Fostering Imaginative Interdisciplinary Interventions for Higher Education Learning in a Post-Pandemic Paradigm
November 19–20, 2021
COVID-19 caused disruptions in communal, engaged learning, constraining professors who had been implementing community engagement initiatives that, for example, involved students helping disadvantaged people in-person. However, during a pandemic and beyond, interventions by professors can leverage the diverse perspectives of inter-disciplinary students to help diverse disadvantaged people. The redesign of a community engagement program affected by the pandemic at our university created opportunities for community organizations, for disadvantaged people in our inner-city region, and especially for our students.
Dimensions of Program
The community engagement program convened as a course on the Brightspace learning management system asynchronously, and on Zoom remotely but synchronously, for students at Pace University to do entrepreneurial organizational projects.
The projects focused generally on disadvantaged people in New York City, such as disabled, elderly, and homeless people (Rubin, 2020), isolated in local residences. The participants included 29 inter-disciplinary students in the semester of spring 2021, as displayed in Figure 1:
The students formed into a community (Cohn & Plotts, 2021) of entrepreneurial self-directed teams (five teams of five students), from across a range of disciplines as shown in Figure 1. The professor functioned as a learner-focused mentor (DiYanni, 2018) to the students and to the teams.
As self-regulated members of their teams (Oyelere, Olaleye, Balogun, & Tomczk, 2021), the students formulated their projects for helping non-profit organizations and the populations helped by them. The diversity of the students—form accounting, arts and sciences, information technology, management and marketing—and the flexibility they were given in completing the projects ensured that project solutions were informed by diverse perspectives (Hargadon, & Bechky, 2006).
The diversity of the inter-disciplinary students nevertheless presented problems for the professor in the pandemic spring of 2021:
- How would students function inter-dependently as members of self-managed teams, during a pandemic, as most of them had not met previously at the university?
- How would students empathetically help disadvantaged organizations and people, during a pandemic, as most of them had not met disadvantaged inner-city populations previously through the university?
- How would the professor support the mental health of pandemic-stressed students (Macias, 2020), and learn more about the students in sociality with them, and on Zoom?
To address these problems, and to be imaginative in the pandemic, the professor redesigned the program in spring 2021 with interventions for the students.
Interventions of Program
From the beginning of the course, as advocated in the literature (Brookfield, & Preskill, 2005), the professor redesigned interventions for the program, which took place on Tuesdays, 10:05AM – 12:05PM. The professor introduced interventions as jolts to the students, as displayed in Figure 2:
9:50 AM – 10:05 AM
Good Morning Music! with Professor
10:05 AM – 10:20 AM
General Session (All Students)
Cooking Ethnic Food
Diversity Entrepreneurship Jolt
Exercise for Mediation Mindfulness
Agenda of Class (Assignments for Projects by Teams)
Questions for Deliverables for Class
10:20 AM – 12:05 PM
Breakout Sessions (Self-Directed Teams)
Design, Development and Implementation of Projects by Student and Teams
Storyboarding and Prototyping of Projects by Students and Team
Guest Presenters on Diversity Equity and Inclusion Programs of Schools
Mini-Presentations of Progress of Project Previews by Teams
Observations by Professor (and Participation If Requested by Teams)
Figure 2: Jolts of Professor in Spring 2021
In particular, professor introduced diversity entrepreneurial jolts as a mechanism for mindfulness, in instilling sensitivity of the students to the non-profit organizations, and notably to the populations, that the students will be helping in the semester, as displayed in an example in Figure 3:
Diversity Entrepreneur Jolt
- Define a customer demographic* that you feel is a disadvantaged population in our society that can be helped by the project of your team;
- Describe the adverse conditions that you feel are currently hindering the equitable inclusion of this population in our society;
- How might the project of your team be attuned, customized in marketing, and even personalized in sensitivity, to this population;
- How might the app product technology of your project team be customized, even funded, and improved for accessibility and nuance requirements, to this population; and
- Identify 3 advocacy non-profit organizations (and urls) for this population with whom your team might partner in serving with your team, including actual executives for the board of directors of your team.
Teams may choose for the exercise the following populations: African-American, BIPOC, Elderly, Hispanic, Homeless, Immigrant, Inner City, LGBTQIA+, Low Income, Native American, Patients, People with Disabilities, POC, Unemployed, or Women (not authoritative nor exhaustive examples of populations) or other populations.
Figure 3: Diversity Entrepreneurial Jolts of Professor in Spring 2021
The professor introduced the interventions in Figure 3 and 2 as methods in mindfulness in soothing stressed students (Scientific American, 2021).
These interventions of the program pushed the student teams beyond their comfort levels (Feifer, 2021) to do the pandemic projects of spring 2021.
Projects of Program
The projects of the student teams focused generally on the health and the livability of disadvantaged populations, largely “social entrepreneurship” projects (Haski-Leventhal, & Glavas, 2021), proposed for municipal non-profit organizations in the New York City region.
The projects in the semester involved an application (app) for food services for African-American elderly in-house neighbors with disabilities, a facility for innovative restroom services for Hispanic homeless neighbors, and a mental health service for African-American and Hispanic low-income neighbors, as examples of spring 2021. The projects were produced by the students and presented at the end of spring 2021 to the professor, and as feasible to the non-profit organizations, by the teams. These projects were positioned as potential solutions that might be funded for the non-profit organizations and the populations, from grant possibilities at the university.
The professor managed the progress of the projects from asynchronous blogs of the students on the learning management system each Tuesday; mini-presentations of the students on their teams, synchronously on zoom each Tuesday; and asynchronous monthly reflection reports of the students on the system.
Beyond the interventions of the jolts each Tuesday, the professor was connecting pedagogically and motivating socially in special group sessions of the student teams and in private sessions as requested with specific students, as advocated in the literature (Williams, & Corwith, 2021).
Essentially, the professor was participating as a mentor in mindfulness (Bonner, 2020) to the students and to the teams, in and out of the sessions on spring 2021 Tuesdays on zoom, in order to insure learning progression in the period of pandemic stress.
Professors can benefit from the program and extend the lessons learned in the pandemic to the post-pandemic period:
- Despite a pandemic, a camaraderie of a collaborative community of students (Finegan, 2021) was apparent in the production of the entrepreneurial projects;
- Cooperative and effective engagement on zoom was apparent in the process of the production projects of the students;
- Entrepreneurship accordingly was apparent on zoom as a characteristic in the learning of the students;
- Experiential learning on the projects was evident in the fortunate “I can do this” inter-disciplinary perspectives of the students (Lin, & Kennette, 2021);
- Experiential learning on the projects for non-profit organizations and disadvantaged populations was evident in the heightened learning of the needs of the organizations and the populations (Tubach, 2020);
- Experimentation in learning was evident in the imaginative interventions of the professor, especially extendable into a post pandemic paradigm;
- Experimentation in learning was evident in the increased involvement of the professor (Jones, Sauliner, Fullick-Jagiela, & Leonard, 2020) with the students and with the student teams, especially extendable into a pandemic period professor role;
- Involvement of professors, in and out of office hours, will be likely more pedagogical in a presence principle of “I am [socially] there” (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000) with the students and with the student teams, especially extendable into a pandemic period role for professors;
- Involvement of the students on self-regulated teams will be likely more productive in team playing with more involvement of the professor supporting the teams in and out of the sessions, on zoom or not on zoom (Hess, 2020); and
- Learning management systems and the technologies for videoconferencing will be needed for professors and students and as feasible for the non-profit organizations participating in programs at the university (Lassoued, Alhendawi, & Bashitialshaaer, 2020).
Finally, students can benefit from the lessons learned in this program, as found in the outcomes of the semester in spring 2021.
Program Reflections of Students
The outcomes of the pandemic program are in the positive reflections of the students, which are apt particularly in the period of spring 2021 stress, a tough time (Nguyen, 2021):
|Reflections of Students||Spring 2021|
|I am proud of the community product from my project.||yes 27 no 2|
|I am positive from what I learned from my community project.||yes 26 no 3|
|I am positive of what I learned from community “digital diversity” populations.||yes 24 no 5|
|I am positive of what I learned of municipal or non-profit organizations helping disadvantaged marginalized populations.||yes 22 no 7|
|I am pursuing / will be pursuing advocacy of marginalized population in other projects of public service through the university.||yes 17 no 12|
These reflections argue for programs as positioned in this presentation
Community engagement programs can be daunting in a pandemic but can be enhanced in interventions by professors. Our program is energizing students in learning of the needs of non-profit organizations and disadvantaged populations. We feel this program is a fruitful prospect for the higher education role for justice and service, as we continue to recover in a post pandemic society.
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Resources for Further Study
Cress, C.M., Collier, P.J., Reitenauer, V.L., & Associates (2013). Learning through service: A student guidebook for service-learning and civic engagement across academic disciplines and cultural communities. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Fitzpatrick, K. (2019). Generous thinking: A radical approach to saving the university. Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press.
Peer, S.B. (2021). The essential diversity mindset: How to cultivate a more inclusive culture and environment. Newburyport, Massachusetts: Career Press.
Solomon, A. (2019). About us: Essays from the disability series of The New York Times. New York, New York: The New York Times Company.
Steyn, M., Burnett, S., & Ndzwayiba, N. (2021). Differences at work: Practicing critical diversity literacy. Champaign, Illinois: Common Ground Research Networks.