Covid-19 and the shift to online education will fundamentally change how universities teach – for good.

Having recently recovered from the Covid-19 virus, but still in self isolation, I’ve had a great deal of time to reflect on how we might be able use this difficult situation to benefit universities in some way. Whilst I’ve been banging the drum for digital transformation, within higher education, for many years, I have often been frustrated by both the lack of speed and reluctance to instigate cultural change.

The largescale need for online learning has never been more acute. This is coupled with a climate where the buy-in of budget-holders and academics alike will never been higher. The advent of Covid-19 will greatly expand users of online learning and fundamentally change the way courses are taught. Universities must ensure that they stay at the forefront of this accelerating change rather than allow the gap to be filled with commercial providers. To do this they must plan now and get ready for swift implementation once the immediate crisis lessens. The challenge of what’s ‘normal’ and the sense of community, that the pandemic has started embedding into our society, will enable barriers and preconception to be overcome. In a university context this will allow everything from vision-setting through to engaging academics and even technology choices to happen more smoothly, providing that a common goal is quickly identified and correctly communicated.

We have long been faced with an evolving workforce, where frequent upskilling and career changes are the norm. Most universities are moving beyond traditional degrees and designing online degrees, alongside micro credentials, intensive short courses, and other online and blended learning qualifications. This shift has been occurring gradually, as universities steadily work towards achieving growth targets.

The Covid-19 crisis has changed the focus from steady growth to survival for many and highlighted the critical need to expedite decision-making processes. Speed is not however a characteristic that is often attributed to the higher education sector and this needs to change. I’m not advocating a panicked approach as to be successful, be it expanding your online offer or starting from scratch, all action must be based on a clear strategy and plan. This strategy must have a vision for student satisfaction and learning outcomes with an understanding of the new normal at its core to ensure lasting growth and success. My point here is that the executive team needs to find time to identify what the new normal is for them and do this planning, if not immediately, as soon as they possibly can.

We’re often asked to assist the leaders within universities to help them develop a cohesive vision that will meet their goals, and then to realise their vision by developing new products. The route to developing a strategy is almost as important as the strategy itself. The most successful strategies are those that are created and owned by the executive team as it enables them to become truly embedded and understood. The process will need to be supplemented with specialists to ensure the vision is ambitious enough yet achievable, however it must be owned by the senior team rather than outsourced wholesale as is too often the case.

Internal communication is often overlooked within university change programmes, but it is absolutely key. Despite the situation that we find ourselves in and teams being more accepting of change don’t assume that everybody is excited or confident about online. The leadership needs to spend time articulating their vision and strategy so that mutual goals can be established with key staff. If goals are truly mutual the definition of roles, responsibilities, expectations, and establishment of design principles will be a great deal easier to establish and implement.

Online education in all its’ forms will be increasingly important to all educators and as such your strategy should include building in-house teams. Whilst in the short term the support of external suppliers will be required to achieve the speed needed these suppliers must be willing to integrate, train and share knowledge with the in-house team. Currently the two most credible options for external suppliers of online education are OPMs and fee-for-service. Of the two the latter is very much the preferred option as there’s inherent flexibility in the model that allows for training and even recruitment for internal teams. OPMs do of course have their place and deliver some excellent programs but do not suit if eventual self-sufficiency is desired.

Regardless of the route chosen, evolving the universities culture to cope with constant change is essential. Academics can be challenged most with this as whilst they’re experts in their field many are not use to the current pace of change and often don’t have the time to consider new ways of learning. The creative process of designing new online learning experiences, that deliver to the highest student outcomes, whilst also reflecting the university’s uniqueness is far from easy. Communication and involvement are essential and Academic teams need to be bought front and centre and also given the space they need to reimagine.

Covid-19 will leave the world changed. It has highlighted why online education provision needs to move forward at far greater speed. The impact of the virus on education presents an opportunity to overcome the natural human resistance to change and unite all staff around a common goal. The process of identifying and then delivering to that goal is very achievable and the shock to the world we’re currently undergoing may perversely enable this to happen.

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