COVID-19 and the student experience

Four principles for technology resilience

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it significant challenges and a huge social and economic impact across all sectors and all geographies. In particular, it has emphasised the critical role that technology has to play in allowing businesses the flexibility to transition operations to an online model that can continue to operate across a virtual customer base.

The Higher Education sector is no exception and universities have been forced to think quickly about the impact on student recruitment; staff and student wellbeing; teaching and research arrangements; ceremonies and events; and the provision of support to students at home and abroad.

With widespread disruption likely to continue, the pandemic's impact has prompted new thinking about how services are delivered, how connections are made and maintained, and how the right infrastructure can support more flexible ways of working across teaching and research, both now and in the future.

Below are four areas where – based on our discussions and work with higher education institutions globally – we believe universities can respond quickly to strengthen their technology resilience at this difficult time.

Redefine the approach to student recruitment

The restrictions currently in place on non-essential travel and decisions across many universities to close campuses for the foreseeable future has the potential to severely disrupt the recruitment experience and decision-making process for prospective students. Many use open days as their main opportunity to interact with staff, students, and the campus directly, to determine which university is the right fit for them.

In order to redefine the student recruitment experience, universities should consider the following actions:

  • Open up new lines of communication and engagement to prospective students who would usually interact with staff and student ambassadors throughout a physical open day, and introduce channels that may not be widely used for recruitment activities currently. Marketing and recruitment teams usually involved in face-to-face activities can be redeployed and trained to use new channels such as web chat to give advice and support to prospective students throughout their decision-making and application process.
  • Invest in personalisation of existing digital collateral. With time and resource limited to create new collateral, it is important to use customer segmentation to organise and structure digital content and campaigns to make them as relevant as possible to each individual. A clearly defined content structure based on segmentation (based on demographic, interests etc.) will help prospective students self-serve and staff interact with students in a meaningful way.
  • Target personalised collateral at new and existing leads making use of marketing data and insights to drive outbound communications. With disruption to marketing and recruitment cycles it is of critical importance that staff are able to invest time in the highest value activities. Deploying lead scoring (either manually or using machine learning with CRM tools) will enable marketing and recruitment teams to identify which prospective students to focus on proactively contacting and understand messages and campaigns that are most effective.


Take student interactions online

COVID-19 is changing the way in which students interact with teaching and learning materials, support services, and one another. Many universities are already seeing increased demand for core services and recognise the need to deliver these digitally. While many are well set up to provide elements of support through digital channels, it can be challenging to move away from traditional face-to-face interactions, particularly for at-risk students who may be seeing increased anxiety and mental health needs through this time.

As campuses will no longer provide a physical place of community or focal point for traditional learning and support structures for the time being, universities will have to ensure they are set up to provide services through online channels, to adequately signpost to these services, and to proactively reach out to those who may be most in need.

In order to take student interactions online, we suggest universities consider these three options:

  • Rapidly deploy new technologies, taking advantage of free licences. Social collaboration platforms can be used as valuable tools to connect students with university staff and one another. Many of these have free licenses and heavily subsidised offerings for not-for-profits and charities. However, it is critical to consider that any new channels or technologies leveraged throughout this period should not be deployed as standalone, but rather connected with core support services to provide a complete view of student interactions in order to safeguard against risk and prioritise student health and wellbeing.
  • Trial new ways of working and teaching methods. This may include moving away from conventional notions of classroom-based learning. Trial transformed pedagogical approaches at varied scale, supported by online platforms; encouraging greater collaboration between students on problem solving activities and leveraging opportunities for increased peer learning.
  • Redefine how you broadcast information out to your existing student base. Use search data and analysis of trends across websites and other channels to proactively respond to student needs and concerns as they change day-to-day – promoting content that is most in demand. It is critical that all appropriate content, contact details and signposting information is accurate, consistent and relevant to changing student needs, especially as new channels and resources are made available. Review governance structures around content management to ensure accountability for accuracy and consistency, underpinned by robust systems and processes where possible.


Improve cyber resilience to help with the ‘new normal’

Most universities in the current crisis have had to rapidly increase their capacity to provide remote systems access for staff and students. For some, adapting to this ‘new normal’ has had to happen quickly and with little time to plan. However, to enable universities to continue core business and maintain both student and staff confidence, it is important that such changes consider security and system resilience as core requirements - even at this challenging time.

Cyber attackers are unscrupulous and numerous COVID-19 related cyber-attacks have been seen over recent weeks. This is a cross industry/sector issue, but the public sector, notably including institutions involved in life sciences and health care sector, continue to be actively targeted. Phishing attacks, as well as the exploitation of inadequately security patched systems and poorly implemented remote/distributed working solutions all represent potential risks.

In order to improve cyber resilience, universities should:

  • Review and test remote /distributed working solutions to ensure they are appropriately secure, especially where these have been quickly introduced. Patch and harden infrastructure to reduce vulnerabilities. Ensure basic controls are in place e.g. antivirus/malware, firewalls, VPNs. Introduce multi-factor authentication (MFA) to compensate for the lack of physical controls. Ensure regular, offline backups are stored for all critical systems/information.
  • Inform and empower staff and students to be your first warning and first line of defence for cyber-attacks. Educate system users about the risks from phishing emails and how to identify them. Advise them to avoid clicking on attachments or email links with purported COVID-19 data. Educate them about current and evolving threats related to COVID-19 scams. Make it harder for email from your domains to be spoofed by cyber criminals by employing key controls: Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance (DMARC), Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM); and encourage your contacts to do the same.
  • Cyber incident detection and response capabilities need to keep pace with recent changes and monitor for threats on university networks. Where capability or capacity is limited then consider employing a Cyber Security Operations Centre (SOC) as a managed service and the use of Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) tools for remote devices. Expect attackers to get through your defences – it happens to most organisations. To support a timely response and recovery of business critical services, retain the services of an NCSC assured Cyber Incident Response (CIR) service provider.


Think creatively about how to maintain a sense of community among staff

The pandemic is likely to have a disruptive and sustained impact on people’s working lives, both in the ability to remain connected with one another for day-to-day working activities, and the ability for individuals to focus on wellbeing. At this time more than ever it is critical to maintain strong sense of community among university staff in order to collaborate effectively, safeguard against the impact on mental health, and keep morale high among a disparately located staff base.

To maintain a sense of community among staff, we suggest the following:

  • Use the right tools for collaboration and staying in contact with one another, leveraging free licences wherever possible. The effective use of virtual collaborative workspaces can go a long way towards maintaining productivity and helping staff feel connected to one another in their day-to-day lives. Many of these tools have been created to replicate social media platforms, making adoption fast and easy without the need for extensive training.
  • Pro-actively reach out to those in need both through existing management structures as well as initiatives set up specifically to provide guidance and support throughout this time and remind employees of resources available to them (e.g. 'mental health champion' schemes). Sense employee concerns, sentiment, and engagement through survey tools and polls built in to collaboration platforms.
  • Create informal communities at Faculty/School or department level in order to help staff feel connected with one another and maintain valuable social interactions which may otherwise be overlooked. These communities can also be used to encourage establishing a healthy a routine which involves keeping active, discussing wellbeing and building in relaxation activities.
  • Demonstrate leadership at every level. It’s not just the responsibility of the Vice Chancellor and senior leaders in the organisation to provide reassurance and support. Every member of staff has a role to play supporting colleagues, engaging with students, sharing resources and working collaboratively to ensure their institution and research networks continue to thrive at this difficult time.

By embracing these 4 principles, universities can use new and current technologies to adapt to the challenges brought by COVID-19 and combat the crisis with resilience.

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