An unabashedly optimistic view
A year ago, faced with the sudden, shocking realities of a global pandemic, colleges and universities had to:
- Comply with public health orders and lockdown
- Support students who were partway through their semester, and anticipate their needs for spring/summer
- Support faculty, many of whom had never used technology to teach
- Quickly ramp up the capacity of educational delivery platform and technology infrastructure
- Find ways to work with international students, many of whom had returned to their home countries
Overall, colleges and universities responded to these challenges as best they could, but not everything they did was successful.
Students challenged the use of proctoring systems and complained about some of their online experiences. Mental health challenges were reported. Some faculty found the demand of shifting to an online environment challenging. Some filed grievances or delayed the delivery of their courses. And there were equity issues, including access to broadband, technology and appropriate workspaces for study.
What’s significant is the speed and agility with which colleges and universities responded to and learned from these challenges. While faculty found themselves truly challenged by the new work of design and video-based instruction, they did more than cope. They showed resilience and the ability to move forward under unprecedented circumstances.
Post-secondary system proved it is innovative and has the capacity to adapt.
Here are five things Contact North I Contact Nord saw colleges and universities get right:
- Supporting faculty development
Many faculty were suddenly being asked to do something different and challenging. Colleges and universities leveraged their internal expertise and provided seminars, webinars, short videos and examples of best practice to help faculty think about how they could teach. Faculty shared their expertise within their own college, university or institute as well as with others in their discipline across the country. Instructional designers around the world also shared their expertise, and many faculty accessed these resources. Some received 1:1 direct help to guide their thinking in how to teach art, music, science and mathematics using videoconferencing and in-house learning management systems. While some faculty struggled, others thrived, showing a real appetite to make the best of a challenging situation.
- Focusing on the immediate needs of students
Most colleges and universities quickly recognized that, unless they strengthened communication and did so with compassion and empathy, students would struggle. Students needed rapid and frequent communications explaining what was happening and what it meant for them. Many institutions enhanced their helpdesks and support services and strengthened communications with a proactive approach toward students deemed at risk of not completing their studies.
Some remarkable initiatives showed there is a deep and genuine concern for students’ well-being and mental health. Such initiatives included verbally discussing accommodations on work, mental health days as excused absences, a weeklong break from assignments to make up for the lack of spring break and mental health supports, including providing access to counsellors, psychologists and online counselling resources available 24x7.
Although tools to support at-risk students are still relatively new, growing numbers of students and faculty found them useful. In 2019, more than half of students and between 30% and 40% of faculty rated such tools as very or extremely useful. Fewer than 10% of student users found them not very useful or not at all useful, but as many as one in five faculty saw them this way.
Indeed, an ability to recognize the struggles of isolation, Zoom fatigue and the challenges of the long-distance learner is the hallmark of a sensitive response from higher education institutions.
A high percentage of students successfully completed their Winter 2020 and Spring/Summer 2020 semesters. And in Fall 2020 and Winter 2021, almost all institutions delivered a very high percentage of their programs online.
Most importantly, safety protocols were instituted to protect students and staff. Despite some outbreaks, campuses were safe havens for many.
- Rethinking examinations and assessment
Initially, many colleges and universities looked for help with proctored examinations done at home, quickly acquiring licences for proctoring systems. But in the ensuing months, students and faculty began to think differently about assessment. More creative uses of available methods, including peer assessment, project-based assessment and authentic assessment, were instituted. Cheating was a challenge, forcing institutions to come up with new protocols. There is much more to do here, but the debate about assessments and how best to support learning outcomes has taken off across college and university campuses.
- Collaboration and co-operation
Collaboration and co-operation improved as colleges and universities look to share approaches, expertise and solutions. Shared service providers — provincial, national and international — stepped up by making their support services, software and expertise available. A substantial uptake of open educational resources also occurred, lowering the costs of learning for students but also solving the problem of distributing learning materials.
- Asking for help and assistance
Some colleges and universities were proactive in seeking help and support from experts for the pivot to remote teaching. A sign of a learning organization is that it knows when to seek advice and support from others. This happened extensively during the past year with institutions and organizations dedicated to online and distance learning stepping up to help each other. Real networks of collaborative support and communities of inquiry and practice emerged to strengthen the capacity of each institution to respond.
No one expected the pandemic would last this long (and of course it’s not over yet). A true sense of normalcy may not return until 2022, likely when all those willing to receive a COVID-19 vaccination have done so. Only then will face-to-face classes restart, although certainly with new health and safety protocols.
What’s clear is the pandemic revealed a great deal to colleges and universities over the past year, including:
- How significant inequality is. It impacts learning directly, not just in terms of access to broadband and appropriate technology but to the supportive environments that encourage and enable learning.
- The need to think about the nature of the learning on offer, especially in terms of racism, diversity and inclusion.
- The pandemic coincided with the Black Lives Matter and defund the police movements, which raise questions not just about access to education but also about what we teach and how we protect learners.
- Indigenous students have special challenges in online and distance education, unless specific designs are adopted that reflect Indigenous ways of knowing.
- Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and augmented and virtual reality can be powerful ways to bring a remote learning session to life, when used with care. These technologies have limits in terms of equity and inclusion.
Over the past year, many colleges and universities demonstrated that they are agile, focused, resilient, and able to learn and act when circumstances change. Now they must respond in the same way to the need to:
- Reskill and upskill people who lost their jobs
- Rebuild and strengthen social trust and equity
- Find new ways to work in the post-COVID new reality