Amidst the Covid19 pandemic, the higher education institutes (HEIs) are frantically trying to transform from in-person delivery of education to remote learning. While the faculty members are working hard to master the online mode of teaching, students are also struggling to adjust to the virtual medium of learning. Prior to this pandemic, the online mode of learning was limited to tertiary education and not very popular in India. Currently, the HEIs are coerced to adapt to the online mode of operations to facilitate learning. Ensuring student engagement and effectiveness in learning using online mode is a big challenge. Institutes and universities are constantly under pressure to design initiatives that will assure the desired quality of learning on the online platform. Following strategies can be adopted by the HEIs to sustain operational excellence in remote learning:

Technological access and affordability: Remote learning involves the use of specific technological support like a laptop, iPhone, Android devices, internet, data package, etc. All students may not have access or affordability to access these facilities. Institutes/universities can extend support to the learners by subscribing to collaborative software and agencies. Several internet and data package vendors have extended benefits like removing the data caps to support the need of the time. Institutes may collaborate with such vendors or intermediaries to strengthen the remote learning system. Some students may be challenged by basic human requirements like timely availability of food, income disruptions, emotional and social depravities that impact the effectiveness of remote learning. Institutes/universities can connect them to non-profit organizations for basic provisions and financial assistance. The campus can be kept partially open in a controlled manner to assist students who are in despair.

Also Read: E-Learning in the time of COVID-19: Essential Points to note

Mounting anxiety and stress among the students, faculty, and staff must be addressed through psychological counseling to restore their mental well-being. Institutes/universities may partner with the mental health counselors for providing online advice through webinars. Psychological advice and exercises to retain and extend attention span can be a great help when the learner is confined in residence for months. Customized approaches to suit the specific needs of the various categories of learners and their learning styles may be designed gradually. Tech-savvy students, staff, and faculty members who have the expertise in digital technologies and practices can be selected to form task groups to coach the rest to use the online tools. They can support the team in the transition to remote learning mode.

Empathy towards the educators: HEIs must understand the vulnerabilities of the faculty members who are trying to cope up to deliver the same standard of education online as they did in the physical mode in spite of the disruptions poised by the pandemic. The effectiveness of the pedagogy adopted depends on the discipline and the technology adopted. Teaching support centers may be set up to help the faculty to upscale technologically such that the level of engagement in the class improves. Online collaborative forums comprising of faculty from HEIs across different nations can help to get ideas on effective remote teaching practices. Effectual feedback machinery on remote teaching through direct student surveys and analysis of the engagement data recovered from the learning management system can be used to improve the system. Upgrading the faculty and the capabilities can help to enhance the quality and effectiveness of learning. Exploring new technologies to meet specialized needs can help to serve students with disabilities.

Virtual Campus: Higher education involves 24×7 engagements in academic, co-curricular, and extra-curricular activities in the campus. Online gatherings and spaces for discussions, events, wellness sessions, nurturing hobbies, competitions, etc. can be created. This can help in replicating the feel of campus-life. For example, the University of Florida started ‘The Student Plaza’ where the students and faculty can create study groups for virtual tutoring and continuous engagement. Student representatives can be included in discussions with the institute’s leaders to communicate the objectives related to technology and learning outcomes and prioritize them. The learning system design team can include student volunteers in tackling the glitches in shifting from the physical to the online mode of teaching-learning.

Utilization of human talent: Live sessions with guest speakers located remotely can empower the institutes and universities in organizing interactive sessions with the who’s who of diverse sectors from around the world. For example, Adamas University (India) organized a webinar on ‘Steps Towards Life: Chemistry!’ by Prof. Jean-Marie Lehn, a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (1987) better known as ‘Father of Supra-Molecular Chemistry’ on 29th May’20. HEIs being a powerhouse of human talent may deploy their resources to address the intellectual and academic needs and benefit from the newfound opportunities in the new normal.

Security Issues: HEIs must inflate their investment in the security of their online learning systems to alleviate the cyber threats. The cyber cell must check concerns like ensuring data privacy, monitoring the remote-learning platforms and networks, managing collaborative tools and malware, and monitoring the user categories’ access to data. Virtual private networks (VPN) for data transmission, multifactor authentication for applications, antivirus software, verification gateways, adequate storage spaces in the cloud, etc. are some of the security measures that must be adopted. The faculty and the students must be made aware of the malware attacks. IT help desk can serve as a window to receive complaints of the users and manage response protocols conforming to the security system.

Restructuring the administrative functions: Back office administrative functions like HR recruitment and retention, finance, and infrastructure must be aligned to the newly set objectives and missions of the HEIs in the new normal. Institutes/universities must be essentially managed as amalgamations of different departments, each one having its own internal organization and structure. A collaborative approach towards problem-solving must be adopted with the involvement of stakeholders including the guardians and the students, the recruiters, the employees, and the investors. Future-oriented programs must be designed to improve the services and experience. Transformation of the back office administrative jobs can drastically reduce wasteful transactions.

Transformational leadership: The diverse learning system must be assessed from the point of view of various stakeholders which may require redesigning/transformation of the systems and processes. Problems encountered by the students, faculty, and staff must be considered together for an assessment of the bottlenecks. For this, the stakeholders must be involved as collaborators who should be able to manage their part of the operation in a decentralized manner. This would not only increase the acceptance of the operating systems but also uphold the desired quality of outcomes. The HEIs can identify the real obstacles in the system as some of the stakeholders are the end-users as well. Central administration of the institutes must partner with the faculty and the staff while designing and developing the learning system. This would help to convert the naysayers into associates. Constant communication about the institute/university’s mission and objectives for improved services is required. Leaders must reinstate the belief in an effort by acknowledging the short-term wins. A dedicated task force must be created to implement the transformation across the administrative functions. Leaders must shift their perspective from fighting fires to strategic alignment. Attracting and retaining talent must be the motto of the HR function and the policies and practices must be reviewed accordingly.

To conclude, the sudden outbreak of the Covid19 pandemic has ushered the HEIs to shift to remote learning mode with little time to prepare. While some have adapted in the crisis exceptionally, others have not been as successful. A lot remains to be done to achieve the desired level of excellence and collegiality in HEIs. Transformation in the administrative operations in collaboration with the stakeholders can accelerate adaptation to the new normal and facilitate the attainment of the academic missions. The pandemic situation can be perceived as an opportunity to test, trial, and innovate enduring changes. The new normal shall undoubtedly be an integration of remote-learning and on-campus capabilities.

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Sanghamitra Brahma
MBA & Ph.D. in Management; Faculty of OB & HRM; Currently associated with Adamas University, Kolkata, India. Educator and trainer in management, passionate mentor, and counselor for those seeking assistance. Contributor to The Eastern Herald.