Getting it right – the three steps to a post pandemic normal in higher education.

For those who have had time to think while grappling with the ramifications of the Covid-19 crisis it is clear that the post-pandemic transition to the new normal for education will not be undertaken in a single step.

Universities and other education and training providers will need to learn from the less than perfect implementation of a gradual, multifaceted approach if they are going to maintain a quality student experience and sustainably evolve internal capability whilst staying true to their reputational brand position.

Adapt and learn, quickly

The first step of course is surviving the final semester of 2019. This has largely been a reactive process with speed being the primary concern. Most have found workarounds to accommodate changes in assessment and student support (mainly though relying on the goodwill of the academics and other staff), existing materials have been uploaded, video conferencing and a wide variety of other tools and techniques have been deployed. However, all has been implemented by teams with differing levels of experience in online learning with little or no training, resulting in significantly varying levels of success.

Given the nature of the situation we have all found ourselves in, and the lack of time, most have done sterling work and students and staff alike have been understanding and prepared to except the lesser quality, inconvenience and increased stress in the spirit of all pulling together. Expectations were low and tolerance was high due to the unique situation, however this tolerance will rapidly dissipate unless quality quickly improves. Most institutions are now coming to the end of this stage now, yet too few are making the time to reflected on what they have learnt, both in terms of the educational experience and the internal impact on staff and process. This makes it difficult to even identify what quality looks like.

Laying a foundation for success

The second stage is the rush to deliver a quality online product in time for September, but this brings two further pressures, a decline in numbers and revenue due to fewer students applying, particularly international students, and the need to create an improved student experience. The lack of available finance and available time internally has resulted in universities having to proceed without external support. Universities are relying on overstretched and increasingly unhappy staff to create a significantly changed educational experience. Whilst most universities have excellent internal teams, they’re being asked to do this without having time to assess previous deliveries, sufficient student support or staff training in the nuances of online learning. This is further complicated as the new intake of students enrolling at both master’s and undergraduate level require campus courses delivered using online tools rather than distance learning courses.

Whilst we must expect that mistakes will be made, there are several things you can do to mitigate risk. Firstly, remember you’re creating student experiences, so update your student journeys taking into account current circumstances. If possible, do the same with internal processes for staff. This will give you the cohesion you need to ensure projects delivering to differing initiatives mesh together as one.

Secondly, do not underestimate the power of good communication and how it can vastly reduce the number of issues along the way. Develop an effective onboarding and induction process, paying particular attention to international students is critical, as is the development of effective online student support (you can’t rely on your overworked academic team to provide this).

Training is key. Set up a triage system to review current skills and capabilities, identify gaps and provide training and support where most needed. Whilst a few academics are experienced in delivering online, most are not and will require support in moving to assessment and teaching online. Whilst every university should aspire to be self sufficient in this area, most need to engage with external specialists or risk embedding bad practice, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Improve IT infrastructure to support access to platforms off-site and engage early in the student journey. The creation of a standard technology suite is important however, integration between existing systems and simple upgrades to support enhanced student orientation and experience is preferable to implementing new technical systems without due process. The student journey must be paramount when making decisions on technology and implementation.

Finally, whilst ‘just getting it done’ is top of mind don’t forget to review and measure. For this, you need to know what you want to measure and whilst learning analytics, student outcomes and student satisfaction are all critical, so is staff satisfaction and internal change acceptance.

Acceptance, adjustment and growth

The third step in the transition to the new normal is as yet unclear, as it will depend on identifying lessons learnt from previous stages, as well as understanding the post Covid-19 environment. Student expectation will have changed, as will the marketplace. There will be a much great acceptance and desire for online learning. Campuses are reopening to a degree, however questions remain around university business models and their sustainability. Potential students need to be reassured of the value of the education they will be paying for.

Universities will need to update their products across the board to support the introduction of new improved learning provision, assess their value, readiness and capabilities, nationally and internationally. This will not be an end point either and institutions will have to embed a culture of continual internal evolution and training. As a priority, there must be continued investment in supporting academics in online education techniques and expansion of their internal online learning resource, supported by external specialists to accommodate varying workload and best practice adoption. Once underway, branding and brand communication on top of conventional marketing will be important to tell the story and maintain a profile as premium education providers in what will prove to be an increasingly tough marketplace.

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