5 questions driving universities’ coronavirus responses

Expert Insight

5 questions driving universities’ coronavirus responses

Reflections on conversations with UK and Irish Registrars and COOs

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the constantly evolving global situation, HE providers have been tasked with quickly responding to unprecedented challenges. In keeping abreast of the evolving global situation, EAB has convened dozens of virtual roundtables with university leaders to source ideas and collaborate on ways to meet these challenges. The roundtable with UK and Irish COOs and Registrars was no exception, with discussion ranging from putting out today’s fires to planning for the autumn term.

Below, we summarise the key questions raised by Registrars and COOs and note resources that EAB has produced to help address them. As always, the most up-to-date resources are posted online on the Coronavirus Resource Centre.

1) How do we respond to student needs while also supporting our overworked staff?

With the scramble to stand up remote instruction largely complete, professional services staff are now working hard to establish means to listen and respond to student feedback, provide students with the hardware and software they need to learn effectively outside of the classroom, and promote student wellbeing from afar.

Understandably, this burden can take a heavy emotional and physical toll on staff, particularly given the wholly unique circumstances in which we’re living. In response, some campuses have been pursuing creative solutions to help avoid staff burnout and promote self-care, whether through virtual happy hours, group meditations, or online discussion boards.

Read more about the ways support staff can meet remote students’ needs here.

2) How do we manage virtual assessments and exams at scale, especially where labs and practicums are the norm?

Not surprisingly, most of the uncertainty about testing and instruction centres on STEM subjects, as well as medicine and other fields where labs and practicums are necessary. In response to cancelled labs, some academic staff have already redesigned academic programmes, in one case providing Lego kits to students to design molecular prototypes remotely. Most institutions have begun ‘fast-tracking’ their final year med students, making them available resources to the NHS or Health Services Executive sooner than anticipated. Tactics range from waiving clinical examination requirements to bringing forward dates of qualification, allowing med students to work as doctors as soon as April 2, 2020.

As another example, the University of New England (UNE) in Australia is providing guidance to institutions currently adapting to online examinations. As a provider of distance education, UNE already offers most of its exams online and is now hastening its move to 100% online exams. UNE uses online exam technology that allows students to complete exams remotely, while still under staff supervision. Read more about UNE’s ‘remote invigilation’ in practice, here.

3) How can we deploy campus resources, from campus spaces to academic expertise, to help respond to the pandemic?

Staff and students are courageously asking how they can step up and provide support to those in need –whether colleagues and friends on campus, their local communities, or their country at large.

The University of Leicester has collated a list of volunteering opportunities, ranging from helping neighbours to volunteering at foodbanks, in order to provide students and staff with up-to-date information about how they can be most helpful. They have also created an online portal for staff and students to raise their hands to volunteer with the NHS, so they have a database of volunteers to deploy when the NHS asks for assistance.

Additionally, institutions have off-set the pressure on overworked campus units (e.g., support services or the international students’ office) by running university-wide volunteering campaigns to source additional resources for overworked staff.

Many universities are also considering whether their large physical footprint can be used in the fight against coronavirus. Learn more about how to effectively deploy campus space here.

4) Do we need to prepare for a world where multimodal learning is more common due to external circumstances affecting student mobility?

Universities have largely finalised their pivot to remote classes with a ‘business as best as we can’ attitude –but will Zoom lectures be enough for the autumn term and beyond, when student expectations have increased? Universities need to assure students of the academic quality of remote courses and determine how best to measure student success and attainment in this new environment. For some institutions, the coronavirus and its aftermath may be the turning point in realising the need to invest in a robust online infrastructure that can more easily adapt to multimodal learning in the future, allowing students to flip between in-person and remote more frequently.

Even if your campus’s transition to remote instruction in the past few weeks has felt haphazard, the shift naturally serves as a forcing function to reflect on lessons learned and consider how to drive more online engagement after the transition back to ‘normal’. Read EAB’s insights on the benefits of remote instruction here.

5) How do we plan for the upcoming academic year, from amending our current enrolment strategy to planning our academic programmes?

It’s an open question about what the autumn will look like –namely, whether in-person instruction resumes in September for some or all students. Waiting until January remains an option, but the threat of losing market share unless all HEIs go this route is, for the moment, a bitter pill to swallow. With uncertainty surrounding international student mobility and whether domestic students will choose to defer their start at the prospect of a remote-only year, institutions risk a dip in enrolments. University leaders are beginning to work through these scenarios with their Major Incident Groups. EAB’s research team is also quickly assembling a set of scenarios that can be used to spark essential discussion about possible futures—more coming soon.

The uncertainty doesn’t mean that communicating with prospective students should end, though. For more on what a coronavirus-shaped enrolment marketing strategy might look like, click here.

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