When colleges and universities open their doors once more, what lessons will have been learned from the COVID-19 crisis? And, asks Chris Thomson, when is the right time to start planning the next steps?
Since the very first cases of coronavirus were confirmed in the UK, members of government, scientists and health advisers have been aligned on one key message: when it comes to our national response, timing is all. In March, that meant closing universities, colleges, schools, restaurants, pubs and many workplaces - but for how long will doors remain bolted?
Some say it’s too early to start planning a get-out strategy from the effects of COVID-19 – but I think we need to see some light at the end of the tunnel. When colleges and universities open their doors once more, what will they have learned from this crisis? While there are many ‘known unknowns’, these needn’t prevent education leaders thinking about what the future may look like.
Step 1: Pause
Taking time to recognise what colleagues have achieved through this crisis is important. While many solutions to the enforced lockdown will have been imperfect, a huge collective effort has gone into responding quickly and, often, in radical ways.
There have been emotional and financial costs, but now is not the time to rush in with solutions. People are exhausted and dealing with trauma. Staff and students will need time to decompress and take stock of their new environment – social, economic, personal, as well as physical.
Step 2: Listen
At any time, but particularly during and immediately after a crisis, leaders have lots to gain from listening to staff and students. What has the experience been like for them? What worked well to support teaching and facilitating learning? What hasn’t? What had a positive effect on wellbeing? What thoughts do people have about the future, and what next steps would they recommend?
Hearing these stories will not only enable leaders to gather intelligence, it will help everyone make sense of their experience, allowing them to take back agency and re-establish a sense of control that was taken from them when the pandemic tipped normality upside down.
It’s easy for voices to get lost in this process. Making listening an active and collaborative process, Jisc recently spoke with teaching and learning practitioners (pdf) throughout the UK, hearing about their professional practice. Jisc colleagues and sector experts are now undertaking a similar exercise in light of the COVID-19 situation. We plan to share our findings and methodology to support institutions wishing to model their own conversations.
Step 3: Reflect
When the crisis is over, a ‘start-stop-continue’ exercise may support immediate decision-making, if approached in a spirit of collaboration and appreciative enquiry, rather than as a fault-finding exercise. For example:
Start (or increase)
- What, in hindsight, would have been helpful to have in place before the emergency? Perhaps circumstances meant organisations weren’t aware of a specific need, or perhaps there was a lack of resource or opportunity to make an important change
- If this all happens again tomorrow, what must be in place?
Stop (or reduce)
- Did aspects of the former ‘business as usual’ prevent the organisation from responding to the crisis in the way leaders envisaged?
- To keep the show on the road, were any new systems adopted or did any practices emerge that, on reflection, won’t be sustainable once the emergency is over?
- Look through the lens of organisational and personal values. Does it reflect tensions? What are the implications of turning off the elements highlighted above?
Continue (or improve)
- What has happened, or what has been done, that is worth preserving?
- What resources are required to enable these things to continue?
Step 4: Plan
Eventually, leaders will need to develop a long-term, get-out strategy – but that will only be possible once the new environment becomes clear. Some ‘knowns’ might emerge quickly while other impacts take years to become apparent. And timing, as we know, is crucial.
Jisc has produced guidance on developing a PESTLE analysis - finding ways to balance political, economic and social impacts with technological tools, new legal frameworks and environmental considerations. This could provide ideas on how to plan ahead.
But however college and university leaders approach the end of lockdown, the impacts of COVID-19 will be fundamental and systemic.