4 Best Practices for Sustaining Institutional Effectiveness in a Crisis

April 7, 2020 Kris Babe

When the unexpected happens, how can you maintain institutional effectiveness despite disruption? Though COVID-19 is the largest disruptor higher ed has faced in generations, it’s by no means the only type of crisis that can throw teaching and learning into disarray, as anyone in coastal or fire-prone regions can attest. Thanks to the incredible amount of collaboration happening now on listservs and the communities of professional organizations that support higher ed, we know a bit about what it takes to sustain and support teaching and learning amid challenging circumstances. We’ve also learned how institutions use the data from disrupted terms differently than usual — to capture vital insights on a unique experience without applying it to processes the data might typically support, such as faculty reviews. Here are 4 ways to maintain institutional effectiveness through COVID and beyond, ensuring you can meet your institution’s long-term goals.

1. Focus on teaching and learning.

Most institutions have made a nearly overnight pivot to distance learning in recent weeks. That’s a huge challenge for students and faculty. Focus on what matters: helping students access the resources needed to participate in distance learning, and supporting faculty efforts to maintain a connection with students while translating in-person courses to the distance-learning environment. Tools like ePortfolios that facilitate interaction and feedback between students and faculty can be particularly useful in supporting distance learning. Assessment efforts this semester should focus on capturing data that helps you understand the effects of change, and how best to support students and faculty as they prepare for a possible summer and/or fall term of distance learning.

Matt Cooper is associate provost for Center for Teaching and Learning at Thomas Edison State University, a primarily online institution. He offered some advice for traditional institutions for finishing this term of distance learning and preparing to support distance learning in upcoming terms. “This semester is about maintaining that connection to students and delivering your in-class content the best you can online,” he said. “Focus first on things like providing excellent feedback to students, making sure that rubrics are being utilized. Presence, communication, assessment — those should be the top three things that faculty should be looking at right now to improve the student experience this semester.”

2. Use data to answer new questions.

The systems you use to capture assessment data, student evaluations of teaching, and other vital information can provide you with answers to pressing questions about the disruption your students have experienced, as well as their plans for fall. Consider how this data can prepare you to support students should the COVID crisis extend into future semesters, as well as preparing for future unexpected events. You may choose not to incorporate this semester’s data into faculty evaluations or ongoing assessment efforts, but capturing it is critical. This situation presents a natural experiment, so consider:

  • Adding questions to your existing course evaluations or creating additional surveys to provide students with a place to share their experiences of this disruption.
    • Did they have adequate internet access?
    • Did they have a “home” other than campus to go to, and was that home safe?
    • What has been the most challenging aspect of this shift in the context of this particular course?
    • What are their plans for the fall semester?
  • Using assessment data to understand this semester's experience so you can provide faculty and students with the resources needed to support distance teaching and learning in the future
  • Assessing after the fact pulling artifacts captured in the LMS into a purpose-built tool for measuring learning outcomes

3. Speak strategically about using this semester's data.

Given the level of disruption for everyone in higher ed, faculty may be justifiably worried about collecting data as usual. No one wants one of the hardest moments in living memory to reflect poorly on them as educators and scholars. But it’s vital to understand your students’ experience this term in order to improve on crisis response and distance learning delivery for the future. Share what data will and won’t be used for, focusing on the value of understanding the semester that’s currently happening as the “black swan” event it is. Discussing these uses for data gathered about this term may ease minds:

  • Informing plans to support distance learning, including providing the resources needed to assist faculty in designing and building courses intended for distance delivery
  • Understanding the challenges students experienced to surface gaps in the resources needed to ensure a connected and effective learning experience
  • Updating disaster planning based on faculty and student responses as well as assessment data for the current term

4. Bring resources to bear on the inevitable gaps that emerge in a crisis.

Capturing data in the true spirit of inquiry will reveal important opportunities to collaborate — across your institution and with your peer institutions throughout higher ed. By understanding the challenges students and faculty face now, you can strike up stronger partnerships between faculty and instructional designers, curriculum committees and instructors, students and their faculty and advisors. Use data captured this term to connect campus experts and resources to improve the experience for everyone involved in the summer term and beyond. Consider:

  • Digitizing manual processes to gain efficiency and ensure continuity despite unexpected disruptions
  • Opportunities to communicate with all stakeholders about changes to core processes, especially when you may be working remotely or in unfamiliar surroundings
  • Creating a plan for how you’ll use data long-term, and how that data fits into the narrative of your institution — you may find compelling stories about how you deliver on your mission during a crisis

Charles Hodges, Stephanie Moore, Barb Lockee, Torrey Trust and Aaron Bond may have said it best in their recent Educause article, “The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning” in relation to the COVID-19 crisis:

“Although this situation is stressful, when it is over, institutions will emerge with an opportunity to evaluate how well they were able to implement ERT to maintain continuity of instruction. It is important to avoid the temptation to equate ERT with online learning during those evaluations. With careful planning, officials at every campus can evaluate their efforts, allowing those involved to highlight strengths and identify weaknesses to be better prepared for future needs to implement ERT.”

These learnings will ensure that if you need to continue distance learning for summer courses and perhaps even the fall term, you can make informed decisions based on the actual experiences of your students, faculty, and staff.

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