WCET Frontiers is happy to again welcome Kara Monroe, President and Founder of Monarch Strategies LLC to continue her article series on leadership in higher education digital learning.

This post, a reflection on strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats for higher education today, is the fourth in this series. Don’t forget to check out the previous posts: “Shifting from Covid-normal to New Normal,” “The ‘New Normal’ and Reflections on Accessibility,” and “Before and After Moments.

Enjoy the read,

Lindsey Downs, WCET


In April and May, I had the opportunity to do a type of SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis with three different groups of higher education colleagues. These groups represented more than 50 people in jobs ranging from institutional level managers to CEOs of national policy organizations. One of those groups was the WCET Steering Committee.

Each individual SWOT analysis took place with their specific group and the separate groups did not know there were others completing similar exercises. I did these as a part of different client agreements and the exercise just seemed to fit naturally into the flow of what the group wished to accomplish meaning I didn’t have an intention to study this particular topic when I used this exercise the first time.

While the sample size is still somewhat small, the themes that have begun to emerge are clear. In this month’s post, I want to share some of those themes as well as a few of the intricacies of the conversations with you. And, as I want to end the post on a high note, we’ll start first with the threats, then go to the weaknesses, and we’ll end more positively with the opportunities and the strengths.

As we begin, I want to revisit the purpose for this series of articles briefly. COVID was a massive, shared experience and we should – both individually and collectively – learn from our experiences. The purpose of this series is to examine what we’ve learned from COVID – predominantly as higher education institutions. Since we’re likely at the midpoint of the series, today’s post can serve as our reflective midterm exam.

What wasn’t working before COVID that still is not working well today?

To prompt the identification and discussion of threats, I posed this question: “What wasn’t working before COVID that still is not working well today?” These are things that while they may look different now than they did before the pandemic began, they were major obstacles before COVID and still remain major obstacles today.

Institutional Trust In Their Employees

two hands gripped in a headshaket

This concept came up in all three groups. When COVID began, organizations had to scramble to provide all of their employees with a safe way to work which generally meant sending them home. In a lot of higher education institutions this even meant packing up the computer on their desk and sending them home with that computer. As one participant said, “They wouldn’t buy me a laptop because they thought it would get destroyed and here I went with my entire PC, monitor, keyboard, and mouse. They had no choice but to trust me.”

IT Tools was not the only place this conversation came up. It also centered itself in the work location, work hours, and work structure. Employees who worked from home for months (or years) are now expected to be in the office daily, even if they are still serving students remotely because it’s how students prefer to be served. Many participants in these conversations felt it ridiculous that remote work arrangements that had been made before COVID, where employees could work from where it made the most sense for them on a specific day, are now being replaced by all or nothing in office arrangements.

Infrastructure For Support

The infrastructure – from IT to Human Services – got a lot of attention during COVID and in some places did improve. However, many faculty who grew infinitely more comfortable using technology during COVID are now returning to classrooms that lack the basic tools to allow them to use that technology effectively.

Furthermore, basic supports like childcare, mental health support, food, and housing received a lot of attention during COVID but in many institutions solutions were short-term at best and did not result in long term changes.

Testing

a student reading in a classroom

I was surprised that testing was identified in all three group’s SWOT analysis. Each group came at it from a very different perspective.

From the perspective of the WCET Steering Committee, the concerns with testing were specifically around the multitude of challenges with proctoring. On most college campuses, the volume of proctored testing has far outpaced what campus proctoring centers can handle. While many institutions used HERFF COVID relief dollars to fund digital proctoring solutions which students found convenient and which gave institutions much needed additional capacity, those funds are running low and there is no clear path forward.

Other groups praised the move by many higher educational institutions to go “test optional” for admission and to use other criteria instead. However, as standardized testing has started up in earnest again rather than giving time for this methodology of placement to more fully develop and be iterated on for improvement, some institutions are simply returning to the pre-COVID non-student-centric ways of requiring exams like SAT and ACT.

What started working better in COVID that is now functioning worse than pre-COVID?

To identify weaknesses, I asked groups to think about how COVID has made them stronger and whether a “return to normal” has stagnated or even reversed that progress. As learning organizations, this should be the category that makes us the most upset.

Modality Confusion

I was a little surprised to see this come up in groups outside of the WCET Steering Committee. During COVID we had a load of “new modalities” spring up. While none of them are really new, we tried to place names on major categories of packaging instruction that hadn’t been offered previously – or at least hadn’t been used in large enough volume to categorize before.

These new modalities and changes made in existing modalities now cause confusion for faculty and students alike. And, advisors lack the kinds of tools they need to describe these modalities, along with all of the other pathways and initiatives that they have to describe to students.

Communication Silos

Communication came up in all three groups that completed this activity.

During COVID, communication was far better and without silos. This was true with the two groups focused mostly on intra-organizational communication as well as with the group that focuses largely on inter-organizational communication.

Comments during this discussion included things like “everyone just knew they had to work together” to “we had to talk to each other more because we couldn’t use body language as much” show the breadth and depth of this issue from both individual communications to communication amongst departments, institutions, and organizations.

What started working better in COVID that has now stagnated?

Recognition Mental Health Needs and Stress

It is hugely important to recognize that mental health is a challenge right now and faculty, staff, and students are overwhelmed. There were two comments that came out of the dialog with the WCET Steering Committee that I think need to be quoted directly for the broader community around this topic.

The first is specific to psychological safety in organizations. As COVID hit, one of the first things the team I was leading did was provide a safe and easy way for students to exit a learning experience if it simply was not going to work for them. When our students came back from Spring Break, we turned their world upside down and we recognized that was not going to be for everyone. We made late withdrawal easier. We made pass/fail options easier. We provided tools to help explain where these made sense for a student and where they didn’t.

From an institutional goals perspective this was countercultural to what our long term aims were – we were trying to turn around a culture that had, for many years, told students, “Don’t fail, drop the class.” We had actively tried to change that culture to “Stick with the class and keep learning. We’ve got your back if you have to retake it.” But, in COVID we recognized that might not be the responsible thing for student mental and physical health so we made both paths easier. This quote summed that up beautifully. “During COVID there was a lot of accountability on faculty and institutions for students to feel safe. Now policies have less grace than they did during COVID.”

Broadly speaking, I think the quote below from another member of the Steering Committee summed up many of the challenges that colleagues across all three groups shared in these exercises. How our institutions are not always keeping people – whether that be students, faculty, or staff at the forefront of our decision making as we’ve run quickly to “return to normal.” That person said, “A return to normal is a return to practices that were not learner centric and had less emphasis on learner needs.”

What started working better in COVID that continues to work better today?

It’s also important to note as we begin this category that in every single one of the more “negative” areas above, there are pockets where the challenges are not occurring. For example, one of the comments related to testing that came up as a strength in the WCET Steering Committee is that more and more faculty moved to authentic assessments instead of “bubble-sheet” style tests. While this may not have represented the “norm” across all institutions it means that at least one institution in this sample chose to keep this positive rather than returning to “normal”.

Increased Faculty Awareness and Respect for Teaching Various Modalities

Image: Photo by ANTONI SHKRABA:

When everyone had to begin teaching at a distance everyone had to at least gain a base level of understanding about what it means to teach and learn online. You could no longer rely only on your opinions or preconceptions. You now had real life lived experience.

In a lot of cases this meant the more faculty and staff learned that while there are certainly benefits to teaching and learning at a distance, there are also challenges that you have to learn to overcome.

Many faculty welcomed and actively participated in professional development to learn new technology tools and teaching methods. I have a wonderful faculty colleague who said in the first weeks of COVID she had no desire to sit in the workshop but if she was going to survive the semester she had no choice. She now loves teaching her students with Zoom and can’t believe she waited so long to learn more about how to use this tool in her courses.

While we all still catch ourselves one or more times a day saying, “You’re muted” we also got collectively better at using digital tools simply because we had no choice.

Deeper Consideration of The Importance of Belonging

While this theme came up only in the WCET Steering Committee group, I think it’s a nice place to end this article. During COVID and today, we have no choice but to understand our interdependence a bit better. From the availability of basic goods in stores to the safety of essential workers to a groundswell of support for social and racial justice – we all experienced a collective situation in COVID.

Through our shared COVID experience we all have shared language – and in this case all means people from around the world. Words like lockdown, quarantine, and vaccine have new weight and new meaning in our global vocabulary. Perhaps this global shared experience – and particularly the isolation many of us experienced during times of lockdown and quarantine – contributed to our broader understanding of the importance of belonging.

While the understanding that belonging is necessary is not universal, it is much broader than it was before COVID. We all need to continue to think about the experience of COVID helps us to drive improvement in our lives and the lives of others around us.

So What, Who Cares?

So, what do you do with all of this information? Here are a few practical suggestions.

  • Use these four questions in your own work team. If possible, invite a neutral facilitator to conduct the conversation. What do you learn about the current state of your institution from using these four questions and using it to design a future state for your organization or team?
    • What wasn’t working before COVID that still is not working well today?
    • What started working better in COVID that is now functioning worse than pre-covid?
    • What started working better in COVID that has now stagnated?
    • What started working better in COVID that continues to work better today?
  • Is trust a challenge in your organization or team? Stephen Covey’s book The Speed of Trust is a good resource if you’d like to learn more about this important concept in your team. Not ready to dive into the book? Consider asking your team members in their next one on one where they feel the institution demonstrates its trust in them and where they feel the institution demonstrates that it doesn’t trust them.
  • Communication played such a vital role in COVID. Here are some communication items to consider:
    • Have you taken time lately to evaluate your communication pathways?
    • Do you need to ask students about the hours of services at your office?
    • Should you survey your employees about what tools you are using for communication they find most helpful or what suggestions they have?
  • Did your institution change its testing practices for admission or placement during COVID? If so, what evaluation are you doing in order to determine the effectiveness of these tools for helping students meet their educational goals?
  • What are the modalities offered at your institution today? Can you describe them in less than a tweet (i.e. 240 characters?)? If not, what can you do to simplify the explanations? As leaders in educational technology and distance education, what tools have you provided to faculty, advisors, and students so that these various modalities are clear and easy to understand?
  • What learner centric and people centric changes were made during COVID that you’ve now reversed? Were those decisions to reverse policies and procedures based on data or on preferences of leadership? If so, how will you reevaluate those policies and procedures?
  • How are you actively fostering belonging in the groups and organizations that you are a part of?

I enjoyed facilitating the SWOT analysis sessions for these groups, and hope you enjoyed reviewing what we learned. While there are improvements that can still be made, and it’s never great to see progress limited, it’s important to take the time to recognize the positives as well. As the title said, it’s not all bad! I hope that you will take some time individually and/or as a part of whatever teams or groups you are in and ask yourself some of these same questions and chart a few actions to keep moving forward.

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