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Author: Denise L. Davidson

Guest speakers can be powerful mechanisms to promote student learning and provide additional perspectives on course material. They can help students grasp topics that require more expertise than the instructor may possess and offer insight into the day-to-day workings of a particular career path. Still, the logistics of inviting experts into an asynchronous course or unit can be a barrier to implementation.

Teachers can use guest speakers in a variety of ways. An instructor can ask them to provide a lecture or facilitate student discussion on a reading or course topic. Students might interview a guest during class, perhaps asking them previously developed questions. In some courses, a panel of guests might be useful, especially when the instructional goal is to help students understand multiple perspectives on a topic. There are limitations to panels, however, as in-depth follow-up with a single panelist can be difficult. On occasion, panels can wander off topic or be dominated by one person. A panel’s effectiveness can also depend on the moderator’s skill and ability to maintain focus while balancing panelist and student involvement, which can be more difficult in an online environment.

When teaching a graduate-level online course on campus crisis management, I wanted students to develop awareness of a wide range of potential crisis situations, from facility fires and mental health problems to norovirus response and campus flooding. These students aspired to college and university positions that work directly with students in non-classroom settings (e.g., admissions, residence life, student activities, multicultural affairs, health and wellness). Though literature is available concerning how student affairs professionals manage crisis situations and their personal reactions to these situations, I wanted students to do more than read or sit in class passively listening to someone speak; my goal was to have them craft the entire interview experience and hear directly from multiple, experienced professionals about crisis management and their future roles with it.

Distributing speakers across the semester seemed both logistically cumbersome and would, I feared, diffuse the effects of listening to and learning from several experts in a brief period. My mind was on the benefits of retrieval practice and the reinforcement that comes from hearing similar information in a short period of time. I considered how I might convert a panel of speakers into an asynchronous module. The result was a virtual collection of audio-recorded, student-led interviews.

To begin, I reached out to colleagues in the student affairs profession and invited their participation in the assignment. Each volunteer interviewee had been involved in response multiple campus crises, some quite prominent. These included severe river flooding at the University of Iowa, a fatal residence hall fire at Seton Hall University, and a norovirus that affected 25 percent of the student population at Lafayette College. Colleagues’ positions ranged from mid-level to university president and, geographically, spanned the United States from the east to west coasts.

Each student was randomly assigned an interviewee and given their name, position, institution, and contact information. Students were instructed to contact their interviewee and arrange and record a 30- to 40-minute telephone or video interview.

Prior to the interviews, the class developed a list of potential interview questions and narrowed the list to three core questions: (1) What do you consider most important when creating a crisis management plan?, (2) What piece of advice would you give to a new professional regarding crisis management?, and (3) If comfortable, please discuss a time when your institution failed to effectively handle a crisis. Students were free to ask any reasonable and relevant questions they wished but were required to, at minimum, pose the core questions. Final interviews were 40 to 60 minutes in length. All students chose to audio-record the interviews with interviewee permission.

Students posted their recording to our learning management system (LMS), providing full student access to all interviews. They were, however, required to listen to only the first 10 minutes of each interview to have a reasonable expectation of and demand on students’ time. In this class, with 11 students, each student listened to one hour and 40 minutes of interviews. Several students shared that they listened to more than 10 minutes of some interviews because they found them interesting. In some cases, students provided a specific start time so that peers could skip the introduction element of the interview. During our next synchronous class session, I facilitated discussion about commonalities and differences between interview content, key lessons learned from listening to the interviews, relationship to course readings and prior learning, and application of guest commentary to students’ future practice in student affairs. We also explored the effects of the assignment, from researching the assigned interviewee, developing additional questions, and learning to use the technology involved (e.g., audio recording, uploading to the LMS). In this course, the interview was deemed complete or incomplete, largely because the students were not completely in control of interview quality. I formatively assessed the entire assignment through their contributions to discussion and a brief written reflection.

Students enjoyed this module and indicated learning quite a bit from it. In addition to noting practical elements (e.g., keep copies of the crisis management plan close, test your action plans), they described conceptual learning, too (e.g., information transparency will be interpreted by others, importance of social issues for a specific campus). An unexpected outcome of the assignment was the development of a professional contact. Several students indicating feeling comfortable with their interviewees and described nascent mentor-mentee relationships.

This activity can easily be adapted to varied class sizes according to the number of available experts.  In both online and face-to-face courses, students could be assembled into small groups and tasked with watching or listening only to their associated interviews. Individually or in these groups, students might be asked to synthesize the interviews in written format. Though grounded in a specific course, this online interview panel applies to many disciplines and topics. In a mass communications course, students might explore interviewees’ experiences of journalistic objectivity. Interviews related to a biology course might examine experiences with laboratory research, or more specifically, laboratory safety protocols.

The following guidelines may be useful as you implement an asynchronous guest panel:

  1. Carefully select the unit or topic that is best understood through the lens of guest speakers as not all topics lend themselves to this approach.
  2. Ensure students have access to and knowledge of suitable software for the interview. This might involve offering links to instructional videos rather than teaching this information to students.
  3. Consult with instructional design personnel as you create the assignment. For instance, you might use Microsoft OneNote’s Class Notebook, which was not available to me at the time, to share links to recordings might be more efficient than LMS use.
  4. Recognize that undergraduate students might need more guidance than the graduate students in this specific course. Including deadlines for various elements, offering a rubric, or including progress updates might provide helpful structure.

In the end, the benefits of this approach were considerable. Students learned intensely from one expert and were exposed to multiple perspectives on crisis management. They were challenged to facilitate a professional interview while manipulating technology and were deeply engaged in the learning process without an indications of boredom or unwanted repetition. With some advance planning, instructors can create a multifaceted learning opportunity that is both enjoyable and productive for students.

Denise L. Davidson, PhD, is associate professor and program coordinator in educational leadership and college student affairs at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.

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