Speaker's Lab Struggles with COVID-19 adjustments

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The freshman did not like the idea of stepping into Cavanaugh Hall’s quiet basement and wasting his time on crafting a silly speech. But the thought of not passing his speech class was scary. So off he went looking for hope.

He stepped into the brightly lit Speaker’s Lab, which was so different from the rest of the basement. Several lab mentors were busy working on computers. He took it all in. Witty quotes on walls, splashes of color and merry banter. His fear was already melting away.

The person at the front desk directed him to one of the three practice rooms, and a mentor with a sunny smile stepped in to help him out. Over the next few minutes, she cleared his doubts and gave him tips to enhance his public speaking skills. After the in-person learning experience, the student felt as if the dark tunnel in the basement had led him to daylight.

The Speaker’s Lab is a resource center at IUPUI developed to help students with different aspects of public speaking and interviews. At the beginning of 2020, the lab had a good amount of speech mentors to assist students with brainstorming gripping topics for their speeches, drafting their outlines and practicing their presentations. Although they edited outlines online as well, the main goal was to help students share their ideas and fears in a safe space.

When the global pandemic caused the university to shut down abruptly in March, out of the many questions that employees were struggling to answer, two of the most crucial ones were: What changes would they need to make to serve students’ needs and how would the R110 community communicate with each other?

Authoritative figures have had to face challenges throughout the whole process. Although things are more under control than they were during the previous semester, there are still problems to consider. This fall semester, 2,025 students have been enrolled in the R110 class. There are 82 sections of R110 with 34 instructors. The course is taught in the following formats: Hybrid/face-to-face delivered synchronous /asynchronous, 100 % online delivered asynchronous and Hybrid Web synchronous /asynchronous.

Steven Overbey, the R110 course director and IUPUI Speaker’s Lab director, said, “I have had to make many changes in operation of the lab and learning to teach classes in a different way utilizing Zoom classrooms.”

“As a supervisor, it has become very difficult for me to supervise people when they are all working from home,” one of the senior shift supervisors, Julia Renae Dryer, said, “I miss being able to help mentors as soon as a problem arises rather than respond to an email minutes to hours after the problem has already occurred. Another difficult thing is the fact that we are currently very low staffed, running with about half of the mentors that we typically have during a semester, and it can be really hard to work the schedule around what mentors we have available as well as whatever changes they may need to make to their schedules. Another problem I've faced is that our main source of communication now is through email, and it can be really hard to portray the emotion you are trying to portray within an email. It is so much easier for me to talk to a person face-to-face so they can fully grasp my intentions and I can fully grasp theirs.”

Due to the huge shift in the process of teaching and learning, the employees not only relied on their official website and Zoom, but also used social media to help their students stay on track. For example, tips and advice are shared on the Speaker’s Lab’s Instagram account every week. To make students feel more connected to the lab community, mentors’ pictures and stories are put up. Because of not being able to have in-person meetings with employees, supervisors have had to rely on online resources.

For our current circumstances, Faith, (our Undergraduate Assistant) and I have had to quickly come up with new ideas and strategies to take on the semester,” Dryer said. “One big change we made was utilizing Slack, an instant messaging service, which allows us to quickly message mentors and for them to message us with any questions or concerns they have. Another change we've made is with how we build the schedule. Faith and I will schedule mentors two weeks in advance so they have plenty of time to give us any changes they may have before that week arrives. This helps us to make sure we have plenty of mentors working at the same time, so they don't get too overwhelmed with helping students.”

After months of formulating new strategies and practicing them, the lab employees have gotten used to their new routine.

Josiah Christopher Suarez, a Speech Lab mentor, said, “My experience transitioning from in-person to mostly online was relatively smooth. I knew that going into this fall semester would require a bit of adaptation around organizing my workspace and schedule and I did so. Through careful and precise planning, transitioning from in-person to mostly online for both my studies and my work has been relatively easy.”

Because of being understaffed, editing outlines and handling students on Zoom have created some issues. Professors and students did inquire why mentors were taking up so much time to annotate outlines. However, when the situation was explained to them, they were understanding about it. In fact, students were largely satisfied with the feedback and help they were receiving.

Shiraz Jafri, a computer science major and a student of the R110 course expressed his views on his experience with the lab. He said, “I did get a lot of help from the Speaker’s Lab. It was easy to access all the comments that the students left for me to read. The Canvas page made it easy to find where all the submitted work is at and where are all the comments with all the corrections.”

With the fall semester coming to an end, the lab staff members feel more prepared and confident. They have fixed many of the repeated problems which were popping up throughout this semester. Also, they currently have job postings on Jag Jobs with hopes of hiring up to 15 additional mentors by the end of Spring 2021.

“I am absolutely positive about the future of our campus,” Overbey said, “I am certain that everyone will welcome the return to live classroom teaching and interpersonal mentoring. All the crowded hallways, campus events and activities will once again return to our campus.”

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