Student Conduct in the Digital World
By Alan Acosta
As of this writing, COVID-19 continues to spread. This pandemic has required student conduct professionals to reimagine and innovate how they facilitate the student conduct process on digital platforms. This blog will discuss tips for successfully transitioning the in-person conduct process/meetings to the digital frontier, including how professionals can readjust their mindset and approach.
As of this writing, our world is in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused the higher education industry to reconceptualize how to facilitate the postsecondary experience for students. Many higher education institutions and student conduct professionals have had to swiftly and efficiently adapt their processes and practices to adjust to and fit into this new reality.
This pandemic has challenged many aspects of life often taken for granted, and that has also manifested in the student conduct universe. The biggest issue that came to my mind when the pandemic started to spread in the United States was if we could maintain the continuity of our department's operations if the staff, students, and hearing officers are unable to be in the same physical space. My immediate concern was the feeling that so many aspects of our processes and procedures seemed dependent on the ability to gather in the same physical space. Whether it is accepting mail, talking with people on the office phone, or structuring a hearing so two individuals can participate without directly interacting, I was trying to conceptualize how to keep providing the high-quality service we gave to students.
What I learned quickly, and what many of my colleagues are learning, is that student conduct as a profession is situated to be highly successful and efficient in a virtual space. In our department, we were able to make some important decisions to ensure we kept our office moving forward. First, we wanted to ensure that our staff could remain connected and still collaborate effectively while operating virtually. We decided to use Microsoft Teams as a comprehensive way to upload documents, share projects, and easily communicate via chat or video call. We also decided, at least through the first few weeks of the transition, to make visual contact everyday through a daily check-in meeting via a separate teleconferencing platform. We did this so we could still maintain human connectivity we could not achieve through being at the office. Although we transitioned to an all-virtual office setting, being able to see colleagues and establish virtually the socializing that enriches our jobs was very important in making an effective transition.
Once our department ensured we could maintain effectiveness, we identified in-person processes that needed to be continued so we could identify how to make them virtual. For example, we decided that despite the numerous amounts of printed requests we received to complete a student conduct history check, we had to require all of those requests to be submitted through our website using our online database form. Additionally, we had to figure out how to share incident report information with students who were in the middle of conduct proceedings. This was challenging because our in-person practice affords students and advisors the ability to schedule times to view this information. This is ideal for our office, as we can ensure individuals access information without being provided copies. We wanted to be able to meet our commitment to accessing information without compromising the integrity of the process. To address this challenge, our staff worked with Information Technology Services and the Office of the General Counsel to create a virtual file-sharing system with numerous safeguards, including watermarks and written expectations.
We also had to figure out how to adjudicate hearings virtually. For all of our informal single student cases, this was easily achieved by having each individual hearing officer use the University's video conferencing platform to continue hosting those meetings. We updated all of our letter templates to automatically insert our unique user video conference meeting links and refer students to the institution's website for information on how to use the platform. Conversely, for formal cases, our University video conferencing platform allowed for the creation of breakout rooms, which, in turn, could be used for witness holding rooms, as well as virtual spaces for students and advisors to confer. For the cases in which we did not want students to interact directly with each other, we had the students call in to the virtual meeting rather than video conference in for the majority of it, while having them switch to video conferencing when giving their statement. Consequently, this allowed for equitable participation and an effective separation of parties.
We also modified how we interact with students during our virtual meetings. We ask more intentional questions about how they have handled the transition to online learning spaces, how they are maintaining their personal well-being, what their plans are or how their plans have changed. We share our humanity with our students because we recognize the value of human connections is being emphasized now in a way that was not as profound before this crisis.
Being able to adjudicate any resolution process and heighten our human connection to students proved that there were no processes that our office could not effectively facilitate virtually. To get to that place of confidence, we made a plan to ensure we were sensitive to students' needs and feelings. We relied on each other to conceptualize, craft, and test these processes and used each other as test subjects to simulate our virtual processes out to see if they would work. Engaging in the creation of these virtual processes allowed our staff to partner closer together and become more seamless as a unit.
Moving processes and practices to a virtual domain is not the only area of attention. I have been fortunate to have had several conversations with many of my student conduct colleagues within my state and around the country, and most everyone has agreed that while there have been distinct challenges, moving office, staff, and student processes virtually has been feasible and (with a few hiccups) overwhelmingly successful. The most challenging thing we are all trying to manage, myself included, is the shock we have been processing over the suddenness of the virtual transition. For many colleagues, they were working in their offices one day and literally told to work from home and convert to virtual everything the next. Events happening in such a jarring fashion can be difficult to manage from an emotional and mental standpoint.
As a profession, we must encourage each other to make personal well-being the highest priority through whatever healthy method that may mean. For us, it has meant working near our pets, eating well, drinking more water, occasionally answering emails or participating in daily staff meetings from the outdoors, or taking appropriate, timely breaks, whether to watch a little TV or take a walk outside. No one should be in front of an electronic screen for eight or nine consecutive hours.
Our staff has had initial conversations about what the student conduct world will look like once people are safe to return to the same physical space and the current COVID-19 crisis has passed. For our department, we have recognized that while we will always place a strong value on the in-person processes and interactions, we have learned how to be just as effective virtually and will keep using those methods once we can be together again in-person. Having those skills makes our department feel prepared for the future, virtual or otherwise.