One of the first things students lose when making the switch to full-time online learning is that connection to their institution. Taking courses at home, studying at home, and limited contact with instructors and peers can make students feel isolated.
Thomas Nelson students, faculty and staff, with help from several sponsors, hope to combat that with what they are calling a “pop-up podcast center.” Opened the week of Aug. 10, it's housed in the Hampton III Building.
“My goal was to find an avenue to keep activities, events and additional learning occurring,” said Alicia Riley, special events coordinator at the College.
At the time she started thinking about the center, she was enrolled in a personal development course at the College to learn more about technology. In her course, she learned how to create a virtual studio.
“My instructors were saying it really didn’t take a lot,” she said. “For a podcast, it’s a laptop and a microphone. For a virtual studio, it is a monitor, a laptop and a camera.”
She was confident the College could do it so she discussed it with administrators. She moved forward with the idea once reassured the budget was suffcient since many in-person events had been canceled.
Among the people she spoke to were Student Government Association President Lizz Yimer and the SGA VP at the Hampton campus, Sam Bevins. Both jumped on board.
“I think it’s a good way to get students back involved,” Yimer said. “I think it’s going to be beneficial to everyone, not just students.”
Bevins echoed those thoughts.
“I was concerned with integrating students with the school with everything being online,” he said. “I think the podcast center is going to solve a lot of those problems with allowing students to stay connected to their school.”
Details still are being worked out, but Yimer and Bevins want to make sure one big component of the podcasts is getting the most out of online learning.
“I really hope students are able to learn how to be a student online,” Yimer said. “With everything going on, be able to take time for themselves and just really put in time for themselves, and be able to learn online because it is so hard.”
Bevins, who was homeschooled through high school, said online learning is much different than in-person learning.
“A lot of homeschool is independent learning,” he said. “Most of my high school experience was learning exactly like I do now in college.”
Yimer was not homeschooled, but after going through the change to online learning in the spring semester, agrees with him.
“It is so much more challenging,” she said.
She noted the majority of students at Thomas Nelson come from public schools, and that environment is much different.
“So when we switch online, it’s essentially teaching yourself everything,” she said. “I think that’s what a lot of students weren’t expecting last semester. They had to teach themselves, literally, everything.”
She suggests podcasts that feature tips and tricks on how to learn. One of the reasons she’s in the neuroscience field is because she suffered a brain injury and had to learn how to learn.
“If you learn how to learn, you unlock the key to success right there. I think that’s so important,” she said.
Bevins said one of his roles as SGA vice president is keeping in touch with all the clubs on campus. With most of those on hold for now, communication is important. And that’s where podcasts could help. He also envisions the podcasts keeping students up to date on scholarship opportunities, and campus news such as the possible renaming of school buildings.
“I want to advertise student services that are available right now,” he said. “For example, the tutoring center is available in fall. I think a lot of people are going to forget about that, and it might get lost in emails. I can keep different people in the know about club activities that might be going on.”
Riley knew she was on to something when she was at a coffee shop in Williamsburg and overhead William & Mary students talking about their school’s podcast, which had featured some professors. The students were excited to learn about them as people, and learn about their hobbies and interests.
“Right there, for me, it stamped it,” Riley said. “The students need that extended learning. It was so awesome how they were so excited about the podcast.”
Some other topics under discussion are explaining what podcasts are, professor and student interviews, and healthy living and lifestyle tips.
“I think well-being is so important, especially for everyone during this time, talking about mental health,” Yimer said.
Dr. Susan English, Vice President for Academic Affairs, has given history professor Stacey Schneider the green light to have podcasts as she and her sister hike part of the Appalachian Trail in October. Those podcasts could consist of the history of the trail, the geology of the trail and much more.
Neither Yimer nor Bevins has experience in producing podcasts, but are looking forward to the challenge like all involved.
“I’m really excited to go through this and figure it out along the way,” said Yimer, who came up with the name “Press Play” for the podcast studio. “I think this is such a great idea.”
Said Bevins: “I’m really excited to learn about this. I’m really excited for students to stay connected to the school. I hope they stay connected to the school.”
Riley was the first to point out Thomas Nelson couldn’t have started its podcast center without sponsors. They are “The Smile Group,” Peninsula Women’s Network, Chick-fil-A and the Tutoring Zone, a business from Williamsburg that tutors kids.
“The Smile Group” is owned by Dr. James A. Burden and has four locations: Williamsburg, Mathews, West Point and Chesapeake.
“Dr. Burden, he’s just really passionate about anything that has to do with the community,” said Melissa Thompson, marketing director for “The Smile Group.”
She noted Burden donated money for the equipment.
“I’ve never seen an office or a group do as much as he does, giving back to the community.”
She’s also the president for the Peninsula Women’s Network, and said it was a “no-brainer” for that organization to get involved, as well.
“PWN is community oriented too,” she said.
She said for both groups, “it’s all about the community and what we can do. And it’s also for the College.”
She noted Burden has had a relationship with the College for a number of years, often referring patients who can’t afford treatments to Thomas Nelson’s dental clinic at the Historic Triangle campus.
“It’s all about connections and relationships,” she said. “We love to help in the end.”