As part of an ongoing interview series, QS is speaking to higher education professionals across Italy to understand how their sector is dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.
During this time of crisis, it’s crucial that institutions across the globe share insights and continuously learn from each other.
During this interview series, we’ve spoken to Dr. Eugenio Gaudio, a medical researcher, physician, and Rector of the University of Rome Sapienza. You can read the full interview here.
Last week, we spoke to Professor Ferruccio Resta, Rector of Politecnico di Milano and President of the Conference of the Italian Rectors (CRUI). You can find that interview here.
This week we’re speaking to Stefano Ronchi, Rector’s Delegate for International Affairs at Politecnico di Milano, to get his take on the ongoing crisis.
What was the initial response that your institution took to the coronavirus? And how has that response changed over time as the situation has escalated?
Since the first signs, around February 21, we started planning all necessary activities to prepare ourselves for online classes and online graduations.
Our main goal, since the beginning, has been to allow our students to accomplish all their academic duties without any interruption, whatever it takes.
Any possible interruption to their studies and graduations would have had a dramatic impact on their lives and on the economic and social system overall.
When we realized (around the end of February) that the situation was going to continue to worsen over time, we planned a dozen of pilot programs to go online starting the second semester on March 2.
Once we settled all technical and methodological issues, we went live with all our programs on March 9. That means over 45,000 students and 1,400 professors now have everything online, both classes and lab activities.
We provided all professors with different modes of interaction with their classes, from less tech-savvy to more tech-savvy professors. I have to say all professors and students have reacted promptly to the crisis and we are seeing great results.
In the meantime, we graduated (March 5) thousands of students, discussing their thesis and providing their final degree through live, emotional sessions. Professors had caps and gowns like in traditional graduations and everybody was connected through their webcams and their mics.
With all these measures, we’re in line with our academic calendar deadlines. The next challenge will be eventually running exams remotely.
After we rolled out these measures, Italy announced the quarantine. All our staff and professors are now in smart working mode for both research (when possible) and education, but at the same time we’re providing all services to students and to the community. For example, we’re now producing thousands of liters of disinfectant against the coronavirus for the entire city of Milan.
With Italy imposing a national quarantine, how has your university consistently communicated with students throughout this period and what are your ongoing plans for communication?
Since the beginning, our rector established a direct communication channel to our community.
Every single day, he sends a message to all students, professors, and staff, describing clearly the situation about the university, decisions taken, and future plans.
Similar information and updates are also published on the homepage of our website.
What processes and alternative learning options have you implemented as a result of the quarantine?
As mentioned, we’re now online with over a thousand courses.
Our classrooms have become entirely virtual, we’re using live streaming to interact with classes and to group students in working groups to be followed online.
We offered three main options to all our professors:
- Autonomous teaching with our learning management system: Every professor uses their own PC, interacting with students on the platform and sharing their screens during the lecture
- Webcam provided: We provided all professors who needed it with a separate webcam from their PC, in order to use it together with their PC, so they could take videos of specific subjects (e.g. handwriting on paper or using a traditional whiteboard)
- Classrooms with dedicated infrastructure to video lectures: A few professors decided to have their lectures in their standard classrooms with a digital infrastructure to video their lecture
For all the options, lectures might be recorded and provided to students later.
What mental health and emotional support are you offering to students?
We offer our students a mental health and emotional support service called Polipsi. Of course, this is more important than ever in this situation.
We’re offering this support online to all students who need it. We also think that the daily and transparent communication we provide to our student community is a very effective way of letting them know that we want to support them in any possible way.
How do you think universities, and the sector, can best respond to the coronavirus outbreak?
Universities have a duty to support their students in their academic experience, especially in these times.
We have all the tools and methodologies we need to continue our activities, support their curriculum, and facilitate their future entry into the job market. This is extremely important for the economic and societal relaunch after the coronavirus crisis.
As in every big crisis, disruption is also a way to reshape the way activities are done. I think education will be completely different after this period.
Talking to other colleagues around the globe, universities are learning faster than ever the different modes of education. These new modes won’t substitute the traditional ones at all, but they will strongly integrate them, further boosting the higher education industry.
To learn more about the higher education sector’s response to the coronavirus, please visit the QS COVID-19 Resources Hub.