Adjusting to The New Normal: COVID-19 and higher education institutions

Vibhas Sukhwani and Rajib Shaw of Keio University share their research into the key challenges faced by Higher Educational Institutions during COVID-19.

What are some of the key challenges faced by Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs) during COVID-19? Vibhas Sukhwaniand Rajib Shaw of Keio University,and fellow researchers Takako Izumiof Tohoku Universityand Akhilesh Surjan of Charles Darwin University,explore how HEIs can draw lessons from the pandemic to stay flexible in the face of continuous change.

By CoBS Editor Megha Sureshkar. Related research: Managing and responding to pandemics in higher educational institutions: initial learning from COVID-19 by Takako Izumi, Vibhas Sukhwani, Rajib Shaw, Akhilesh Surjan. Emerald Insight.

No footsteps echoed through the narrow hallways. School bells longed to escape their deafening silence. Empty classrooms stared into the void. Once bustling hives of activity, campuses turned a deathly quiet. Back at home, teachers were greeted by the pixelated faces of students on mute as the latter gazed into the digital abyss. Can you hear that silence of education?

COVID-19. The sudden global pandemic has thrown the education sector into very uncertain waters. Schools and universities are forced to shut their doors, disrupting the academic calendar and causing stress to parents and students alike. In response, many educational institutions turned to online classes and some shifted their academic calendars to cope with this extraordinary situation. But, does this dark cloud of pandemic disruption have a silver lining?

School of hard knocks

Challenging situations can also mean a fresh start. Despite all the maladies inflicted, the COVID-19 disruption opened doors to new possibilities of reviving the education system. As higher educational institutions (HEIs) find themselves facing the “new normal”, the researchers urge the centres of learning to understand and learn from the challenges of the past, rethink education and share the lessons widely to better prepare for future pandemics.

Rising to the challenge

Sudden shifts away from classroom to online-based learning created tremendous changes for both lecturers and students. While the positive side of online education – the flexibility of study time – has been noted, there is much emphasis on the negative impact of COVID-19 on students’ mental health.

Many students experienced extreme stress and anxiety due to the uncertainty they were constantly facing and the numerous consequences on their courses and assignments. Another serious issue – the lack of self-discipline – arose when students were self-isolated at home. And the effectiveness of online learning fell short when they engaged in internet-based distractions – surfing or talking to friends on messaging applications – during lectures with the luxury of not being caught. As such, it is important to understand that even though digital tools add value to learning and are an integral part of university education, going completely online is not the best long-term plan. Blended learning models – a mix of online and face-to-face – are the way to go and have the potential to take over as the norm in future learning and education.

Another grave issue that shook HEIs around the world was financial uncertainty. The pandemic caused institutions to grapple with unexpected costs and potential reductions in revenue – campus shutdowns, tuition refund requests, and significant infrastructure costs necessary to make remote learning possible. Going forward, in order to survive such difficulty, the leadership will need to prepare for numerous possible scenarios, seek creative solutions and stay nimble during the times of continuous change. An exhaustive emergency management plan is a great place to begin.

The missing detail

What are some of the key challenges faced by Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs) during COVID-19? Vibhas Sukhwani and Rajib Shaw of Keio University, and fellow researchers Takako Izumi of Tohoku University and Akhilesh Surjan of Charles Darwin University, explore how HEIs can draw lessons from the pandemic to stay flexible in the face of continuous change.

Most universities have guidelines in the form of an Emergency Management Plan (EMP) or a Business Continuity Plan (BCP) that include key information on how to prepare for and respond to emergencies. These plans usually have two approaches in common – an all-hazard approach that covers the full spectrum of emergencies, and four phases of emergency management – preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation.

Sometimes, instead of a one-plan-fits-all approach, campuses have to develop an individualized plan based on the specific threats and vulnerabilities that they face. The point to take note here is that in all these courses of action, emergencies are considered events that can cause death or significant injuries to staff, students, or the public. Incidents that can suspend business, disrupt operations, create significant physical or environmental damage, or threaten the university’s financial standing or public image are unfortunately not covered.

Rise from the ashes

Although the two plans have overlapping interests, many institutions keep business continuity separate from emergency management as the former goes one step ahead to restore the organization to its pre-crisis state. BCPs include detailed methods to recoup from local incidents such as building fires, regional incidents such as earthquakes or national incidents such as pandemics. As a result, it is crucial for HEIs to develop a BCP to ensure the continuity of key campus operations such as teaching, research and other supporting services.

What worked, what didn’t and what will

One of the post COVID-19 measures to undertake should be to initiate an extensive review of EMPs and BCPs to get an understanding of what worked, what did not and how current practices could be improved. If the guidelines worked, it is important for universities to go one step further to understand whether they should develop a plan that focuses on different disaster types such as biological, chemical and natural disasters, or whether an all-hazard approach would suffice to cover different types of disasters.

Unearthing more problems

With an aim to further understand the challenges faced by HEIs around the world during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers went over 150 survey responses collected from 65 universities, located in 29 countries.

It was found that close to half of the responding universities had not developed a BCP yet. As a preparedness plan is crucial to maintaining safety on campus, the situation has to be fixed urgently. Other major challenges identified were lack of adequate preparedness for pandemic and pandemic-specific advanced simulation exercises, change in class style from regular to online lectures and difficulty of working from home. Despite these issues, the information sharing and decision-making processes were timely and open. In sum, it can be deduced that several organizations were unprepared for a global pandemic, but with better plans and resources such as BCPs and EMUs, more universities can potentially make faster and effective responses to global scale disasters. Gathering their observations, the researchers came up with solutions at the organizational and personal level to navigate any future crisis through resilience and adaptability.

Organizational readiness

Adjusting to The New Normal: COVID-19 and higher education institutions

The researchers point to seven recommendations for future organizational preparedness. First, there is a need to develop solid backup plans for meeting various crucial academic requirements such as conducting graduations, commencement ceremonies and examinations, during emergency situations. And it is extremely important to provide the necessary support to students for internet-based teaching, discussions and examination methods. Second, both a university-level and a department-level BCP is required to prepare for emergencies. The BCP should establish guidelines for switching to an online education delivery system, including the process, preparation, communication and support to do so. While developing a BCP, it is important to make it an adaptable document that can provide strategies to tackle a wide variety of disasters.

Third, a dedicated emergency management unit (EMU) should be created in all HEIs and its responsibilities should be communicated to all staff, faculty and students. EMUs should be in charge of conducting simulation exercises at regular intervals on different disaster scenarios and ensuring timely training and capacity building of task forces dedicated to such events. Next, HEIs should conduct regular awareness programs on risks, preparedness and responses for staff, faculty and students. To realize this, a thorough risk assessment is crucial, and it should follow an all-hazard approach. Currently, risk communication strategies at HEIs are built around natural disasters and laboratory-based safety risks. This should be expanded to include biological hazards, risks of sudden attack, riots, stampede, etc.

HEIs should also upskill in the use of online platforms alongside classroom teaching. That means, a fair share of lectures every year can be conducted online. Additionally, universities should establish strong partnerships with local governments, other universities, private bodies, civil society organizations and communities to enable knowledge and information sharing during emergencies. Finally, universities should set aside reasonable designated funds to boost research and innovation against all forms of hazards.

Personal preparedness

Vibhas Sukhwani and Rajib Shaw of Keio University share their research into the key challenges faced by Higher Educational Institutions during COVID-19.
Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels

The preparedness road doesn’t end at the organization-level. The researchers assert the importance of involving the university community – faculty, students and staff – in disaster readiness and point out to four key lessons.

To begin with, there is a very urgent need for everyone to take adequate precautions and safety measures such as wearing masks, observing personal hygiene and maintaining physical distance to prevent infections. Equally important is to rely on authentic sources of information, rather than social media posts which are often half baked or exaggerated. For another, every academic faculty and administrative staff at HEIs should get adequate training and up-to-date awareness on safeguards against biological hazards.

In addition, it is recommended that universities give suitable exposure and training to faculty, staff and students, and also provide them with resources to learn effectively through web-based teaching methods. It is also crucial that the homes of faculty and students alike are equipped with stable and high-speed internet connection for smooth application of various methods. Above all, there is a dire need to invent radical alternatives to the conventional teaching methods to remain relatively unperturbed in the face of another giant, uncontrolled experiment of the pandemic.

Winds of change

Most universities do not have experience dealing with pandemics such as COVID-19, unlike responding to natural disasters. As such, this is their first significant experience with changing the styles of education and research – a clear message regarding the deficiencies of the education sector and the necessity to prepare for both frequent disasters and unfamiliar ones.

The most important elements for creating a disaster-resilient university are developing an all-hazard plan, conducting regular trainings and exercises, building strong community partnerships to generate and share knowledge, and taking innovative approaches to education and research.

HEIs will have to consider post-COVID-19 scenarios seriously and think how they can remain relevant to their students and the society at large. Internet-based teaching is relatively new for many universities, and to some extent, is forced. However, this also opens a dialogue to prove the effectiveness of HEIs in creating a knowledge society. Beyond digital technologies, HEIs need to reposition themselves to supplement the skills needed to prepare a workforce that is better equipped to respond to future challenges. Let the silence of education be broken by the winds of change!

What are some of the key challenges faced by Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs) during COVID-19? Vibhas Sukhwani and Rajib Shaw of Keio University, and fellow researchers Takako Izumi of Tohoku University and Akhilesh Surjan of Charles Darwin University, explore how HEIs can draw lessons from the pandemic to stay flexible in the face of continuous change.
Vibhas Sukhwani and Rajib Shaw

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