Office Hours: Social Entrepreneurship at a Distance (Rachel Rains Winslow of Westmont College)
Updated: Jan 31, 2022
Out of necessity, faculty have creatively transformed their classes since the pandemic began. In this series, West End Learning celebrates their efforts and shares best practices, lessons learned, and recommended resources that extend into the future of higher education.
Rachel Rains Winslow, Associate Professor and Founder of Westmont Downtown and Center for Social Entrepreneurship (Westmont College)
In the 2020-21 academic year, Rachel Rains Winslow was the Associate Professor of
History, Director of Westmont's Center for Social Entrepreneurship, and Co-Director of Westmont's Initiative for Public Dialogue and Deliberation. Westmont College is a liberal arts college located in Santa Barbara, California. Teaching through COVID, Rachel understands the costs and benefits of remote networking and learning. “One of our teaching philosophical perspectives is that the outside reviewers for student work are incredibly effective at helping them improve,” she says. “One of the key advantages of COVID was the ability to open source experts we couldn’t usually get into the classroom. It allowed us to draw on other networks and contacts. We had other ways to bring in coaching that the students wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.” Lockdown forced the quick adaptation of video conferencing technology. Prior to the spring of 2020, “logistics were hard to manage,” for guest speakers, but workers and students learned new software and skills quickly because of the stay-at-home orders. Classrooms now benefit from more outside reviewers and guest speakers who can appear from a distance. “Bringing in that external coach now seems more doable than it ever has historically.” Her social entrepreneurship class was trying to solve a problem for the Santa Barbara Housing Authority when in-person learning stopped in March 2020. Under the original setup of the class, students had three weeks to come up with ideas to present to stakeholders at an agency or nonprofit, live and in-person. However, when students couldn’t meet with community leaders face-to-face, their options increased to experts in the San Francisco Bay area as well. “Experts who would have been off-limits to them before could suddenly be used to help consult on their projects.” For example, Rachel was introduced to a founder of Clubhouse through a community partner, and that person acted as a resource for her class. “Her comments were so incisive.” Whether they interact in-person or online, engagement has kept her students—and their business ideas—moving forward. One award-winning project that is being developed at Westmont College is an online marketplace for student art that combines each artist’s story with his or her work and is marketed to alumni and parents. “What’s brilliant about this is that they have a totally embedded market that isn’t being tapped. One of the judges said, ‘You know what, I actually developed this online marketplace for something else, and I know from experience that Etsy doesn't do this.’ They (the judges) were able to identify their market niche in a way that the students didn't get, so that was really slick.” More judges have weighed in with guidance, too, and now an investor is helping them develop a platform that will be piloted at Westmont College and then scaled to other colleges, offered as a service. But despite all the good work they could do remotely, Rachel notes that the main disadvantage of the COVID era revolved around student isolation. Students struggled with facilitating meaningful conversations with community leaders online, and also missed out on the in-person classroom experience. “So much of the way we read a room is a personal experience, and when someone's communicating on something that they highly value, it's so easy to be distracted, right? When you're at your house, or you're just through your screen. I think the students sense that distraction is their own personal failure of facilitating well, and I think that's been really hard for them.” Rachel recalls one history seminar when students had an in-person conversation about the Rwandan genocide. Throughout the heated exchanges, disagreements, and discussions about the material they’d read, she appreciated the way her students interacted with each other. At the end of that class, one student reflected, “So that’s what we missed out on this semester.” It was hard to hear, though she appreciates the student’s honesty. “At the end of the day, the students did feel like they missed out.” She thinks the features for classrooms going forward should include external experts who can Zoom into a class and techniques that allow students to keep up with class remotely, balanced with in-person interactions that keep students engaged. Though COVID and isolation have been challenging to work through, the takeaways—reviewers not limited by geography, a more connected workforce and student population, and new techniques for adapting to current needs—have helped education and social entrepreneurship evolve. Rachel sums it up: “I love teaching about problem solving. Problems change over time, and our solutions can change over time.”
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