Responding to COVID-19: 5 questions every provost should ask

Expert Insight

Responding to COVID-19: 5 questions every provost should ask

The rapid institutional responses to the coronavirus pandemic have raised serious questions relating to the core academic functions of colleges and universities—what will social distancing, spreading illness, and economic strain mean for teaching and research? Here are 5 key questions chief academic officers should address as this stressful academic term nears its conclusion:

1. What should we require of instructors and students in face-to-face courses that have been disrupted due to campus closures and self-quarantine?

While some institutions have fully cancelled the remainder of their spring term (raising complications around credits, tuition payments, and academic progress), many have opted to migrate as many courses as possible to online or remote learning formats in order to ensure instructional continuity.

Instructors (many of whom have little experience in distance learning formats) need clear guidance on expectations: How long will they have to submit a continuity plan, if one is required? What baseline quality ‘bars’ will you set around assessment, instructor availability, and resources? Should you allow for an across-the-board ‘pass / fail’ standard to reduce the stress of creating new content and evaluation tools on short notice?

2. What changes should we make to faculty evaluation and workload practices to compensate for lost productivity, course and event cancellations, and sudden policy changes?

Student course evaluations have long had a questionable reputation in the academy—with well-founded concerns about bias and utility in providing reliable data on instructor effectiveness. As so many instructors are left scrambling to adopt new teaching technologies and respond to unprecedented student needs, provosts should consider revising or even suspending these evaluations this term.

And what of tenure clock and scholarship expectations that are now likely unreasonable given cancelled academic conferences and closed labs?

Make sure faculty are given guidance on how these challenges will be considered in promotion and tenure processes, and provide tools on codifying scholarly effort stymied by the coronavirus pandemic.

3. Are we adequately meeting student needs outside of the (virtual) classroom?

Even before the coronavirus crisis, campus leaders struggled to extend the services of support offices (from mental health counseling and academic advising to registration and financial aid) to students unable to travel to campus.

Now, it’s more critical than ever to streamline and update those services, ensuring that campus staff adopt a ‘no runaround’ rule (when possible, endeavor to help students resolve issues even not in your specific purview) and that virtual options are provided. Read our tips here on how to detect signs of stress among your remote student population.

4. What will this sudden rush to remote instruction mean for our longer-term online learning efforts?

Provosts are worried about two opposing consequences of rapid tech-enabled teaching adoption—first, that by radically reducing the instructional design ‘red tape’ required to create an online course this term, they’ll be left with hundreds of poorly-designed courses taught by instructors with no training in new modalities.

And second, that some of these instructors may use this experience to dismiss the potential of online courses, given the inevitability of stumbling blocks along the way. Make sure you clarify your institution’s official standards around course design, learning outcome-based-assessment, and quality assurance to new online instructors, even if those standards are being temporarily relaxed this term.

5. How can we ensure the emotional and physical well-being of our faculty during this crisis?

Lastly, it’s important to remember the toll the coronavirus can take on faculty—not just because of the sudden shift in their daily work, but because of the personal, medical, financial, and psychosocial consequences the crisis can cause. As you’re communicating about the challenges described above, make sure faculty are also aware of existing resources related to child care, counseling, health, and coping.

Additional resources on this topic

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