by Craig Seager and Thomas Bruick
The use of technology tools has been steadily increasing within housing and residence life departments. Much of that growth has focused on operational aspects such as assignments, billing, and facility management. Meanwhile, responsibilities such as community development, programming, and other facets that have relied primarily on interpersonal interactions have integrated technology in only a limited way. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shaking all forms of normal operations, and face-to-face interactions moved to virtual spaces. As the pandemic continued, so did restrictions on physical distancing and the occupancy of physical spaces. Just as meetings became Zoom calls and staff training became online courses, the resident assistant selection process, another traditionally face-to-face activity, is confronting significant changes.
RA selection is an important process in every housing department. These paraprofessional positions are integral to housing departments, and RA responsibilities continue to evolve in complexity. RAs are tasked with a wide range of responsibilities, from policy enforcement, community development, and conflict mediation to referrals and crisis management. Those tasks will only be more difficult as campuses learn how to navigate the environment of a pandemic. Understanding how crucial RAs are to any housing and residence life department makes the selection process especially critical as housing departments seek ways to move time-tested face-to-face interactions into a virtual format.
A common component of RA selection is the group process. These are various timed, outcome-based activities that groups of candidates participate in and are used to evaluate skills such as communication, teamwork, and critical thinking. Given the interactive and team nature of many aspects of the RA position, it is not surprising to see housing professionals valuing the group process when making hiring decisions. However, this can present concerns as well. First, the activities must be crafted intentionally to support the evaluation of specific skills and characteristics such as communication, critical thinking, the ability to work with others, and creativity.
To best migrate its RA selection process to a primarily online format, the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) in Conway surveyed 138 housing professionals, asking them to identify the top three attributes they look for in a candidate. These responses were coded and grouped into six main categories: demeanor (attributes such as passionate, personable, caring, empathetic, etc.), developmental skills (trainable, initiative, adaptable, etc.), universal competencies (professional, integrity, leadership, organized, etc.), commitment (engaged, dedicated, dependable, etc.), cognitive skills (creative, critical thinker, innovative, resourceful, etc.), and interpersonal skills (mediator, assertive, listener, patient, motivator, etc.) Somewhat surprisingly, the attributes within the cognitive skills and interpersonal skills categories were identified least frequently by the housing professionals, while attributes within the demeanor and developmental skills categories were identified much more frequently. This is problematic, as many group process activities focus on cognitive and interpersonal skills. In theory, a candidate’s demeanor can be effectively evaluated during a group process, but it is best evaluated and observed over time and across multiple contexts. In fact, almost all the attributes identified by housing professionals can be difficult to evaluate consistently. This tension could explain why survey respondents communicated only moderate confidence in their department’s selection process. Finally, critical hard skills such as proficiency with technology and marketing were not identified at all as being essential skills for RAs.
Despite being the most popular component for decision makers, the group process has limitations and should be seen as a specific and strategic piece of the larger selection process. For example, many decision makers in the RA selection process identified developmental skills such as trainability, initiative, and flexibility as primary attributes they look for in candidates. These attributes are long term in nature and can best be evaluated on the basis of extended experiences such as a resident assistant class or strategically structured rubrics for references.
The challenge involved in developing and implementing group process activities and evaluations may explain why housing professionals valued the personal observations of candidates even more than a candidate’s group process score. However, relying solely on personal observations can introduce unconscious biases; for example, research across several fields has exposed biases based upon race, gender role, physical appearance, and social media profile pictures – and these are biases that influence hiring decisions. For this reason, the disconnect between what hiring decision makers are looking for and what the selection process provides must be addressed through intentional planning across all aspects, especially the group process.
As the UCA housing department began to develop its virtual RA selection process, they turned to Haihong Hu, an associate professor in the department of leadership studies whose expertise in creating e-learning environments was critical in developing a virtual model. The first task was to detail the RA selection process, specifically the group process. It was quickly evident that a group process activity such as the Chocolate River – designed to observe and evaluate a candidate’s communication, teamwork, and critical thinking skills – if done virtually, was going to look extremely different. In the exercise, the candidates must manage to get the entire team across a chocolate river that is too hot to swim through and too deep to walk through; the only way to cross the river is to use what represents the marshmallows (typically paper plates), which are swept away if no one is touching them. To translate this physical exercise into an online format, the team looked at key considerations such as the clarity of desired outcomes, attributes to be evaluated with each activity, and access to needed technology; they also needed to decide if the candidates’ technology proficiency would be evaluated within the process.
Another traditional group process activity to be converted was Program in a Bag. In the past, this activity placed candidates in pairs and randomly assigned them a campus resource and a physical object. The dyads are given 10-15 minutes to develop a program idea that aligns with the programming model and to utilize the resource and object. Each pair then shares their programming idea with the group, including details about how they will advertise the program. They are then evaluated on their creativity, communication, teamwork, support of student learning, and – added this year – proficiency with technology. But how would this work in a virtual environment? One of the first decisions in the virtual transformation of the Program in a Bag exercise was to establish what technology tools are available. This will largely come down to campus resources and available tools. For example, UCA utilizes Blackboard as the campus learning management system, has an organizational Zoom account for video conferencing, and uses Google for email along with Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, Forms, Sites, and Google Meet.
Once the primary meeting tool was identified (UCA chose Zoom as the primary tool based on staff competency), building the virtual activity could begin. Drawing on recommendations from Hu, it was decided that all candidates would enter a shared Zoom meeting. If the group was meeting in person, it would have been easy for them to count off and divide into smaller groups, but that would be an unorganized and confusing process through Zoom. Instead, candidates selected a reaction feature within Zoom and could be matched based on their selection. Another option would have been to pre-assign the sub-groups, which would provide less of an interactive experience but carried significant logistical advantages, namely being able to pre-assign breakout rooms within Zoom.
Another consideration was group size. Within UCA’s traditional group process, the group size was dependent on the number of total applicants and the availability of physical space. This had created instances in the past when groups consisted of 10-12 people, making it difficult for each candidate to be able to engage. Group size for virtual teams is of heightened importance given the additional complexity of interactions. Therefore, primary groups of 5-7 people were established for the virtual group process, and those groups were broken down to 2-4 people within the virtual Program in a Bag activity.
To begin the exercise, the primary group joined a pre-established Zoom meeting space along with the facilitator and evaluators. The list of campus resources and random objects was re-created utilizing the whiteboard function within Zoom, providing the perception of shared space. The facilitator than read through the instructions, identified the pre-assigned groups, and assigned them their items. Hu emphasizes the importance of posting in the chat box when providing instructions or providing them on a shared Google doc in addition to the verbal instructions. The candidates and evaluators were then sent to pre-assigned breakout rooms where they worked solely in their sub-groups. In addition, each team was encouraged to create a Google doc or slide to document the group process; some tools were mandatory (Zoom), while others were voluntary (Google).
Once the group was divided, teams were given 30 minutes to develop an advertisement or other visual element for their presentation. Including this requirement provided another opportunity to revisit the technology tool discussion. There were a number of technology tools that could be useful in this space, but cost and accessibility had to be considered. For example, Adobe Spark would be a strong tool for collaborative creation of a visual element, but this would not be a free option on UCA’s campus, and candidates might have limited to no exposure to this tool. If an institution had access to Spark or the resources to purchase the tool, it would be important to communicate the potential use of this tool well in advance in order to allow candidates to become familiar with it. This could provide a unique way to evaluate a candidate's technology skills.
Taking this step also aligned with one of Hu’s primary recommendations for detailed communication prior to the activities. After building the core components of the virtual Program in a Bag activity, it was determined that candidates would receive communication a week prior to the virtual group process outlining what to expect and identifying technology needs along with mandatory and optional technology tools. This communication would include an overview of the activity and pre-assigned breakout groups. However, it would not include the specific details of what campus resource and random item the breakout groups would be assigned. Additionally, the communication would identify the mandatory use of Zoom and optional use of Google docs and slides, along with identifying Canva as a potential free tool that candidates could use for graphic design. Finally, candidates would be instructed to establish shared Google docs and slides before they took part in the virtual group process. This approach provides time for candidates to address limited experience with specific technology tools and allows for the evaluation of outcomes related to initiative and administration, which the prior face-to-face structure did not provide.
Switching a number of in-person events to an online platform may be a necessity for some time to come. Though it may be a format that many campuses may feel forced to use, it does come with some built-in advantages. Conducting a virtual RA selection process provides the ability to record and rewatch all activities, as well as increased flexibility, including space and time flexibility, where group sizes and other features are not forced to conform to the availability of physical space. Benefits may include a reduction in extroversion bias, as online spaces provide multiple modes for participation. In addition, the online platform may increase the ability to evaluate skills and attributes that were previously overlooked. However, no system is perfect, and one must also be aware of potential issues related to candidates’ access to technology (not their skills). Additionally, such a process likely will require an extended timeframe, though arguably it is also more thorough and requires the development of new skills across all levels of a housing and residence life program. Though every process will need to align with the institutional context, each process will have the advantage of embodying universal concepts such as connecting with technology and virtual learning.
The COVID-19 pandemic has sent a shock wave across the higher education world and shaken the foundations of many day-to-day functions, but shaking the foundation has also revealed how the status quo of operations should not persist unquestioned. Exploring new opportunities or unexamined concepts, as well as engaging and collaborating with other campus experts, may produce operational adjustments that will improve traditional housing practices long after normal returns.
Craig Seager, Ph.D., is the associate director for housing and residence life at the University of Central Arkansas. Thomas Bruick, Ph.D., is an assistant professor for the University of Central Arkansas College Student Personnel Administration program and previously served as an assistant director for housing and residence life.