While every industry has been impacted by the pandemic, education warrants a special mention, for two reasons. One, the sheer number of those affected - UNESCO estimates this to be 1.58 billion learners (or 20% of the world). Secondly, these students are missing out on some of the most formative and social moments of their lives. There is also the uncertainty of how this will impact their careers, and anxiety related to the virus itself, which can be debilitating. It is no surprise that many universities plan to add more advisors to their counselling departments to help students cope better.
One way campuses can help their students is by helping them maintain a sense of continuity and community. This might sound difficult, but it’s not - as long as the intent is there. From our experience working in this space, here are five things we recommend universities do.
1. Be in touch:
The best advice for humans and companies applies to colleges as well. These are unprecedented times and just like we would do with family and colleagues, it’s important to keep in touch with students constantly. Share updates frequently - even if there is no concrete news to convey. It tells them that the campus administration is with them and trying to find solutions and workarounds. Be honest, and even vulnerable - we are all human, after all. Faculty sharing their own fears and life updates will help to maintain that connection and drive home a sense of “we’ll get through this together”. This will go a long way in helping scattered students feel less isolated and maybe even boost their feeling of community.
“The message we need to send is “I don’t just care about academics; I’m here for you as an individual””, says Laura Horne, chief program officer for Active Minds, a national organization that supports mental health awareness and education among students, herself a victim of displacement after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
2. Facilitate discussions between students:
A potential risk of remote education strategies is too much top-down (teacher-student) communication and not enough between students themselves. That is a surefire way to dilute campus community - as many ideas, projects, and discussions originate in corridors and dorm rooms. This needs to be accounted for and even facilitated. An easy start is by innovating with group projects that will encourage discussion between students. Another way we can do this is by encouraging college groups and committees to move online and find creative ways to continue their activities virtually. This will give students a sense of purpose beyond just grades, just like it is on a physical campus. This is not difficult - the technology for this already exists.
3. Allow students to easily access their support network:
Now, more than ever, students will need access to resources and college personnel like mentors, advisors, and of course, instructors. By corollary, the latter too would be missing interacting with their students! This can be easily bridged, even when everyone is remote, by building in systems where students can get personalized support on subjects, careers, and even well-being. Dedicated 1:1 communication - which can easily be facilitated by video or text - will go a long way in building a sense of continuity and make lives slightly easier in these times.
4. Check on them:
There is no way to sugar-coat this: The pandemic is going to affect students psychologically. Thomas Insel, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, says, “The rates of depression, anxiety, PTSD and eating disorders in this population have been very high, and that was prior to January 2020. When you add in this new set of stressors, I think there's every reason to be concerned.” This is true especially as 75% of adults with a mental illness first began experiencing it before the age of 25. While all of these measures will help to some extent by giving back a sense of belonging and purpose, it is still important to explicitly check-in, given the unprecedented nature of what we’re living through. Frequent surveys and honest 1:1 conversations will help to make sure students are doing okay, and to understand what their worries are at this time. This, in turn, can feed back to our first point above - being addressed by college authorities. Having an empathetic university will be a long way in assuaging students.
5. Foster student innovation:
To end on a positive note, we think now is a good time for colleges to foster ideas from students and even showcase them. The lockdown provides a never-before chance to do so. These range from entertainment to the serious to those that could be sustainable future ideas. For example, students at MIT recreated their campus on the Microsoft-owned game Minecraft, the same platform being used by Japanese elementary school students to replicate their graduation ceremony. Berklee’s students performed a virtual orchestra, while Harvard’s students found ways of keeping in touch while enjoying some downtime, greatly reducing stress. There are also several opportunities for students to help co-create solutions - the Global Grad Show has put out a call for design ideas, while a recently-concluded online hackathon in India sponsored by Silicon Valley’s Motwani Jadeja Foundation threw up some interesting ideas.
All these are not just simple to do, but they are effective, some even echoed by the consultancy Gartner, for business continuity.
1:1 calling, centralization of resources, frequent check-ins, and facilitating student collaborations are things that can be facilitated by technology and are all features of Involvio’s Remote Campus - which is aimed at helping universities maintain community and continuity during these times.