Universities need to lead on the responses to COVID-19

Pandemic. Such a short word, but what it describes is nothing less than an end to business as usual. An end to normality. Already, schools in several countries are closed, affecting hundreds of millions of children, their parents and carers. Universities are closing their doors nationwide in countries as far afield as Italy, Japan, Spain, Armenia, Iraq, Ireland and Greece.

In other countries individual institutions have been leading by example and pre-emptively moving their classes online – from Princeton to ETH Zurich.

And it seems increasingly likely that other countries will have to follow the lead of China, which enforced a mandatory quarantine curfew for some 930 million people.

We’re slowly coming to terms with the fact that the highly mobile staff and student populations of our higher education institutions are in the front line of the coronavirus battle. Think in particular about international students’ travel patterns, field trips and study visits, and yes – the almost sacred academic conference.

Could it really be that this travel and these meetings have to stop, right now? It may be hard to contemplate, a shock to the system, but this is a time of crisis. Governments around the world are starting to use emergency powers to prevent all but the most essential travel and shut down gatherings that involve large numbers of people.

Climate change disruption

I work as an innovation consultant and strategist, advising university senior leadership teams about how they can adapt to future trends and emerging technologies. For some time now I have been warning my clients that something like this year’s events would happen, but I would be the first to admit that I have been quite wrong about the underlying cause of the disruption to business as usual.

My working assumption has been that climate change will eventually make it impossible for university staff and students to travel in the course of their work and study in the traditional way – through a combination of extreme weather and the imposition of punitive measures to curb carbon emissions. With hindsight, the earlier SARS and MERS epidemics should have been a clear sign that there would be other less obvious threats to our way of life.

At the same time, it’s clear that there are many people both inside and outside of academia who simply don’t appreciate the threat posed by the COVID-19 coronavirus. If events like last week’s Cheltenham Races (projected audience: 260,000 people) are allowed to go ahead, then surely my lecture, academic conference or workshop is fair game?

I would argue that it is important for the research and education community to lead by example and in particular to follow the precautionary principle if at all possible – because if we, the experts, don’t do this, how can we expect wider society to sit up and take notice?

Moving to a digital first approach

So what can we do instead of business as usual? The answer, ironically, is in our hands – our phones, tablets and laptops are highly portable and connectivity is better now than ever before.

As a community we are already highly networked and accustomed to working and collaborating online. But for many of us it’s still an adjunct, a second-class approach that we would only adopt after exhausting the alternatives – or because we are already on a trip to somewhere else. It’s quite a mental gear shift to move to a digital first, online first approach to teaching, research and admin.

If, like me, you are a grizzled veteran of higher education, you may recall that we have actually been on a decades-long journey to exploit the potential of the internet and digital technology to support research and education. From the m-Learning conferences of the early noughties to the MOOCs of the twenteens, from Moodle to Google and all points in between.

The truth is that many of us still feel intimidated or overwhelmed by the technology – a recent Jisc survey found that only 13% of 3,485 respondents teaching in UK universities felt they had the time and support to innovate with digital technologies. We have to ask ourselves how prepared we really are to take our teaching and learning online in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

But this isn’t a game – people’s lives genuinely hang in the balance. The elderly, the infirm, the immunosuppressed. You might not fall into one of these categories, but most of us have people in our lives who do – family, friends or neighbours. These are the people who are relying upon us not to bring COVID-19 back as a piece of unwanted additional baggage.

And if we get into the habit of fully exploiting the technology at our fingertips, it’s an accessibility boon for students and colleagues with disabilities.

It’s high time we overhauled how we view the tech that now permeates our lives – and with it perhaps we can recapture a bit of that excitement that came with the early days of the internet. It’s time to go jamming with the console jockeys in cyberspace.

Martin Hamilton is a writer, futurist and innovation advisor. Read more about his work at COVID-19 remote teaching and remote working resources from EDUCAUSE can be found here.