The upcoming academic year will be unlike any other seen before. So how can your institution ensure its staff are ready to manage the complex challenges this year may bring?
It’s not only students who are facing serious disruptions to their time in higher education as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
University staff are altering the way they work, teach, and research, in order to abide by the safety measures crucial to preventing the further spread of the coronavirus.
These practical changes are also taking place alongside the management of their own personal anxieties about the current health crisis, as well the concerns of students.
As the upcoming academic year fast approaches, staff at your institution should be preparing themselves for a range of new scenarios and challenges.
The virtual experience
With the implementation of social distancing, most higher education institutions are limiting in-person teaching to varying degrees.
Some have chosen to conduct the entire academic year online, while others will be adopting a more blended approach to learning.
Regardless of your institution’s planned approach, there is a high chance that, in the approaching academic year, teaching staff will be relying on online learning much more than they would’ve originally anticipated.
This means that many teaching staff members will have to undergo significant training ahead of the start of term to get to grips with the virtual learning platform your institution has chosen.
Researchers for Computer Applications in Engineering Education have released a study into the recent rapid transition to online learning within the education sector as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
The report highlights how “educational institutions start their transition to distance learning from different starting points, that is, with different levels of digital skills and previous knowledge about digital technologies.”
It’s important that your institution acknowledges the varying degrees of competencies within its teaching staff and understands that it may need to develop personalized training plans so that no one is left behind.
With existing experience with the required technologies, New York University Shanghai was able to manage a “rapid deployment of educational technology products, like the video-conferencing platform Zoom and online course provider Coursera.”
However, reports have revealed that some universities have struggled with such a vast and rapid transition to online learning.
South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand (Wits) quickly discovered that their IT infrastructure “could not support the strategy of online learning and teaching,” and that they had to look to other solutions, such as cloud platforms, to prevent the frequent outages that kept occurring.
Ensuring that your institution has the IT infrastructure needed to meet the demands of online learning, as well as training staff to navigate this new experience, are crucial steps that need to be taken ahead of the start of the new academic year.
Administrative staff will also have to adapt to remote working and will therefore require training and access to the virtual platforms that will enable them to function effectively in the new academic year.
Not only will teaching staff have to become practiced in navigating virtual learning environments, but they will also need to conduct a review of their courses and assessments to ensure the online method of teaching still meets the required learning objectives.
However, as the report by Computer Applications in Engineering Education explains, “many teachers resist changing traditional teaching methods.”
Without full cooperation from teaching staff, the delivery of online learning courses will not be adequate, resulting in dissatisfaction from students and potentially poor grades.
The process of reviewing course content and its delivery should therefore begin as soon as possible, to give staff enough time to accept the transition away from teaching methods they may have been using their entire careers.
In some countries, the debate over whether it’s safe for staff and students to return to in-person teaching remains heated.
The Georgia Institute of Technology in the US released a statement in July claiming that “employees who care for or live with [high-risk] individuals … should plan to return to campus as scheduled.”
This demand, along with similar policies at other universities across the country, has been met with backlash from teaching staff who believe that it’s not yet safe for them, their families, or students to return to campus.
In response, staff at the Georgia Institute released an open letter stating that “no faculty, staff, or student should be coerced into risking their health and the health of their families by working … on campus when there is a remote/online equivalent.”
It’s crucial that your institution only requests the return to campus when it’s safe for staff and students to do so, and that online learning is utilized in the meantime.
The University of Oxford have advised that “anyone who is able to work from home should continue to do so,” and that, while they are planning to reopen campuses, “this is subject to change according to government advice and as the situation moves towards a new normal.”
As we approach the next academic year, nothing is certain, so it’s crucial that your institution remains on top of the evolving situation within its country, preparing for a range of eventualities.
In preparation for the reopening of campuses, whether fully or partially, there are several safety measures that need to be adopted.
Social distancing rules and increased hygiene measures that your institution has developed need to be clearly understood and adopted by all staff members, so that they set a good example to students.
If university staff breach these safety measures due to lack of awareness, or allow students to do so, this can cause a PR crisis, potentially damaging the reputation of your institution.
Uncertainty and anxiety
On top of the practical changes that university staff need to prepare for, there also needs to be a level of understanding about how staff and students will manage the effect the pandemic may have on their mental health.
Writers at Nature magazine believe that the situation in the US “amounts to a gigantic, unorganized public health experiment—with millions of students and an untold number of faculty members and staff as participants.”
Ensure there are planned procedures in place to support staff who find themselves in a range of scenarios, such as those who become ill themselves, or those with vulnerable family at home, and make sure these plans are clearly communicated to staff.
With more students experiencing anxiety during this time, your institution may also need to refresh staff’s understanding of how to handle distressed students who raise concerns over the uncertainty they face.
The University of California, Berkeley, rolled out an app by Maya Petersen that “included daily questionnaires about physical symptoms as well as anxiety about coronavirus, plus an easy way to sign up to get a free test, no questions asked.”
Steps such as these can help to control and manage coronavirus-related panic amongst staff and students.
For more information on how the coronavirus crisis may impact higher education in the long term, please see our latest report: The Coronavirus Crisis and the Future of Higher Education.