Bates’ Academic Resource Commons Copes with COVID

Upperclassmen at Bates remember the Academic Resource Commons (ARC) as crowded and bustling with the energy of students helping and learning from one another. This year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the physical space of ARC has been left deserted and much of the peer tutoring and writing support programs have been moved online. 

“The biggest change to ARC this year is that most of our support is offered remotely,” Dr. Daniel Sanford, the director of Writing at Bates and ARC, said. 

Students are still able to make individual appointments in the ARC space, and many of the tutors who are attached to specific courses, such as peer-assisted learning (PAL) leaders and peer writing and speaking assistants (PWSAs), are offering safe, socially-distanced help sessions. 

However, ARC faced the challenge of moving all their services online to create equitable access for all students whether they are on campus or studying remotely. As a result, ARC has switched completely to scheduled individual appointments with safe distancing measures between students and tutors, as opposed to the drop-in hours in prior years where students worked in larger groups. 

Luckily for ARC’s 2020 planning team, an online tutoring platform was already in the works long before COVID-19. “Many of the changes we made for this year in offeri

The writing center at Bates (Vanessa Paolella/The Bates Student)

ng online forms of support were actually in our long-term planning, and Covid just made us do it a lot faster,” Dr. Sanford stated. 

In response to the school’s transition to remote learning in the spring of 2020, Amanda Becker ‘22 was offered a position as the Student Manager for Remote Learning due to her experience with WCOnline, the online tutoring platform ARC uses. Becker’s main job was to train the ARC staff on tutoring online both synchronously and asynchronously. 

“I knew the ins and outs of the online tutoring system that has become the site of all of our remote tutoring – WCOnline – so I was tasked with teaching ARC staff how to use the platform and understand it from both a tutor and tutee’s perspective,” Becker said. 

ARC has been using WCOnline long before COVID-19 caused a push for a virtual platform. Up until the fall of 2019, ARC exclusively used WCOnline as an appointment management system where it tracked tutors’ hours, recorded students’ meetings with tutors, and allowed for students to create appointments. Becker worked closely with Dr. Sanford and Eric Dyer, the Student Support Coordinator for Writing at Bates and ARC, to explore WCOnline’s capabilities. In the winter of 2020, ARC Online had been released to the student body, but at the time, it mostly functioned as a tool for athletes competing away from Bates, for students studying abroad, and for students with physical, learning, or mental health challenges. 

“While there is constantly work to tailor the system to our ever-changing needs and to make sure we are offering quality services that attend to students’ needs no matter the discipline or area of learning, the whole staff, particularly the professional staff and student managers, have been exceptional and allowed us to keep ARC running strong in such an unfamiliar setting,” Becker stated.

Despite planning for online tutoring prior to COVID-19, Dr. Sanford and his team came across a few bumps in the road. The most challenging was holding the training sessions for all ARC employees. Dr. Sanford explained that ARC’s employee training is a pivotal part of the peer tutoring program. 

There is a lot of scholarship and pedagogy that informs the work peer educators do,

— Dr. Sanford

In prior years, all of the ARC employees would gather for a full day at the start of each fall, and then regularly throughout the semester to combat any issues the tutors are facing. Given that in-person training was unable to happen this year, the big training at the start of the year became a series of videos and interactive activities.

Rowan Hassman ‘23, the PWSA for the STEM Scholars first-year seminar, explained that the training consisted mostly of readings and discussion boards on effective teaching. The day before classes began, all of the ARC staff members met for a full day on Zoom. Throughout the module, Hassman met with her fellow PWSAs for one-hour Zoom meetings where they discussed “how to effectively give feedback on writing and support the students.” 

The readings that were included in the training were from Dr. Sanford’s recently published book on peer tutoring pedagogy: The Rowman & Littlefield Guide for Peer Tutors. “Tutors have been doing a lot of reading and reflecting, and that’s been amazing — I’m so proud of how all my tutors are adjusting this year,” Dr. Sanford remarked. 

There was also concern about holding in-person ARC support sessions, as they pose an issue for contact tracing and the possible transmission of COVID-19. Dr. Sanford and his team spent most of the summer working out this issue and figuring out the best way to deliver in-person peer tutoring safely. 

“In a normal year, ARC is a busy, thriving, social, and often very crowded space. That’s a wonderful vision for a learning center, but it had to be changed a lot for this year,” Dr. Sanford said. 

PAL Leaders were given autonomy in deciding the best and safest way to provide support for their classes. Most PAL sessions moved to a hybrid model, holding both in-person review sessions and using classroom technology to allow students the option of joining remotely. 

Caitie McGlashan ‘22, a PAL Leader for organic chemistry, has found helping remote students particularly challenging, especially pertaining to coursework like organic chemistry which frequently requires drawings. 

Peter Riley ‘22, another PAL Leader for organic chemistry, has also found communicating with remote students difficult. However, he found it substantially more challenging at the end of the 2020 winter semester when PAL sessions were completely remote and through Zoom. It became harder for Riley and the other PAL Leaders to navigate virtual tutoring sessions and find the best way to help multiple students at the same time. 

“Thankfully we are in the fortunate position to host in-person review sessions. So while we also have a Zoom call open during the session that students can join remotely if they choose, we rarely have more than one person using this option at a given time. This means it is more of a one-on-one conversation which works fairly well,” Riley said. 

Due to the fast-paced nature of the module system and the virtual landscape, ARC tutors have also found it increasingly difficult to create engagement and mentorship with their students. Both McGlashan and Riley have found students need help finding confidence in their own abilities as they learn complex material in a short timeframe. 

Hassman has also found it really important to stay engaged with students. “Since we can’t see everyone in person, it is important to send emails to the class to remind them that we are still here, just on WCOnline,” she said. 

Although ARC did not suffer any budget cuts this year, the hiring process was stalled until late summer due to college-level planning that had to take place before the budget and logistics for tutoring could be worked out. As a result, some ARC employees were worried and uncertain if they would have a job this fall. 

Riley, who originally received  a formal job offer in May, was later told in an email that “things were uncertain and [they] didn’t know what was going to happen with student employment.” McGlashan received a similar email in June, which told her she might not be able to work in ARC due to limited resources, causing her to become worried about not being hired at all. “I was very surprised in mid-August to receive a formal offer to work as a PAL leader,” she said. 

Choosing to take a positive outlook on this new virtual transition, Dr. Sanford believes the challenges they have faced transforming ARC to a virtual platform will continue to be beneficial in years that no longer require strict social distancing rules. “We’ll move forward with the lessons we’ve learned about online support for the continuing benefit of athletes on the road, students studying abroad, and any other student for whom visiting ARC in-person represents a barrier for any reason,” he said.