“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”— Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
An indisputable truth emerges when reflecting on the aftermath and responses catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic: this epoch disruption will change the landscape and trajectory of higher education for many years to come. Frustration, anxiety, unprepared, abrupt, isolation, uncertainty, unemployment, ruinous retirement and disastrous are among a litany of “keywords” that emerge when describing emotions surrounding this defining historical moment.
Charles Dickens captured a world of opposites in his classic, Tale of Two Cities, when he described “…the best of times…the worst of times.” The simultaneous blend of chaos, despair, and conflicts was also paradoxically laced with happiness and hope. Fast forward to the COVID-19 crisis that has arguably been a defining moment in history; and is aligned with much of the emotional state captured by Dickens when describing life in 1859.
This essay will share firsthand experiences of the authors with COVID-19 in higher education, identify issues and opportunities for improvement, and share selected learning opportunities experienced from their front-line higher education experiences. Future mitigation considerations and recommended areas for future study are provided.
Thomas More University—Background
Thomas More University (TMU) is a Diocesan Catholic university located in the greater Cincinnati community of Crestview Hills, KY. The university boasts enrollment of some 2,000, comprised of resident and commuter students as well as a robust adult degree completion program for undergraduate and graduate offerings.
TMU adopted Canvas as a technology partner and employs two Instructional Designers. Distance learning, through fully online and hybrid/blended options, was active for roughly 30% of the classes and engaging faculty members when the pivoting measures required due to the COVID-19 pandemic were fully implemented. At the time of the national mitigation, suspension of face-to-face teaching that included higher education engagement, varying levels of virtual teaching had been active. The pivot and conversion to full engagement for sustaining TMU learning operations was achieved within about two weeks of suspending the face-to-face teaching format.
After Action Review/ “Root Cause” Analysis
The rationale and importance of a retrospective analysis can be linked to the lessons from historical events as asserted by nineteenth century Spanish-born American author George Santayana, paraphrased as follows: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it and understanding history is necessary to avoid preventable past mistakes.” (www.dictionary.com, 2020).
An After-Action Review (AAR) provides a “root cause analysis” tool to reflect on areas of challenge and opportunities that emerged after the first wave of change—in this instance, for Thomas More University (TMU). The AAR process, used by a team to capture the lessons learned from past successes and failures, has the goal of improving future performance. In a military context, the AAR is used as a process for learning quickly from those in the field. Critical lessons and knowledge are shared immediately through this basic and simple exercise to optimize the benefit of learning from the activity being studied.
The AAR “root cause” tool helped frame the “what/why/how” effects of COVID-19—what happened, why did this happen/how can we help prevent this from happening again? The “6Ms of production requirements” was chosen from available business strategies to facilitate and complement this analysis. Selected “6Ms” – Manpower, Money, Methods, Machinery, Measurement, and Mother Nature – represent a mnemonic group of characteristic dimensions to consider when engaging in “cause and effect” brainstorming discussions and analyses. (The number and inclusion of “M’s” differ among contributors to the literature. The M’s selected for this analysis were those deemed most relevant for source considerations.) For the purposes of this summation, Manpower (human resources or human capital), Money (financial considerations/ implications), Methods (training, processes, policies and procedures), Machinery (technology, bricks and mortar), Measurement (industry benchmarks and measures for best practices), and Mother Nature (environmental forces outside the control of the enterprise/entity/organization) were the selected dimensions employed for the authors’ analysis. The structured process for TMU resulted in the following categorical outcomes:
- Faculty members expressed skepticism concerning the effectiveness of purely virtual delivery. They expressed a hesitancy to fully embrace this teaching modality. (what)
- Several faculty members exhibited mild “cyberphobia,” fear of technology, with the tools associated within the virtual platforms such as screen. (what)
- Instructional Design manpower is needed to effectively design and implement written training protocols and be available for faculty and students. (how)
- Some faculty were fearful of potential contagion and spreading the virus: this fear seemingly incentivized many faculty members to accept, l learn, and embrace online teaching delivery as a necessity. (why)
- Due to the vendor’s help desk support backlog due to the unilateral shift of all account institutions to full online delivery, wait times of several hours for faculty members required TMU to pivot and internalize and absorb the help function within the current TMU staff. (what)
- A “digital divide” continues to exist in higher education. Smart phones, hardware (laptops), l lack of broadband internet access, and restrictive data plans inhibit universal access for students. The closure of libraries surfaced this individual resource weakness. The “technology gap” continues to serve as a barrier to learning. (why, what)
- A limited budget for additional technology to support the swift ramp up to meet hardware and software needs hindered implementation expediency. (what)
- Written standard work processes for many protocols, policies, and procedures are lacking (why)
- Increased safety presents a positive for distance learning. There is less susceptibility to disease spread/contagion. (why)
- Training customers/stakeholders on the product can be tedious; and this is exacerbated by the lack of written standard work processes. (what, how)
- Because there are likely unknown issues that may require modifications after additional potential COVID-19 surface flexibility is needed to address the unknown. (what)
- Technology options for virtual teaching needed to shift away from the intended modality due to inability for training and ease of faculty member use. The lack of standardization prompted multiple systems to be used. (what)
- Costs for Technology Investment need to be accounted for to improve distance learning from the classroom. These needs include more sophisticated audio-visual support. (how)
- Virtual learning is not as personal and engaging. (what)
- Training customers/stakeholders on the product can be tedious (what); further use of survey tools for stakeholder needs can assist with tailoring future training support. (how)
- Resources for instructional design support are low for a 100% TMU class participation for at least a short-range ramp up (what); additional resources should be considered proportionate to increased participation. (how)
- The uncertainty of a possible relapse from progress being made to ameliorate the virus outbreak may further tax resources and require different solutions to manage the disruption (what); refinement of mitigation strategies can help anticipate future potential “business disruption.” (how)
Considerations for Mitigation
Mitigation opportunities point toward the need for proactive education and team exercises to prepare for future unplanned crises. Considerations include the following:
- Evaluate appropriate change leadership strategies and crisis management theories for activation to frame proposed crisis/disaster mitigation.
- Evaluate and recommend proactive change management exercises for board, faculty members, students and staff members.
- Update disaster preparedness organizational structures and communication programs.
- Review all contracts and practices for services delivery with legal counsel to ensure that provisions are made for extenuating disruptive circumstances such as COVID-19. Consider whether force majeure clauses should be considered for stakeholder agreements.
- Consider appropriate delivery models and plan for increases in technology to increase self-reliance for unforeseen catastrophic events that affect services delivery. Include evaluation of the potential needs and relevancy of purposeful redundancies to help address “surprises” for technology.
- Engage in a structured process improvement system (e.g., Agile, Lean Six Sigma, Project Management) to reduce waste (expense) and optimize revenue for a beneficial return on investment (ROI)
* Leading Change (Amplification)
In normal circumstances, leading change can be difficult. Individuals become engrained in a specific way of doing things and feel that change is an attack on the current state of the organization, or the way individuals have been conducting business. During COVID 19, change initiatives and their impact have been amplified. The approach taken by leaders significantly affects the response by followers in both normal and unprecedented times.
The following are three effective ways to lead change:
- Frequent communication
- Obtain buy-in
- Explain the financial or business needs for change
Communicating with stakeholders improves the likelihood of trust within the organization. Leaders who communicate early and often avoid the pitfalls that a lack of transparency bring, namely confusion and gossip. Communication at regular intervals shows followers that they are important and valued. Communication is a very inexpensive way to keep people informed and content. Emails, social media usage, and virtual meetings have shown to be effective forms of communication during COVID-19.
Every change initiative requires buy-in. Leaders who fail to gain buy-in are often short-term solutions. The damage they leave behind often outweighs any success that may have occurred. In order to obtain buy-in, leaders should hold sessions that resemble political town hall meetings. Voices need to be heard. During COVID-19, meetings held via virtual meeting software programs allowed for input. Leaders must listen and demonstrate empathy toward those whom the change will impact. Doing so builds trust and increases the likelihood for buy-in.
Explaining the financial impact of the failure to change is another way to overcome resistance. Expressing the need for change in dollars and cents can awaken even the most ardent resistors. Simply lay out the impact of what happens if the organization fails to change. For example, if we do not implement plan A, we will lose x number of customers or dollars. If we lose those customers, the financial loss will impact the organization in the following ways. The impact could be in reduction of workforce, loss of matching retirement contributions, or failure to fulfill the organization’s mission. During COVID-19, leaders who possessed a firm grip on the organization’s financial standing and explained scenarios that could occur if change agility measures failed are the ones most likely to lead their organizations successfully through these unprecedented times.
The COVID-19 pandemic can be described as an amorphic, catastrophic event that has not discriminated against what or who is affected. Effects of the pandemic have heightened an awareness of shortcomings; and through this analysis, brought further clarity to these issues, and helped identify and prioritize opportunities for amelioration.
Relevant and likely useful “recommendations for future study” are suggested as follows:
- A focus on refinement of current online delivery to include the ramifications of “high-flex” options.
- An assessment of the ideal types of leadership (e.g., Autocratic, Situational, Transformational) to embrace for crisis scenarios. The full wake of the indiscriminate disruption created by the global coronavirus, COVID-19; forebodes a daunting future adjustment for higher education.
- A survey and examination of current faculty member knowledge. Variables such as age, and academic discipline likely affects online teaching acumen. Determining the level of faculty member familiarity, including adjunct faculty; and effective modes of preferred training can prepare faculty members with requisite skills for effective online teaching.
The authors conclude that AAR and root cause analysis are useful tools from the “abundant quiver” of potential strategies from which leaders can discern and select. While admittedly not exhaustive for problem identification and solutions to manage all challenges, these simple and basic tools/methods should be considered to guide higher education process improvement initiatives.