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COVID-19, 8 months on: what have we learned?

In March 2020, everything changed. The lockdown had significant consequences for higher education, with all education going online. Educational institutions excelled in being flexible in their approach to teaching. There is a lot we can learn from initial challenges that were posed and the response that followed.

1. Quality of education

In the months following the COVID-19 outbreak, the perceived quality of education took a hit. 75% of students thought that the quality of teaching had worsened (that’s a lot!). A common reason for this was that initially, students found face to face lectures had simply been uploaded onto the VLE, with no online specific adjustments. Since then, however, we have seen an increase in student satisfaction with online learning, due in part to institutions listening to feedback from their students.

Lesson 1: Understand the needs and wants of your students by gathering their feedback and use it to improve the quality of education.

2. Student support

During their studies, students need to be supported by an individual or department in various aspects of student life. Even before COVID-19, some institutions were struggling to provide students with the right support, at the right time and it has become even more challenging as a result of the physical distance. Problems that go unsolved and questions that go unanswered have a negative effect on student success. Easy access to the support services an institution offers is very important.

Lesson 2: Ensure the service desk and important people such as mentors and peer coaches are easily accessible to students.

3. Student communications

In a time where the situation is ever-changing, the need for students to be aware of the new regulations is more important than ever. This can be done via optimising communications, by providing students with the right information, at the right time, via the right channel. In many cases, all 3 are not always optimised. Students still receive irrelevant push notifications, while important messages are sometimes shared in a student portal, instead of sent through a student app. In all cases, the most important task in optimising your communications is to really understand your students’ communication preferences and create a strategy aligns with that.

Lesson 3: Get to know the needs and wants of your students regarding communications and create a communications strategy that fits.

4. Student engagement

Engaged students are successful students. They feel at home on campus, know what activities are going on within the faculty/institution and they have a good relationship with their fellow students. This leads them to become more motivated and helps improve their desired outcomes. Before COVID-19, it was already a challenge to engage students, but that challenge has grown even more so with the greater physical distance. Not only has the contact between the institution and students decreased, so too has the peer to peer interactions. Peer to peer interaction is vital, as students can get their questions answered quickly, build connections and get career advice from those later in their academic journey.

Lesson 4: Keep in touch with your students and facilitate contact between students.

5. Student well-being

At the end of 2019 and the start of 2020, various researchers concluded that student well-being was at an all-time low. More and more students experienced anxiety, stress and burn-out. As students now have decreased in-person contact, the number of students experiencing mental health problems increased. The good news is educational institutions excel in providing support, such as counsellors for students to speak with over video or phone. However, the biggest challenge was and still is, increasing awareness around the fantastic support institutions already offer and increasing its accessibility. 

Lesson 5: Make the mental health support you offer easily accessible and find ways to increase awareness of the service.