Still Open for Learning: Two CSU Campuses Make Virtual Learning Accessible for Students

Leaders from California State University, East Bay and San Francisco State University share how their virtual advising efforts have supported students and which barriers remain


Oct. 21, 2020


This year, the college experience looks drastically different. Once bustling student centers, packed libraries, and buzzing computer labs are now empty. Students, professors, and administrators are staying home instead of commuting to campus. But despite the challenges of campus closures due to the pandemic, our two local California State University (CSU) campus partners—California State University, East Bay (CSUEB) and San Francisco State University (SFSU)—used technology and people power to make virtual learning accessible for their students. 


Over the summer, I had the chance to speak with Provost Edward Inch of CSUEB and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education, Kimberley Altura, at SFSU, to hear how each of their campuses have navigated pandemic challenges to keep students safe, connected, and on track to achieve their goals. In the interviews below, you’ll learn how each of their campuses have adapted their pre-pandemic plans to utilize academic advisors and new technology to support students.


Before the pandemic struck, CSUEB and SFSU had already created visionary initiatives to grow their campuses’ advising capacity. Each initiative focused on supporting advisors and predictive analytics, a growing movement in higher education of using data, statistics, and machine learning to identify students who may benefit from targeted supports, such as advising. As a former academic support director in the CSU system, I was excited to see both campuses continue to center the important role of an advisor in a student’s college experience, particularly for campuses as diverse and dynamic as CSUEB and SFSU.


Less than a year ago, SFSU planned to dramatically lower its advisor-to-student ratio for first-year students. Across the Bay, CSUEB envisioned a more simplified “caseload” advising system to reduce the number of “student handoffs” between advisors. Both campuses developed plans to use data and technology to proactively reach out to students with advising, resources, and other student supports.


Then, in the middle of planning, a global pandemic upended their plans. Following shelter-in-place orders, both campuses physically closed, virtually opened, and had to respond to a new set of challenges.


Zoom class at San Francisco State University


Once an option, online courses are now the norm. Due to physical campus closures, there are fewer unscheduled opportunities for students to interact with faculty members, campus support services, and other students. Student life has become harder. CSUEB and SFSU serve a significant number of college students who come from low-income communities and/or are first-generation college-goers. Now those students are balancing online classes with jobs, caretaking, spotty internet connections, and an uncertain future.


But as you’ll see in the interviews, the campuses have adapted to meet their students’ evolving needs. Under Dr. Inch’s leadership, CSUEB converted in-person courses and advising services to online in a matter of days. As the campus shifted operations with the threat of COVID-19, students turned to their advisors to help them navigate the challenges. Supported in part by the Stupski Foundation, CSUEB’s efforts to move from a passive advising model to a proactive caseload advising model provided students a go-to person to ask a diverse array of questions—such as, what courses to take, where to get COVID-tested, how to plan for a summer term, etc. In an online setting, students were able to access advisors during extended evening hours, dramatically driving up the number of appointments. CSUEB even set up chatbots that answered students’ questions via text. At its height, the number of student inquiries increased from an average of 3,000 weekly questions to 10,000. COVID-19 further propelled the impact of advisors on student success into the spotlightand rightfully so.


Interview with Provost Edward Inch of Cal State University, East Bay


At SFSU, the physical campus’ closure in March complicated the welcoming of new freshmen who would begin their college careers on a virtual campus. With support from the Stupski Foundation, SFSU rolled out a new caseload approach for first-time freshmen to provide more intensive, wraparound support through an academic advisor. Additionally, with Altura’s guidance, orientation swiftly moved online and the campus built online learning modules that assisted students in choosing courses, registering, and informing them of student engagement initiatives on their virtual and physical campus. SFSU’s advising team offered Zoom-based workshops, drop-in advising sessions, and proactive outreach to ensure that freshmen enrolled in the right courses. Without the ability to physically see students or their professors on campus, SFSU leadership and the advising team also turned to data to ensure that they provided help to the students who need it the most. They meticulously developed student success markers to identify courses that students need to take and proactively reached out to students to help them hit the mark.   


Interview with Kimberley Altura of San Francisco State University


Altura has seen the impact of these initiatives at both the systems and student levels: “[An advisor] was working with an incoming student whose mom jumped into the advising appointment and said how relieved they were after [the student completed] their orientation experience and the work they did with the advising team. They were reaffirmed with the student’s choice to start at San Francisco State in the fall.”


While challenges persist for implementing the universities’ original plans for proactive advising, initial reports of these programs’ impact are promising. CSUEB reported high retention numbers among continuing students due to the personalized touch of advisors as well as increased credit loads among students. The campus also significantly exceeded enrollment projections, which are within their enrollment targetsbesting national undergraduate enrollment trends. At SFSU, efforts to support students through advising and technology have helped the campus dramatically cut its predicted enrollment losses and have mobilized cross-campus collaboration, bringing faculty members, advisors, academic support services, and more together to help students during extraordinary times.