COVID-19 has thrust universities into online learning⁠—how should they adapt?

High school student, Mona Hussein participates in an online class at her home, after coronavirus lockdown forced schools to close, amid concerns over the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Amman, Jordan March 23, 2020. Picture taken March 23, 2020. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

There is one golden rule for flying with an infant or toddler: Do whatever it takes to get through the flight peacefully with no harm done. Every parent knows this means relaxing their standards. Planting your kid in front of an iPad screen or giving them not so healthy treats might not win you a “parent of the year” award, but it’s what is needed in the moment.

In like fashion, much of the global higher education community is suddenly thrust into an unplanned, unwanted, and fraught experiment in online learning with the COVID-19 pandemic. For many of those participating—institutions of higher education (IHEs), faculty members, and students⁠—it’s not what they want, but it’s what they are stuck doing through the end of this academic year. How should they proceed?

As president of Southern New Hampshire University, which had a large online learning presence even prior to COVID-19, I offer four guiding rules.

Rule #1: Do whatever it takes to get through this phase.

Higher education rightly prides itself on high standards, carefully crafted learning, experienced faculty, and measured consideration of things like curriculum, resources, and learning space design. In software development there is the opposite concept of Minimum Viable Product (MVP), the minimal functioning version that gets the basic functions done well enough for now. Those IHEs new to online learning should be in MVP mode right now, remembering that the great is the enemy of the good when urgency and lack of time to prepare is the order of the day.

Rule #2: Students matter most.

In the U.S, and around much of the world, anxiety and depression are rampant among university students. We’ve just added the existential threat of a pandemic and the looming threat of a global economic meltdown to their worries. In “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much,” authors Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan show that anxiety and scarcity of resources rob humans of precious cognitive bandwidth. A student whose parent just lost a job, whose grandparent might have the virus, or who has less food and safety at home than at campus is simply less able to perform than they were just two weeks ago before everyone was sent home.

In a volatile world, “rigid” equals “brittle,” and institutions that cannot figure out how to work differently may not work at all.

It gets worse for marginalized students who already live with scarcity, less social capital, and less structure. Campus life can provide them with the kind of supportive accountability that is much more challenging to provide in an online environment (it is possible, but it takes experience to pull off). The pandemic is casting a harsh light on issues of privilege and equity, and we’ll see many marginalized students disappear from the system without considerable effort to provide them with extra support.

Regular one-on-one interaction with students is critically important in this period, and it should always start with them as humans. How are they doing? How are their families doing? Are they taking good care of themselves? How can you help? When they know we see them in their wholeness as human beings, then we have a shot at saving them as students. Deadlines, course outcomes, and grades? Those are all secondary to making students feel like they matter to you. When they do, they are more likely to do good work.

Rule #3: Plan for the long haul.

If all goes well, your home country will look more like China or South Korea (though we are all waiting to see if diminished social isolation means a resurgence of infections) and not Italy or the United States when the pandemic is over. For countries not managing their pandemic response well, there is the very real possibility that campuses will not reopen in the fall. The MVP approach will not be good enough if IHEs face an extended period of online delivery.

Institutions need to plan right now for that possibility and start developing the kind of high-quality, student-centered online programs that are now the standard among good providers. That’s a complex undertaking with many moving parts, and it has to be done in a few short months. There isn’t a day to waste.

IHEs need to quickly stand up robust systems of support in areas such as academic advising, administrative functions, IT, tutoring, and more. Faculty need to be trained over the summer, and many schools with well-established online programs are making their training materials available for free. (Ours are here.) IT staff need to not only get on top of their technology stack, starting with the learning management systems (LMS), but also develop a good customer relationship management platform to support advising functions and the suite of other necessary tools.

Many universities will turn to outsourced program management companies (OPMs) to get here more quickly, concluding they do not have the knowledge and resources to be ready for fall. There are good and poor OPMs, and IHEs need to be careful who they choose and the deals they cut. The Catch-22 is that they need to start as soon as possible, and it might mean that we return to normal by summer’s end and they can resume their traditional delivery models. We just don’t know. Incorporate an “out” clause in any OPM deal.

Rule #4: Mine your own resources (quickly).

On any campus there are people who know how to do the necessary work, and they often do not sit in the upper echelon. They include the faculty member who has a passion for online learning and technology, the early adopters who have been quietly playing with the online learning tools, the tech staff who support the current LMS and know the institution is using only 30 percent of its capabilities, and the continuing education team that has always thought about alternative delivery. The people closest to the problem are often closest to the solution. Find them and put them on a taskforce, empower them, and buffer them from all the slow-moving governance and bureaucracy that will slow them down.

Our people remain our best hope for doing good work, but higher education’s rigid hierarchies, power structures, and status markers often relegate the people IHEs need most to unseen positions doing unseen work. In a volatile world, “rigid” equals “brittle,” and institutions that cannot figure out how to work differently may not work at all.