article. Contact Michelle Fleury (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information.
To help prevent the spread of COVID-19 (Novel Coronavirus), Virginia Tech transitioned to distance learning for the remainder of the Spring semester after March 23, 2020. The Virginia Tech Honors College, through innovative initiatives like the SuperStudio, has continued to facilitate an extraordinary education for Honors students even during these challenging times.
In Spring 2020, the Virginia Tech Honors College, in collaboration with the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) and University Studies, was able to launch SuperStudio. For the next few semesters, topics courses in environmental policy, healthcare, emerging technologies, the future of higher education, and the future of employment will all meet together to examine the possibilities and implications of a Green New Deal, an emerging framework for understanding and addressing interconnected crises in climate change and economic equality.
Faculty and students rotate among the topics courses, which meet simultaneously in the same studio space, and all come together once a week to consider issues and processes that apply to all transdisciplinary work, such as ethics, equity, policy, problem framing, and innovation.
The learning environment of SuperStudio is designed to be highly energized, engaging, and collaborative. “I like being in a space where there’s a lot going on, but we’re not necessarily doing the same thing,” explained Honors student Nina Tarr. “SuperStudio feels like a community.” Nina says her favorite aspect of SuperStudio is the crossing over of sections, such as policy overlapping with higher education. “I also like the theme of the Green New Deal and how we can tie that together with all the different sections,” said Nina.
By allowing different sections to work together and meet across topics for common activities, SuperStudio provides plenty of opportunities for students to develop critical skills and knowledge. “I really enjoyed the experience of being in a big room with all the sections and being able to meet each day of the week in different sections,” said Thomas Miller in the Future of Higher Education section. “We would team up with other sections and kind of combine the ideas that allowed for everyone to experiment with what they were thinking about. So, you would be pushed to think about your own ideas about your topic in different ways. It’s a way to meld ideas together to have a cool discussion.”
The collaborative structure developed in SuperStudio has made the transition to online interactions easier because connections between students and faculty across sections were already established at the beginning of the semester. Students were able to know each other well in their smaller sections, but also had many opportunities to regularly interact with faculty and students across sections. “It’s definitely easier to collaborate in SuperStudio because it was already highly collaborative and we all know each other very well,” said Nina. “So, it’s more comfortable to collaborate and it’s easier to connect.”
Honors College SuperStudio is continuing its highly collaborative format online on Zoom, a popular software platform that provides videotelephony and online chat services often used in distance education. Zoom meetings are hosted online with professors from each section and smaller groups continue to break off in individual Zoom meetings to work together on activities or projects that are extensions of those original discussions. It’s this combination of SuperStudio’s unique design and the pre-established connection that allows SuperStudio to still thrive in distance learning.
“I would say SuperStudio is more collaborative [compared] to [my] other courses. A lot of people are still working together in group projects and creating their own learning together,” Thomas said. “For a lot of my other courses, I wouldn’t call it ‘collaboration.’ I’d call it more of a discussion board… It’s not a real conversation or real collaboration. It doesn’t make you feel like you’re in a classroom [like you feel when in SuperStudio].”
The impact of Honors courses traditionally rests on their small class sizes. “The SuperStudio adds the advantages of experiential, collaborative learning.” said Paul Knox, Dean of the Virginia Tech Honors College, adding that “With our model, we have been able to maintain these advantages through synchronous online learning.”
Meetings with students often focused not only on class topics and projects, but on understanding current events and working through the relationship of class materials to evolving news stories. In this way, students engaged with materials more deeply and maintained more in-depth connections with faculty than if video interactions were limited solely to class-specific materials. Students have maintained connections with fellow students and faculty across topics sections by meeting with different SuperStudio faculty and different groups of students to propose ideas for and develop drafts of final projects. To continue maintaining strong relationships with students and to help students navigate their education during this time, faculty members also expanded their virtual office hours. “The connection is still there,” said Miller. “You have to rely on yourself more, but the bigger issues are still very answerable. E-mail and Zoom correspondence work pretty well.”
SuperStudio has also sustained its visiting speaker series online. Since the transition to distance learning, for example, SuperStudio had the pleasure of speaking with British Economics and Politics Commentator Grace Blakeley, author of “Stolen: How to Save the World from Financialization.” Despite the transition to an online format, the talk was even more interactive. Students were able to ask Blakeley questions ranging from how to “hack” financialization to advice on where to study heterodox economics. Having the audience as well as the speaker on Zoom actually allowed for even closer interaction than if the audience was in person. Blakeley, as the speaker, could see students more individually from the crowd while they asked questions, and therefore, was able to follow-up more personally. Students also appeared to feel more comfortable to engage in this video-conferencing format with the visiting speaker. The success of this format makes it an attractive option for engaging future speakers with the student audience in Honors.