5 Considerations Before Going Back to Higher Ed “Normal”

Time, communication, and a few others will require some measured reflection.

GUEST COLUMN | by Katelyn Denning

When it comes to student success in higher education, there has often been a gap between what many knew we should do versus actually doing it—between knowledge and action. The COVID-19 pandemic rapidly shortened that gap, forcing creativity and quick responses and mandating the adoption of remote, cloud-based solutions. When the pandemic took away on-campus services and in-person solutions, institutions had to meet students in a very difference space—in a virtual world.

‘What good came out of our reactions to these circumstances, out of necessity for change? And what should be the foundation for a new reality – crafted with purpose?’

While we all look forward to a return to “normal” for many aspects of our lives at some point, higher education should think more in terms of how our collective new normal can evolve into something better. Here are five considerations and best-practice approaches that higher education can benefit from adopting as we shift into new ways of operating, learning and supporting student success.

Shortening the Time Gap

The old process of meeting with an advisor most likely entailed a student needing to meet yesterday, in a sense. By the time they could schedule an appointment during regular office hours, arrange transportation, and trek across campus between classes, a week could easily have transpired since the original need arose.

In today’s reality, a student’s advisor is now working remotely—just like the student. Without commute time or other scheduling limitations, that likely opens up additional availability. Virtual appointments can be hosted outside often-limited traditional office hours, helping to close the gap between when a student proactively identifies an issue and when they can successfully receive support. 

Expanding Communication Options

It took longer than expected, but higher education has gotten on board with text messaging as a broadly accepted form of communication. From application status and campus tour reminders to emergency alerts and financial aid deadlines, receiving a text message from a college or university is much more common now than it used to be. While email and phone calls will likely always have a place in higher education, institutions have recognized that students conduct their lives via their smartphones.

Students want the option to communicate when it’s convenient for them and they want answers near-immediately when a question comes up. Especially during this socially-distanced time, having access to updated information has been critical for student success. Whether sending mass text message updates, posting more detailed online resources or offering instant chat tools that provide answers to common questions, institutions have had to broaden their communication channels and expand their outreach to keep students informed and connected. This level of communication and connection should now be the standard for institutions in serving their students and communities.

Providing Clear Metrics for Accountability

As the workforce has moved to remote work environments, we’ve all looked for ways to hold ourselves and our teams accountable—students, faculty and staff are no different. To foster successful outcomes, it is important to start with a clear description of what is being measured and how. A student can’t pass a class if they don’t know what they will be graded on. Incoming students can’t be recruited if their territory or target goals are unknown. And, instructors need an understanding of who their student are and what they expect to learn in order to be effective.

Colleges and universities have had to clarify different sets of expectations and make them readily available as transitions were made to an online environment. Many institutions already had cloud-based solutions in place but needed to integrate them into this new reality. Data had to be presented in a different way in order for campus stakeholders to view and track it. Students needed to see their status in class and have access to relevant online learning materials. Staff needed to see data and dashboards filled with information to help them meet goals and provide updates for accountability. And faculty needed information and data on their students, so they could measure online teaching effectiveness.

Setting clear expectations and providing updated online resources and useful data insights is a baseline higher education should continue to meet no matter what environment classes are taught moving forward.

Tracking and Using New Data

As the pandemic forced learning and services online, new data was suddenly available about online activity and engagement, providing institutions with numbers rather than just anecdotal feedback. Campuses can now see online course activity and student engagement and track outreach and outcomes from different student success initiatives. All of this can inform planning and preparation for the fall and future semesters.

But beyond the pandemic, the interest in utilizing data to inform decisions is something higher education has been clamoring for, for years. In this new way of operating, institutions have quickly learned whether they had the necessary tools and resources to track and summarize that data. Once institutions have access to this valuable data, they should never look back.

Defining and Enforcing Permissions and Privacy

As institutions look for new ways to harness and track new and informative data coming in, privacy and permissions become an even bigger priority. Some might say that 2020 has lit a fire for campus leaders to make decisions and set guidelines around these issues. That urgency to act, to set clear parameters and definitions around the data available at an institution, takes on even greater urgency as we continue to acclimate to a new way of operation and technology use.

The landscape of higher education will continue to change as information and circumstances evolve with the global pandemic. And it is remarkable how much students and institutions have adapted already. But as we think about the future, about getting back to normal, we should pause first to recognize what lessons have been learned. What good came out of our reactions to these circumstances, out of necessity for change? And what should be the foundation for a new reality – crafted with purpose?

Katelyn Denning of Anthology (formerly Campus Management), is a content and product manager responsible for working with CIOs and provosts across nearly 50 institutions of higher learning. Connect with her on LinkedIn

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