Navigating the New Normal - How Colleges and Universities Transitioned to Remote Work and Instruction

While many colleges and universities already offer classes and degree completion as distance education programs, the transition to move curriculum, services and operations online in a matter of days due to COVID-19 has been a massive undertaking at a global scale. On April 1, leaders in the CRM community gathered for a webinar to share their experiences on “Leading Your Campus in Times of Crisis”, hosted by Salesforce.org. They shared their views on what has transpired in the last few weeks, and these experiences, as well as others captured in various blogs, interviews, and social media posts, certainly resonate with many schools across the United States and abroad. In this first of a two-part series, let’s look at how the current pandemic has impacted our campus leadership, faculty and staff.

 

Leadership Rose to the Challenge

Schools witnessed their leaders come together, dust off the crisis response plans, break down silos, eliminate bureaucracy and make quick decisions with a consistent theme – do what is best for our students. Many decisions were difficult and based on incomplete information and best-guess predictions that changed daily, but the health and wellbeing of students was consistently paramount when considering:

  • Moving all instruction to online learning - while leaders knew the quick turnaround time needed to move curriculum online and ensure students had the technology and support to transition to distance education, many schools made this decision knowing it was the safest choice to protect students from community spread.
  • Consolidating student housing and prioritizing the safety of those remaining on campus – as schools transitioned to online learning, they also asked students to return home to reduce the potential for viral community spread amongst their classmates and within the residence halls. Students who were unable to return home, especially those who are studying from abroad, needed to remain in a safe and comfortable location on campus. Some schools have consolidated their student housing into a reduced number of residence halls, and limiting the number of people per floor and in common areas.
  • Ensuring students have access to technology for remote learning – while many people today have cell phones, laptops, tablets, and easy access to the internet, accommodations must be made for those who do not. In collaboration with their internal IT departments as well as external support from vendors and service providers, schools have provided students with the technology and support they needed to access their classes online in an effort to make this new option equitable across all participants.

 

A New Modality for Faculty

Over the course of a weekend – or, in some cases, during a spring break week – faculty went from in-person office hours and teaching in a classroom, to being at home, in front of a computer, and transitioning all of their curriculum to online learning. This was a massive undertaking from a technological support standpoint, but also a huge adjustment for instructors and professors, especially those who haven’t had prior experience with distance education:

  • Learning new technology and tools – anyone who has consistently worked in an office or classroom environment and communicates regularly with those only on campus may have had little to no exposure to online tools, such as those used to host webinars or online courses. Learning different features of these tools so abruptly gave instructors a significant challenge, but similar to campus leadership, we are seeing they certainly rose to the task. Schools across the country and the world – including elementary and secondary education – are now hosting virtual classrooms, enabling online document creation and sharing methods, and using what they know and have quickly adopted so their students don’t miss a beat.
  • Adjusting to working from home – like so many others, instructors have also made the additional adjustment of using these foreign online tools from home. What we are seeing is an atypical shift to remote working, complete with having children underfoot who require homeschooling, hastily designated workspaces, insufficient office equipment, and an abundance of choices for online communication and information delivery tools. But, once again, we are seeing our teachers and professors prevail; they are making it work with what they have, when they can.
  • Utilize students as technology and social media mentors – a very interesting shift is seeing students ‘becoming the teachers’ when it comes to technology and social media guidance. Traditional age students in particular are extremely well versed in not only using different types of technology but figuring how to use new tools very quickly. Furthermore, they have mastered social media apps and can support their instructors on how to leverage these broader methods of communication.

 

New Ways of Working for Staff

We hear the term ‘essential’ staff used frequently now, but it may no longer carry the same definition we once thought. This term is predominantly used to represent staff who are ‘keeping the lights on’ both literally and figuratively. From the literal sense, a campus cannot fully shut down physically; students who live in campus housing and unable to return home mid-semester still need the support of resident assistants, janitorial services, and meal preparation to name a few. Through the figurative lens, we are relying on technology now more than ever, and it takes a team of people behind the scenes to keep both cloud and server-based systems up and running 24/7. In addition to the identification of those who are essential for specific tasks, some duties as well as processes and responsibilities are also changing for some staff:

  • Timing, frequency and channels of engagement – in the pre-coronavirus world, staff would frequently use phone, email, or more advanced technology such as CRMs and associated tools for communications and messaging. In a pandemic, the rules have changed – timely and crucial messaging needs to be sent to the right people at the right times, staff have limitations due to working from home, and in-person meetings aren’t even possible. These factors make communication planning for staff all the more important, so they know what to say, when to say it, who to communicate with, and which channel to utilize for specific messaging. It’s a lot to manage and keep track of for staff who are also carrying the weight of this situation in their own personal lives and providing staff with as much clarity and guidance as possible serves all constituents well.
  • Use existing tools to improve self-service – in a crisis such as this, information changes daily, sometimes hourly, and it can be hard for students and parents to keep up. To improve the flow of information and ensure constituents receive timely and accurate information, building on existing self-service tools is an excellent way of giving people access to information when it's convenient for them and reducing the number of inquiries coming into staff. By adjusting search terms and leveraging portals and commonly used tools like mobile apps, students can look up pertinent information anytime, from anywhere, and find what they are looking for.
  • Focus on student support services beyond online learning – in addition to the basics of supporting students moving out of dorms, transitioning to online learning, processing refunds, and answering questions about the remaining and future semesters, staff are also concerned with and fielding questions about student health and wellbeing as well as family financial implications. Students may reach out to a staff member regarding a tuition refund because a parent has been laid off, or one has tested positive for COVID-19. The end result is any staff member from any department needing to be prepared for this type of conversation and needing support on how to manage these. These are topics that may not normally come up when interacting with students, but staff need to be prepared to support these students emotionally as well as providing definitive information.

 

Beyond campus leadership, faculty and staff, our students are significantly impacted by this abrupt disruption to their lives. In the next blog in our series, we’ll look at how students are affected personally, socially, and academically to this pandemic, and how schools can support them during this difficult and unprecedented time.

 

 

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