Using technology to cope with Covid-19 on (or off) campus

With universities and colleges now conducting preparations for a range of scenarios around the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, the effective use of technology is more vital than ever to maintain the systems and platforms students and staff rely on.

All staff now need to start thinking about how to keep working in the event of major disruption. If you haven’t had to think about business continuity much before, I would recommend that you take a look at ucisa’s Approaches to Business Continuity.

This is an introduction for professional services staff which contains prompts to help test university departments’ readiness for significant disruptions. It really does help you work through the steps you would need to take if key members of staff were absent for a length of time and it provides a framework within which to consider business continuity.

The good news is that IT departments should have well tested business continuity plans that can be brought into play. Our members report that they are all readying IT infrastructure for a higher number of people working off site than normal.

What can staff do to prepare

Then it’s time to start thinking about – and test! – how teams would work from home if you were required to. Only when you test will you discover that not all colleagues have broadband or have poor connections, that some will have forgotten how to access your institution’s Virtual Private Network (VPN) or that an important piece of software can only be accessed whilst on campus.

Not everyone will have the right equipment, and it might be hard to obtain more at short notice, so setup a system to prioritise the allocation of equipment and identify key staff who need it. Then, if possible, conduct tests of working from home with large groups of staff, rather than asking individuals. Can an entire department work from home? This might feel a big step, but it’s also a much more realistic test.

Staff who have no experience of working in remote teams will need guidance on the cultural aspects as well as the technology. Working remotely means that those casual office conversations don’t happen, and moving to email or chat can mean that nuance is lost and misunderstandings arise.

Teaching and learning

Delivering teaching remotely is very different to traditional face-to-face. Supervisions and seminars may work as normal, but online lectures may need breaking down into shorter chunks to be effective. However, in the short time available it may not be feasible, so IT staff, learning technologists and academics will all have to work closely to agree what the institution’s policy is.

IT and learning technologists will need to partner to produce guidance that covers both the basic technology issues (“How do I conduct a remote supervision?”) as well policy and pedagogical issues. For example, should lecturers attempt to deliver live lectures or move to pre-recorded?

From a technology point of view, it is far simpler and more reliable to move to an asynchronous model, and it removes pressure from students but there may be a small number of cases where live delivery is required. Again, this requires cross-institution work to understand the local context, pedagogy and any technical limitations.

Assessing students

With the end of the academic year approaching, the possibility that universities cannot run final exams in the traditional manner is very real. Planning for a scenario in which students cannot congregate in large groups in exam halls means major changes to how assessment is conducted.

It may seem possible to conduct online exams in the same way as offline ones (with the student cohort all answering the same questions at the same time with no reference to outside material) but it is unlikely to be possible to do this across the large number of exams a typical university runs.

Key questions to consider include: the availability of remote invigilators and technical support, how “closed book” conditions could be enforced, and importantly, if the technology platform will support many hundreds of students all submitting their work at the same time.

If the format of exams needs to be changed to open book exams with extended time for submission, then the focus of the work changes from the technical/IT area (“Can our IT systems support this?”) to academic (“How do I rewrite my exam?”).

IT input will be required to check that systems have enough capacity to support open book exams, especially those that require access to specialist learning resources or software.

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