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How to Kick Off the New Term: 3 Tips from University Administrators

What can university administrators do to prepare for better student outcomes this term?

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, the autumn semester is starting in universities around the world. What are the main lessons of the pandemic so far, and what can university administrators do to prepare for better student outcomes this term?

In an online panel discussion held by The Chronicle of Higher Education, senior university administrators shared best practices for coming back stronger and serving students better. They proposed short-term solutions and bold visions for what higher education can achieve in a disrupted world.

Here are three takeaways to inspire you and help you plan for a better 2020-2021.

1. Recognise inequality in digital opportunities and respond to emerging student needs.

There have been a lot of conversations this year about upskilling instructors to perform better in a digital environment. But it’s not only faculty who need help, pointed out Sasi Pillay, Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Washington State University (US). Students also need to learn how to learn online.

As many universities are adopting hybrid modes of instruction and expanding their online offerings, they should consider how they are preparing students to excel. Students may have varying needs: for instance, those with ADHD might struggle with online learning. Additional resources and orientation activities can help put everyone on a good foundation.

Additionally, the issue of hardware should not be ignored. The University of Washington started providing students with laptops and wi-fi hotspots free of charge after a survey revealed significant need. “The crisis brought these inequities to the forefront – that we are not providing all the capability that we should be for all students to be successful. This has helped us to actually move significantly there,” Pillay said.

The current situation may reveal student needs you are not currently aware of: be aware, listen, and be prepared to respond.

2. Find new ways for university administrators to collaborate around shared goals.

University leaders can no longer stick to “the way that academia usually works,” according to Nancy Young, Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. By necessity, more collaboration between university departments has been happening at full speed – facilities, human resources, finance, and medical divisions have had to find common ground, agreed Patricia Johnson, Vice President for Finance and Administration at Lehigh University.

It's been an awakening for many people. Before, everybody kind of did their own thing,” said Johnson. “But [the pandemic] allowed us to talk about the student experience in a way that we had not done it before together. And one of the things that was paramount to us is actually the mental health of the student.

Rallying around the goal of student wellbeing has enabled administrators to see that they can achieve more together. They are now rethinking the current divisions among offices and administrative bodies. More open meetings and collaborative projects can ensure institutions are advancing their core mission.

3. Tap new markets.

In-person instruction has clear advantages, but it is not optimal when it comes to access, Pillay argued. New online learning technology implemented this year could offer long-term benefits by widening access for whole new student populations and opening up new markets for tomorrow’s higher ed institutions.

It gives the university an opportunity to diversify its offering,” Pillay advised. “I think there's a huge marketplace that we can tap as we enhance our online capabilities to attract what I call adult learners.

Careers disrupted by the pandemic and rapid technological change lead people from all walks of life to want to continue learning. Designing opportunities for everyone, not just students with a certain academic or professional background, can ultimately benefit both institutions and learners. “All of a sudden, we're not just dependent on the typical high school graduates alone as students. We can actually expand our portfolio,” Pillay said.

From promoting collaboration across administrative departments to expanding outreach beyond traditional student populations, 2020 is offering campus leaders a chance to reconnect with their core mission. In spite of the many challenges, new opportunities are emerging to grow and work for the social good. It is up to leaders to take these on.

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