How One Campus’s Decentralized Academic Support Units Built Community to Serve Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Pandemic

Little did we know, March 13th, 2020, a typical Friday before spring break, would be the last day of campus normalcy for a long time. That weekend, in response to the growing COVID-19 global pandemic, the state of Ohio announced indefinite lockdowns to curb the spread of the virus. Suddenly, college students, faculty, staff, and leaders across the country, including at our institution, The Ohio State University (OSU), were faced with an unprecedented conundrum in the middle of the spring semester. The impact of the pandemic was wide-ranging and immediate: students were asked to move off campus and return to their homes to finish coursework remotely; faculty and staff were weighed with figuring out how to continue their work remotely; buildings closed; education abroad trips, research studies, graduation ceremonies—all cancelled. It was clear that this was only the beginning of uncharted territory.

During the weekend of March 13th, the Tutoring Services Manager for OSU’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI), Zayd Abukar (co-author), knew things were going to change drastically. Abukar thought deeply about how he could adapt a unit that provides tutoring and Supplemental Instruction services to students from underrepresented or underserved backgrounds with as little interruption as possible. Instead of waiting, Abukar decided to move quickly in developing a plan to transition the unit’s services to the online platform—a feat which had never been done before. To drive his planning, Abukar garnered the assistance of his graduate administrative associate at the time, Dr. Graham Knight (co-author), as we reflected on the following questions:

  • What does our unit do at its most basic function?
  • What institutional tools and resources do we have access to that will allow us to execute that function?
  • Considering our mission and our resources, what is the simplest model for using those tools to execute that function?
  • How can we make thoughtful, clear, and accessible policies and procedures for both students and our staff so that they know how to engage in the receipt or provision of these familiar services via this new, unfamiliar platform?
  • Finally, what are the most effective timeline and outlets for disseminating this information to ensure all relevant parties have what they need to successfully adapt?

We knew there would be bumps and adjustments to make during the early phases of implementing these plans in response to the pandemic. Our objective, however, was never perfection; instead, our priority was to make sure our most academically vulnerable students were not abandoned in arguably one of the most difficult periods of their college careers.

Ultimately, ODI’s Tutoring Services successfully pivoted to offer online services the first day back from spring break. Several academic support units on campus needed more time to adjust, while others ceased providing services the rest of the semester altogether. Between the start of lockdown and the end of spring, all eligible students who requested academic services through ODI received them. ODI then continued to offer tutoring services into the summer (the first time summer tutoring had been offered in several years) to provide continued support during students’ adjustment to online learning.

The Challenge

At a broader level, institutional leaders were still concerned. While the “Pass/No Pass” option extended to students in Spring 2020 was an effective short-term measure, longer-term it was unsustainable. If the pandemic was going to extend into the 2020-2021 academic year, the institution would have to be prepared to provide students quality online academic support services. Surveys and focus groups conducted at the end of Spring 2020 further highlighted students’ desire for these resources in the semesters to come. At OSU, with one of the largest enrollments in the nation and a highly decentralized academic support structure, this was going to be a challenge.

Early May 2020, the question loomed: how to bring together the more than 20 highly-differentiated academic support units across OSU’s campuses to equip them with a uniform set of tools, resources, and support to so they could successfully shift their operations to the online platform during the 2020-2021 academic year? Each unit has distinct target populations, organizational structures, resource allocations, cultures, policies, procedures, and specializations, housed across areas such as diversity and inclusion, residence life, athletics, academic colleges, and more. Under normal circumstances, the decentralization of the institution’s academic support services carries an array of strengths and advantages. In this scenario, however, a piece-meal approach leaving individual units to figure out how to adapt would likely lead to inconsistent levels of success and was not going to suffice. 

The Charge

Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion, Dr. James L. Moore III, decided to act. He understood that if our institution was to meet the needs of our students in 2020-2021, then it was critical to begin the work of unifying these units as soon as possible. He approached Abukar, a staff member in his organization, and charged him with the following task: establish a community of practice to assist leaders of academic support units across all six OSU campuses in transitioning their services. Dr. Moore appointed Abukar as chair of this group.

Abukar began compiling information on all the academic support units at OSU. His next step was to solidify the structure of the group in terms of purpose statement and activities. Abukar enlisted Dr. Knight to serve as vice chair for the group, and together we built a model. 

The Model

We began by establishing the group’s three-fold purpose: track, monitor, and respond to the need for offering online tutoring services; share and promote best practices and resources (e.g., instructional, technological, etc.) for online tutoring services at OSU; and create a community of practice for professionals who provide tutoring services at OSU. The name of the group would be the Tutoring Services Resource Group (TSRG).

Purpose in mind, we pondered the frequency and duration of the meetings. They needed to be regular enough to provide a sense of community and provide timely information, but not so frequent as to distract from the daily work of participating members. Similarly, the meetings needed to be long enough to cover the relevant material and provide a platform for discussion, but not so long that they lost a sense of purpose and unnecessarily ate into participants’ schedules. We eventually decided on a structure of one 90-minute meeting per month. Participation in meetings was strongly encouraged among academic support units but was not required. We were also going to supplement our live meetings with the maintenance of a shared folder of TSRG notes and resources that leaders could access and utilize at their own leisure.

The Engagement

We recognized the importance of building a logical progression of meeting topics that aligned with the flow of the academic year and the specific issues that arise at different times. The inaugural TSRG meeting in May of 2020 was introductory. In addition to allowing members to meet and learn about each other’s units, we also established expectations for the group. We made clear in this initial meeting that while we had been tasked with leading the group, we were not experts, we did not claim to have dominion on anyone’s unit, and everyone’s input was welcome. In the second half of this meeting, we reflected on how each unit adapted differently in the immediate notice of campus closures. This allowed us to gauge attendees’ familiarity with transitioning to online services and highlighted the most important subjects to discuss in future meetings.

The remaining summer meetings focused on critical aspects of transitioning to an online delivery model. In June, we addressed standards and best practices for online tutoring, following Association of Colleges for Tutoring & Learning Assistance (ACTLA) guidelines. This included bringing in the Director of Academic Support from Johns Hopkins University to discuss her campus’s implementation of online academic support services. In July, we shifted to potential threats to academic integrity posed by online delivery. This meeting featured the university’s Coordinator on Academic Misconduct to provide units with guidance, such as training staff members (i.e., tutors, peer educators) on how to avoid academic misconduct risks. A third guest, from the University of Maryland’s Division of Student Affairs, joined us in August to discuss best practices and tools for data collection and assessment, as for many units this was their first time providing online services.

In late September, with a month of online delivery under our belts, we discussed what each unit was seeing in terms of engagement with their services. The consensus was that it was lower than the same time the year prior. We spent the remainder of the meeting focused on strategies for driving participation. Our approaches included: how to leverage OSU’s data tools for strategic outreach; partnering with front-line colleagues; and querying students about their needs.

The October meeting was deeply informative. We invited and heard from a panel of student staff members from various units across multiple OSU campuses, who were tasked with assisting students remotely for the first time. Recognizing TSRG’s position as a representative group for all of OSU’s academic support services, we drafted a report on major themes and findings from this panel and shared it with senior-level administration.

Our final fall meeting took place just after Thanksgiving break. Unit leaders reflected on what we learned from the semester and from each other. We also discussed how we could prepare for the upcoming spring semester. By the end of autumn, much of the original purpose for the group had been accomplished. Nevertheless, members expressed they found value in continuing to meet, so we held two more meetings in the spring 2021 semester to build on the discussions we had and keep up the support we had for each other.

The Results

The establishment and preservation of this community of practice is among the most significant and lasting results of TSRG. Over 20 units participated at some point, including all regional campuses and all the largest academic support units. Among the more surprising and gratifying things that emerged from the group was the interest expressed by units outside of the “academic support” realm. Representatives from areas such as University Libraries, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, the Office of Distance Education and eLearning, and OSU’s student success and data analytics platform (“OnCourse”) were among our most consistent attendees. Word would reach leaders in these units, they would request permission to join, and we would always welcome them. What is more, they contributed substantially to the group’s understanding of tools available to support units’ transition and adjustment to online delivery.

Key to TSRG’s success was both its voluntary nature, and the fact that it demanded little of participants in the way of time and effort. While each meeting was structured with a specific topic and resources, we also included a block of time for open discussion and knowledge sharing. Units would offer advice to each other, share perspectives from their own experiences, and even connect with each other outside of TSRG. The consistent sharing of resources and guidance allowed for disparate units to adopt and incorporate new ideas and technologies into their practice for the betterment of students. The shared folder we maintained housed recordings of meetings, units’ contact information, and a wide array of other resources.

Like the October meeting, the final 2020-2021 meeting in April culminated in a report to OSU senior leadership. We outlined insights, concerns, and recommendations from academic support leaders across OSU regarding student academic support needs in the 2021-2022 return to campus. Without a centralized academic support structure, the existence of a representative group like TSRG afforded units a greater voice than any one of us could have had independently.


Between May 2020 and April 2021, TSRG accomplished its original charge; most academic support units at OSU successfully offered quality online services during 2021-2022. Unit leaders gained access to best practices, resources, and contacts to meet the needs of their respective operations; and most importantly, a community of practice was established for professionals who engage in similar work throughout the university. Prior to TSRG, there had not been a forum for academic support leaders across the institution as structured and well-attended. While most of our meetings and discussions centered on topics related to supporting students remotely, TSRG became a space to gauge ideas, provide important updates, and lend moral support to each other during one of the most trying periods of our professional careers. TSRG participants overwhelmingly requested to continue the group through 2021-2022, if anything, to sustain the community that had been built.

Since the initial charge in May 2020, we learned several lessons about working through siloed or decentralized organizational structures to accomplish change. The first is to identify, and then articulate, a clear, common, and compelling reason for all parties involved to come together. In other words, there must be a strong “What’s in it for me?” We understood early on that no one was going to be compelled to attend if they could not understand how participation could benefit them and their constituents. TSRG members shared a lack of familiarity with a pandemic, high expectations to adapt services, and little existing guidance for adapting to online formats. Our message was simply, “We all have to do this anyway, why not do it together?

The second lesson we learned was value-added information and resources break down silos. When planning our meetings, we stuck to the mantra that we wanted to make sure that every time someone left a meeting, they left with concrete tools that would directly assist them in their work. Not every unit had the same level of interest in every meeting topic, and that was okay. Our focus was on creating as much value for as many units as possible, and to give them the option to adapt TSRG information for their own purposes.

Lastly, this experience taught us the importance of acting on ideas. Just like we approached moving ODI’s services online in spring 2020, we were prepared to progressively make changes to TSRG as necessary. We were also comfortable with the prospect of discontinuing it altogether if our members felt it was no longer necessary. What was most important to us was that something was done to ensure our units were prepared to serve students. Lack of template often paralyzes people from trying new initiatives that have the potential to be impactful. For us, being clear on our purpose and then focusing on concrete value-added deliverables gave us the confidence to push ahead and accomplish our charge.

Reflection Questions

  1. How did the pandemic bring to forefront the fundamental purpose of your unit, and how did that cause you to rethink the activities required to fulfill it?
  2. Are there multiple units across your campus that have a similar mission or engage in similar activities? What are some opportunities, either within your unit or across your campus, to engage in value-added collaborations? How could you go about initiating them?
  3. What challenges have you experienced when trying to collaborate across organizational silos in potentially impactful ways? What solutions can you think of for addressing said challenges? 


Zayd Abukar (he/him/his) serves as the Assistant Director for Scholarship and Supplemental Academic Services within the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) at The Ohio State University (OSU). He provides strategic leadership and management for a student services unit that provides academic support and financial aid services to students in ODI programs. Zayd is a member of the university’s student conduct board, and co-chairs the institution-wide Tutoring Services Resource Group. Zayd is also a doctoral candidate in OSU’s Higher Education and Student Affairs program, with interests in organizational behavior and underrepresented student success.

Graham Knight (he/him/his) spent the past four years working for the Ohio State University’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion as the Coordinator for its Supplemental Instruction Program. Dr. Knight recently received his Ph.D. in Educational Studies with a focus on Higher Education and Student Affairs from the Ohio State University where his specific areas of interest were students from and institutions in Appalachia.