The COVID-19 outbreak has significantly impacted the education sector. Almost all the education institutes around the world have been closed for a while now. According to UNESCO, 60.9% of the total enrolled learners around the globe have been impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak as of 26th July. The pandemic has also enforced country-wide closures of educational institutions in 107 countries. Along with the schools, the higher education institutes are also facing the jolt. The transition from in-person to remote learning has already started. However, the process is not yet complete. Most faculty members have managed to establish new routines, while some are still working out how to teach courses designed for a physical classroom through online platforms.
Apart from the faculty members, students are also adjusting, as they are expected to learn as much without a ready social connection and environment of a residential and in-person learning. Until the coronavirus outbreak, online learning comprised a relatively small share of higher education. Less than one in five (18 percent) of US tertiary level students learned online exclusively as of 2018. However, the pandemic has come as a blessing in disguise as far as online learning is concerned. The first phase in a shift to online learning has passed. Here are the necessary actions universities could take in the next few months to improve student learning, engagement, and experience while operating remotely.
Focusing on Access and Equity
The transition from on-campus to remote learning raises issues related to access and equity. There are immediate logistical challenges of complementing the basic technology needs of students. Universities can offer stipends for internet access and laptop rentals or purchases. They can also provide loaned equipment and procured additional laptops and hot-pots for the under-resourced students. This may get equipment faster and at an accessible cost. Moreover, hundreds of internet and telephone service providers have signed contracts such as FCC Keep Americans Connected Pledge and are providing benefits such as free hot spots with no data caps to support distance learning. Universities can work with state and local providers and agencies to advocate for government support.
Additionally, there are several social, emotional, and human needs that need to be addressed to help students learn. To resolve this, universities can work to connect the lower-income students to social service organizations. They can also provide food service and residential support to those in need. Moreover, mental health services on campuses have been expanding and their need for students, faculty, and staff could also grow–given the anxiety and distress caused by COVID-19. To combat with this, universities are starting outreach, including video options for mental health professionals, partnerships with tele-health and tele-counselling providers and access to online mindfulness classes and applications. Furthermore, students with learning disabilities or accessibility needs require specific attention. Universities should prioritize to design specific approaches to suit each need.
Supporting the Faculty
Most teachers around the world are working hard to teach their students. Institutions can help them in many ways. Many institutions have centers that offer support to faculty in their teaching, which should be started as much as possible around the world. They can also use social media and online forums so that the faculty can share the best practices. Highlighting and explaining successful remote-teaching ideas during the faculty meetings can bring a sense of affinity among them, which in turn can cultivate a culture of sharing and improvement. Thus, institutions that cultivate a culture of improvement can benefit both their students as well as faculty members.
Furthermore, universities can set up a structure so that faculty can get regular feedback on their remote teaching. Student surveys can be effective as they give information on how students are responding and the scope for improvement. Apart from this, universities can use summer months to train faculty and refine courses for an online format. They can consider conducting remote-learning boot camps and hiring more online curriculum designers. Additionally, they can use the free time during vacations to explore and test new technologies to meet specialized needs.
Moving the Quad Online
For many students, the value of higher education comes through the academic coursework as well as the vibrancy of campus life, from late-night conversations, to interactions in the dining hall, and many such incidents. Universities can think about how to use existing tools to move in-person gatherings online and open up spaces for discussions, events, wellness classes, and other interests.
Furthermore, to keep organizations going, university leaders could consult student leaders to agree on common goals and priorities and to discuss what needs to happen in terms of technology access, learning, and engagement. For instance, universities could work with students and use university resources to offer a hub of volunteers looking to help with the crisis. Another advantage of remote learning is the ability to invite guests from anywhere around the world. It will not be possible to put on a full theatre production, but virtual play readings are certainly possible
Colleges and universities are rich in human talent regardless of being big or small, public or private. For them, it is important to empower and redeploy this talent to address the most critical needs. Universities can identify and activate tech-savvy students and staff to coach faculty and other students to use online tools. For example, at Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College, eight digital learning assistants—students with expertise in digital technologies and practices—are holding remote-drop in hours for four hours a day. They are also supporting other members of the digital learning team, including designers and librarians. Another way is to ask alumni and community members to provide remote mentorship and coaching to support students with remote learning, virtual internships, and career discussion.
Investing in Cybersecurity
With the increasing efforts towards online learning, the cybersecurity threats are also significantly increasing. Universities have already suffered cyberattacks where unwelcome users have disrupted classes. They can prevent such problems by ensuring their cybersecurity teams are up to the task, closing the gaps that attackers can exploit, and making investments required to ensure security and data privacy while enabling teaching and learning to go on. Areas for effective monitoring include remote learning platforms and collaboration tools, monitoring networks for malware, and monitoring student and faculty endpoints to catch data-related incidents before they become serious problems. The security and technology risk teams can take some actions to support online learning, such as securing the tools used for teaching and learning, building a resilient faculty and student body, and adapting how the university works, teaches, and secures its learning capabilities.
To conclude, the transformation to remote learning may seem forced and abrupt, however, it can provide institutions with an opportunity to experiment and innovate. These new approaches and practices have the potential to bring about positive changes to the education system.