Distance education as an opportunity for empathy

Contact: Stacey Markin

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—In early 2009, at the height of the last financial crisis, Dr. Scott Cowley, assistant professor of marketing, lost his first job out of college. “It was a very scary and difficult time for me,” he says. Living and learning through that experience helped Cowley develop empathy for people dealing with similar life turbulence, and it is guiding him in relating to his students in meaningful ways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“On day one, when we got the news we were moving to distance learning, I decided that my approach was going to be increased flexibility, simplicity and communication, and that's what I’ve been trying to do,” he says.

Dr. Scott Cowley works from home.

How has Cowley embraced a more flexible approach?

He eliminated less critical components of his courses and projects and created wider time windows for completing quizzes and exams while allowing students to use their notes. He has also been holding virtual office hours and creating non-lecture videos to talk to students and keep everybody on the same page. He has invested in a professional microphone and webcam to give his students the best experience.

“I've been using a program called Loom that I've introduced to other professors in the Department of Marketing, many of whom have also shifted to using it for video recordings. It has some fun features such as letting students use emoji to react while they're watching videos, and a comment box that I'm prepopulating with some light discussion questions so that we can have some interaction. I've been texting, livestreaming, emailing, and talking to my students on social media.”

Maintaining the sense of connection and fun they enjoyed in the physical classroom is especially important to Cowley. One simple thing he created is a Spotify playlist where he and his students could share and enjoy songs that loosely related to working from home and social distancing. “What I love is that some students who have been adding songs are those who may not have spoken much in class.”

Cowley’s students and fellow faculty members acknowledge his approach is working.

“Dr. Cowley has been checking in with our class regularly through email, text messaging and WebEx,” says Lindsay Rogers, a student in Cowley’s Digital and Social Media Marketing course. “I feel more like myself again because of his positivity and engagement.”

And several faculty have lauded his approach both with teaching technology and his care and concern for his students, including many faculty members who have been teaching in distance learning formats for years.

Though this is an uncertain time, Cowley hopes his own story can serve as a relevant touchstone. “The last major financial crisis was the surprising catalyst that led me into the digital marketing field, which paved the way for a very happy future. I know that many of my students are concerned about their futures, so I want to make sure I avoid contributing to any anxiety and provide a calm, but strategic perspective that many of them are going to need. Our digital marketing students know how important it is to adapt to a fast-changing industry, so hopefully our experiences together will make them that much more resilient and capable of navigating their way forward while maintaining optimism.”

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