The ELF Goes Virtual

March 11, 2021

This story is part of a series entitled “Teaching in the Time of Covid.” The series explores how the UTSA Honors College transformed its experiential curriculum into a virtual curriculum and how the pandemic has shaped students’ experiences within the virtual classroom. The curriculum emphasizes interdisciplinary work in Service Learning, Professional Development, Intellectual Achievement and Research, Cultural Exploration, Engaged Living, and Skill Development. We hope you enjoy the series! – Jill Fleuriet, Acting Dean, UTSA Honors College

The Experiential Learning Fair (ELF) is a bi-annual event where UTSA Honors College students publicly present their out-of-classroom experiential learning. Honors College Counselor Alegra Lozano describes the Honors curriculum as “unique” and explains that it “transcends the traditional curriculum format”. Students in the Honors College may earn credit by taking coursework or by completing outside experiences. The ELF, Lozano explains, functions as a “final exam” for students who opt to complete outside experiences in lieu of coursework.

“In Honors, we encourage our students to pursue opportunities that lend to holistic learning,” said Lozano. “We want them to be well-rounded individuals {who} gain direct transferrable and marketable skills, and have the ability to articulate the impact of the experiences. By presenting at the ELF, students not only get to share their amazing experiences with the community but also gain the professional development experience of being able to effectively communicate the value of that experience.”

In the past, the ELF was a traditional poster conference open to the university community. Students presented their experiences to judges from across the university who assessed the degree to which experiences met the Honors College learning outcomes and ethos. This year, the ELF went virtual. The Honors College academic team found new and creative ways to keep this Honors College tradition alive. “The first thing we did when planning was reach out to Academic Innovation,” said Acting Dean Jill Fleuriet. “Claudia Arcolin and Willie Schaefer were indispensable. They introduced us to Adobe’s Behance software, whereby students can craft their ELF poster and record a voice-over in a really slick, professional format. The next thing we did was figure out our platform. Again, Academic Innovation helped. We realized we could easily use Blackboard Learn, which meant students did not have to learn another platform in order to participate in the ELF. And, their ELF success immediately fed into DegreeWorks, so students could track their Experience completions as part of their Honors requirements.”

For the students, the ELF is a culmination of effort that began well before the start of the current semester. “Credit for experiences {is} not limited to one semester. Students can present on on-going experiences, some which last a year or more. The guiding policies for Honors experience credit mirrors the credit earned for completion of coursework. Students have to submit an Experience Approval form (syllabus), complete 75 hours time on task (time spent in class), and present at the ELF (final exam),” said Lozano.

Honors College judge and UTSA Communications Faculty, Dr. Mary Dixson, who has been judging the ELF since its inception said, “I always welcome the opportunity to judge the Honors Experiential Learning fair. It offers students an opportunity to share engaged learning experiences while applying them to targeted learning outcomes and community impact. It highlights how many different communities our students touch, and how those communities, in return, help our students develop as scholars, professionals, and citizens,” said Dixson. When asked about this year’s new format, Dixson said, “I really liked the format. It gave students a chance to practice their speaking skills in a virtual space, which is a growing need as we see more people working from home.”

“Despite the challenges the virtual environment has posed, students have found creative ways to still continue with pursuing their experiential endeavors,” says Lozano. “They presented on a wide range of academic, social, professional, and personal experiences, all of which have had a significant impact to their learning and development. For example, Elisa Carian’s Engaged Living Experience highlights her experience with outdoor pursuits, sustainability, and mindfulness practices. One of her main learning outcomes was the Honors Herbs Benevolence & Resilience. This type of experience highlights how it teaches students soft skills that will benefit them immensely in their future endeavors.”

“I am incredibly fortunate that this is a part of my job,” says Lozano about the ELF. “I love the opportunity to see the a-ha moments students have when they make the connection of how their experiences contribute to their personal and professional growth.”

With the Fall 2020 ELF behind them, I asked two students to reflect on their experiences. “Presenting at the ELF this year was a different experience because it was moved to a virtual platform. I missed having the opportunity to directly interact with the other presenters and judges who would normally walk around the room and ask questions or make comments,” said Honors College student, Forough Askarirad. She went on to say that the virtual format did offer certain advantage, however. A “virtual fair helped in that students were allowed to share an audio file detailing their experience, which allowed us to piece all of our thoughts together. That has been one of the greatest aspects of the ELF moving to an online platform - we can follow along the poster as the student shares their favorite memories, challenges they overcame, and what they learned all through storytelling.”

Student George Tharakan also saw the upside of the new format: “Although it was unfortunate to not present in person, this year’s ELF still allowed me to display what I’ve learned to my peers and was a great example of how virtual events can still be impactful.”

In a surprise twist, the pandemic ELF is going to have an impact beyond just the current year. This experience has changed the way ELF will run in the future, even after the world returns to normal. According to Acting Dean Fleuriet, “The switch to a virtual ELF streamlined the process for students and got us to thinking how we could streamline even further. We’re now developing a way in which students can submit their ELF paperwork through a workflow portal. We also found – unexpectedly, that most ELF judges far preferred the virtual format. We made the judging over a week and asynchronous, which allowed more people to participate. Because more people participated, there were fewer ELF presentations for each judge. It worked out so well that we anticipate we will continue doing the virtual ELF even once the pandemic has ended.” She anticipates modifications so students can interact with the university community during the virtual ELF, too.

For more information about the ELF and to view the students’ virtual poster presentations, visit our ELF page.