How technology can help universities navigate the challenges of coronavirus

Steve Bailey, head of consultancy at Jisc, looks at how tech can lessen the impact of Covid-19 on HE

As the Covid 19 pandemic develops, there’s worldwide speculation regarding how widespread and long-term its impact may be.

Serious questions are also being asked about how universities can continue to function successfully, and there is now a real risk of staff and students being unable to physically attend campus for unspecified periods of time. This threatens to disrupt teaching, learning and assessment – as well as the continuity of the business operations needed to support it.

There are practical and ‘human’ factors to consider too

Technology can lessen the impact of coronavirus on the university ecosystem by enabling effective remote working, clear channels of communication, and the provision of online content and collaboration. But there are practical and ‘human’ factors to consider too.

In response to these challenges, Jisc, the education and technology not-for-profit, has published advice and resources to support universities as they develop contingency plans, and a series of webinars will explore the questions those working within universities say are worrying them most regarding how to ensure continuity, and how best to utilise the technologies they already have.

We also recognise that the higher education sector is a community, so many of the answers people are looking for will come from their peers and colleagues. With this in mind, Jisc has created a community of practice as a space to raise questions for discussion and share experiences.

Common sense

Organisations already offering extensive distance learning opportunities, supported by staff who can work and teach remotely, are more likely to adapt more easily to the kind of scenario that coronavirus may present.

There are plenty of practical ‘common sense’ steps such institutions can take. For those already engaged with these technologies, Microsoft Office 365 and Google G-Suite could provide support during any disruption that coronavirus may bring – and Jisc’s cloud solutions team can help universities get the most out of Microsoft Office 365. Microsoft Teams is also free for all staff and students in higher education, supporting meetings of up to 250. There’s a guide for getting started with remote learning via Teams, as well as a series of free education-focussed webinars for educators and IT staff.

Universities can also sign up to join a global community for education, with channels dedicated to academics and learning instructors, IT professionals, phone system and meetings, and teaching and learning.

Digital newcomers

But what about universities that are nearer the start of their digital journey? The overarching message through all of this is: examine the technology at your disposal and look for practical and immediate steps you can take to utilising them, rather than looking to implement new technologies which you and your students may have no experience with.

Point people towards ‘beginner-level’ guidance

For example, each university’s VLE is likely to prove crucial through the coronavirus pandemic – so it’s important to make sure staff are confident using it, even if they haven’t before. Remind people of their login details, point them towards ‘beginner level’ guidance, and provide opportunities for them to learn from each other and from colleagues with more advanced skills.

In terms of teaching and learning resources, Jisc member organisations have access to free digital content, including books, journals and multimedia resources. These can support staff and students as they transition to remote working, and all can be accessed off-campus. Universities can check their current subscriptions, or view the catalogue for all the content that is available from Jisc via licence subscriptions manager or by speaking to their account manager.

Access all areas

Finally, wellbeing is a concern for many in these uncertain times. A stressful situation will be made worse if staff and students feel isolated or confused by rumours and misinformation. So, it’s important to pay attention to the needs of your most vulnerable, guaranteeing they have direct access to people they can contact and that you have multiple routes for communicating with them.

Jisc is holding a free one-hour online briefing for members on 23 March at 2pm, exploring how to successfully move to online delivery of teaching and learning.

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