In 2020 as COVID-19 started spreading across the world, countries started locking down their economies to prevent the spread. In March 2020, restrictions started being placed on businesses and institutions across the US. By the end of March, most US educational institutions were on lockdown, forcing them to adapt to alternate modes of instructions that did not involve on campus in-person meetings. As schools and universities scrambled to make the most of this virtual mode of instruction and work, it became apparent that this environment could last a while, perhaps months or even a year!
As schools and universities continued in virtual mode of instruction in the spring term, necessities started giving rise to inventions and innovations. Universities such as California State University San Bernardino started accelerating innovation and discovered inefficiencies that existed in many areas of their operation. CSUSB started addressing inefficiencies: everything from reengineering forms that required multiple signatures to improving electronic workflows to launching chatbots to provide repeatable responses in high call volume areas such as Financial Aid, Admissions and the Technology Support Center. CSUSB leveraged the pandemic-induced remote operating environment to transform its operations.
For any higher education institution, the following simple principles will allow them to be nimble and agile as they tread into unchartered territories.
Keep your ear to the ground: During times of crisis, such as the pandemic-induced pivot to a virtual teaching/learning/virtual environment, there are several actions that can be taken to immediately empower constituents to adapt. However, it is very important to listen to “weak signals” as Vijay Govindarajan refers to in The Three Box Solution, championing the ideas of maverick thinkers. Outside of formal action planning, one has to keep one’s ears open to ideas that come from unconventional sources that become catalysts for innovation. At our University, one of the weak signals was allowing students to access their labs from remote locations. We had the infrastructure in place, however it didn’t come to the top of our priority list. We made this virtual lab resource available overnight to students, which had huge benefits.
Think outside the box: One of the challenges we faced as the University moved into a fully virtual environment was the number of students, faculty and staff who did not have access to a reliable Internet connection at their homes. While we provided them with hotspots to immediately resolve the situation, we are working with local broadband providers to get affordable broadband access to this community of learners and educators. Bridging the digital divide is not an issue just during the pandemic, it creates lifelong opportunities for our students and our community.
Think bigger: When you are in the middle of the crisis, think about ways in which the innovations that were accelerated can be sustained post crisis. Can some of the activities that were forced to go virtual because of the pandemic become permanently virtual? Do students ever have to stand in line to get signatures for approval or accomplish administrative functions? Can Counseling, Advising and Financial Aid services be delivered in a virtual format permanently, enhancing the speed and efficiency of services to students? What other automated services such as chatbots can be rolled out to weed out inefficiencies that exist in our operation? Can students and faculty come to Campus only to participate in activities that add value to their educational experience such as labs, practicums, teamwork and problem-solving activities, and do the rest virtually in synchronous and asynchronous modes? This will negate the need to build more labs, lecture halls and work areas on Campus.
If nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic has tested the propensity of higher education institutions to reinvent themselves and transform. Some have done it better than others. Every institution has discovered, however, that large equity issues among its student population need to be addressed as they prepare for the post COVID-19 environment.