Learning in the time of COVID

My university recently launched a new app. The app is intended for students, but staff are able to get it and I was curious, so I put it on my phone. Messages and posts are a feature of the app, and every so often now my phone comes to life:

“Is anyone taking Physiology 1001 or Microbiology 1011 and want a study buddy? I’m your gal!”

The vast majority of students here are attending classes online from wherever they happen to be. Their messages on the app are like flashes from fireflies across a dark field, distant and lonely:

“Hey, there is supposed to be a synchronous session today for Chem 1011 class at 1 p.m. ADT anyone know how is it gonna go or in which platform?”

I will need to turn off notifications, or delete the app, but for now I’m reflecting on these tiny, isolated beacons:

“When I try to add my courses through the search it doesn’t work. Can anyone help?”

This year’s students are going to get an education. At least, we are all going to do our best. The two most common words in student posts seem to be “pain” and “crying.” There are also a lot of hilarious memes (most of which I’m not current enough to understand), but one suspects these are fronts for the pain and the crying.

It is sad. Education, career, romance, family life – any life – the environment for twenty-somethings is so different now. If there was ever a time when the advice of an older generation was of no use, now would be that time.

Young students may not be listening anyway. Across North America, many attending university in person are ignoring warnings about partying and physical proximity. Open doors and bad planning have invited predictable surges in infections. Students’ apparent disregard for others brings condemnation down on their heads: they are entitled, selfish, and believe themselves invincible.

I try to remember myself as an undergrad. I will own up to entitlement and selfishness, but I don’t recall feeling invincible. I felt insignificant, in fact, a feeling I countered by trying to make people laugh. Some of the supposed humour was hurtful to others. It took a while to learn this. I didn’t seem to think I could hurt anyone – I didn’t think I had that power.

I’m reminded of another app on my phone, which while I was still commuting to work told me where all the transit buses were in relation to my location. Once in a while I would miss the stop where I was supposed to transfer and would be taken off course up the wrong street. I had knowledge of location of things in the world but where I myself was, I did not know.

This is how undergrads arrive on campus. They know where their friends are but don’t know where they themselves are. Higher education enables students to connect the conduct of their personal lives to the welfare of others outside the small circle of their friends and family. We might associate that aim with liberal arts, but every course of study should contain this thread, which is about purpose and vocation.

Vocation is a freely-chosen sense of responsibility to society. If a student is lucky, he or she stumbles into purpose through a haphazard exploration of possibilities. It’s not efficient and it’s definitely not cheap. It’s pursued through the interplay of outer and inner worlds that a university provides: class work and conversation and socializing balanced with study and reflection and discovery. That outer is deeply impaired at the moment but will return. Now is the time to put away the phone and work on the oft-neglected inner.

There is no excuse for willfully endangering the health of our communities. But I have to believe that the majority of students are feeling, under that don’t-care swagger, a sense of powerlessness. They are not yet aware of their agency, of their astonishing power to help or to harm.

Positive new-normal won’t just happen, it has to be invented

Earlier this year, I wrote that COVID-19 has accomplished what decades of scientific warnings have not: A dramatic curtailment in carbon emissions. The curtailment is temporary, but what’s encouraging is how quickly the status quo can change. Yes, we are capable of adjusting our mindsets and behaviours.

Alas, I forgot to add that this change has been forced. The underlying culture has not evolved. When the weight of the pandemic is lifted, human behaviour will bounce back like a coiled spring.

Same goes for any positive effects on universities and the workplace. There’s a lot of excited talk about work-from-home as the new normal, for example, but despite all the undeniable benefits, it’s a mistake to assume this will come about naturally.

Deep change is cultural change. If we want to retain anything positive from this crisis, it will require both direction from above and the active involvement of staff. Until administrative and operational staff are involved in working on these underpinnings, hope and talk will be forgotten as the dominant culture reasserts itself.

I suggest asking a few challenge questions. I admit these are heavy with process, policy, and tools. Hardly the stuff of inspiration, and having these things won’t cause change. But lacking them will certainly hinder it.

  • Is a telework policy being drafted, or revised, based on the assumption that work-from-home is normal? Are we planning to deal with the most challenging aspects of remote work (hiring and onboarding, performance management, alignment on objectives)? Are private-sector examples being studied for lessons?
  • Can we give everyone the tools to be mobile? Are meeting rooms equipped to serve a blend of on-site and remote attendees? Are work-at-home systems secure? Are employees trained to protect personal information?
  • Do we know how to maximize the return on staff travel, tightening criteria for approval, based on an assumption that the default engagement from now on will be digital?
  • Are we thinking about how to retool the measurement of engagement and meaningful cultivation activities in the digital world?
  • Are we adopting new tools and processes to move paper-based approvals to secure electronic signatures?
  • If there’s really a new spirit of pan-campus cooperation now, is it translating into something that will last, such as a university-wide data governance framework?

This disruption feels long because it’s unfamiliar and because we’re still in it. It’s hard to see it as temporary and fleeting. In truth, without taking deliberate action on the underpinnings of positive change, the disruption won’t last nearly long enough to make a difference.

Pivoting to hope

Tigers living in the Bronx Zoo have been found to have COVID-19. I read that news on my phone late at night and asked myself, “Wait, you mean cats can get this?”

Is it helpful that, minutes before going to bed, my last thought of the day is that our neighbours’ roaming cats could be spreading the virus from house to house?

No, it’s not helpful.

The news has a seductive quality. Keeping up on developments feels necessary, even responsible, but the tiger story convinced me that it’s corrosive as well. From now on, I will tune in to the public health updates and do my best to tune out the rest.

Or at least tune in to the positive. The curve is flattening, even descending, in some countries and regions. This is not reason to become lax, but is evidence that this crisis won’t last.

It may be time to start talking about that with our teams. To this point, I’ve been stressing that we are in this for the long haul, because I wanted people to act quickly to make their home workstations comfortable and safe, and not to hoard (and, potentially, lose) their vacation days.

Some of us have family members who are in danger. I don’t want to minimize anyone’s genuine anxiety. For the rest of us, it’s time to devote some mindshare to the post-COVID future. When I get a chance to do so, it’s a welcome relief.

So implement your new CRM, plan for your next campaign, pursue professional development for you and your team, talk with donors about their dreams, work on strategy – and push on.

Since this thing began, we have been absorbing the idea that the way ahead is uncertain. Well, everything has always been uncertain, hasn’t it? What is certain is that this will end. How we think and behave now will decide whether we arrive on the other side exhausted and depleted, or invigorated and ready.

When the novelty of work-from-home wears off

Our sector is undergoing a massive work-from-home experiment. The experiment is universal, but for our sector the change is especially dramatic. Whenever some of us get a chance to think (between one videoconference and the next), our minds turn to what this might mean for the future of the office.

No question, work-from-home is technically possible. A few weeks in, it is clear that cloud-based software and videoconferencing are passing the test. If there’s a drawback with remote work, it isn’t the tools.

However: consider what the current experiment means for its human subjects.

Everyone has moved offsite in a matter of days. People are now socially isolated, without normal supports. They may be forced to be productive in limited space shared with children, parents, roommates, and spouses who may also be working from home. Distance is impeding asking questions, sharing information, and getting to know others. On top of that there’s worry about an unrelenting crisis with personal, local, and global effects, with no end in sight.

If this work-from-home experiment were a real experiment, it would be ruled unethical.

The pandemic will subside, and with it, the need to isolate and the general anxiety that wakes us at 3 a.m. (However, if people weren’t already somewhat anxious before the crisis, they weren’t paying attention.)

Other effects remain to be discovered.

Remote work might be normal in the private sector, but I question whether it translates perfectly to mission-driven organizations. A mission-driven organization requires inspirational leadership and engagement around shared purpose, not just hitting numerical targets. To say that the higher education and non-profit sectors need to get with the times and embrace private-sector models of work would be classic bizplaining.

We should also recognize that the likelihood of having adequate home-office space breaks along the line of income and reporting level. Implemented poorly, across-the-board work-from-home would impose disproportionate costs on lower-income workers. Implemented fairly, work-from-home might be costly for organizations.

Certainly, the best thing for our students would be to be back in classrooms and labs. The common campus experience levels the field somewhat for students from different economic backgrounds. More fundamentally, a university without physical proximity is not really a university. An experience based on engagement with the world balanced with an encounter with the self does not translate to digital. I am not convinced this is opening a new era for learning.

It may, however, be a new era for administrative offices. I’m intrigued about the possibilities of more flexible work arrangements that benefit people and organizations. Employees skip the commute while organizations free up some space – it sounds win-win.

We may be still be blind to the downsides, though. Let’s get through this first, and take careful notes.

Careful which rules you bend in the new work-from-home world

Suddenly every office worker in the world is doing their jobs from spare bedrooms and kitchen counters. Universities are having to rework processes on the fly, and some venerable rules are falling away in order for critical business to continue. As your institution figures things out along with the rest of us, the urgency can lead to needed change – but be careful your pruning isn’t sending the wrong signal.

Early to go will be hand-signed approvals for everything from expense claims to purchase requisitions to gift agreements. Universities that have been slow to embrace digital and cloud solutions are having to accept scanned and emailed copies in place of originals. They’d be in a less risky place today had they accepted secure digital electronic signing earlier. Presumably universities will not revert to paper processes when this is over. Probably a good thing.

Pressure to streamline has its downsides, though.

Mass dislocation of workers means a lot of personal and sensitive data will end up stored on personal computers, laptops, and mobile devices. Consumer-grade personal devices have long been present in the business enterprise, leading to heightened risk of data breaches. The work-from-home tsunami has accelerated the risk, as hardware gaps are addressed with even more personal devices.

Now is the time to insist on adherence to policies for protecting personal and confidential information, not cut corners.

Everyone is trying to adapt and do their work. I get it. We moved a staff of 73 with little or no history of remote work (aside from fundraisers) into their homes over the course of three days. Logging into a VPN and a central file store can seem like a nuisance. So much easier to drop the file in C: drive.

But the more data sitting outside your institution’s system of record – whether on people’s hard drives or as email attachments – the greater the chance that a lost device or a successful phish will lead to a data breach. Breaches can have negative consequences for alumni, supporters and others. They also damage the university’s reputation.

A few days ago there was a story in Slate headlined “America Is a Sham.” The subhead asserted, “Policy changes in reaction to the coronavirus reveal how absurd so many of our rules are to begin with.” The fact the US Transportation Security Administration has waived the 3.4-ounce limit for liquids and gels for hand sanitizer only is proof that the rules are arbitrary, nothing but security theatre. (1)

True or not, I don’t know. Either way, you send a signal to users when you let things slide for the sake of convenience. Choose wisely.

Note

  1. America Is a Sham,” Slate.com, 14 March 2020