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University responses to COVID-19

By David Bowser 1st June 2020

With on-campus tuition suspended due to COVID-19, universities are under pressure. A great source of tension comes from the need to rapidly shift teaching and assessment online while continuing to deliver the same high-quality learning experience promised to students. 

Curio, the owner of the Sessions platform, recently hosted two online forums to enable universities across the globe to share responses to COVID-19 and discuss the long-term implications for the future of higher education. Informed by the perspectives shared by participating universities, we’ve put together a selection of key considerations for universities during this period.


As an immediate response, prioritise courses and content more suited to online instruction 

Universities are using a ‘triage’ approach to tackle current disruption and dislocation of on-campus teaching. Roundtable participants detailed their approaches to get the highest number of courses online quickly. At first, existing learning materials, technology, and tools are deployed. However, participants acknowledged there’s a need to move away from ‘triage’ over the medium-term.  


Use existing teaching materials are a stop-gap measure, and quickly adopt online facilitation 

The abrupt suspension of on-campus tuition has left little time to develop asynchronous content. The majority of academics have already written the forthcoming term’s teaching material to deliver as slides, and they know exactly how to do this with minimal additional effort. 

Universities have defaulted to synchronous teaching – with lectures and workshops replaced with real-time conference calls. However, this is more like a band-aid than a permanent fix. 

 Both academics and learning teams need to quickly establish what content and learning outcomes are suited to online lectures and what content and learning outcomes are suited to online facilitation. Here, academics and learning teams need to work together to articulate different roles and acknowledge the need to train or hire staff to be able to carry out online facilitation.


There are many ways to assess learning beyond physical exams 

The triage approach also extends to assessment. If they hadn’t already done so, universities at our roundtable expressed plans to take the weight off assessments by unpacking exams. Common approaches included an adjustment in examination weighting (i.e.: 50% of the credit for a module, to 20%) and switching to multiple-choice or short-answer response in an LMS environment. 


Assessment will be a source of continued tension. Some universities have deferred examination dates to get their assessment strategy right. However, students are anxious to know how they’ll be assessed and learning teams are equally anxious about workloads associated with building new and varied digital assessment formats. Faculties must give themselves latitude to re-think assessment methods and weightings, but ensure all stakeholders have clarity across the journey.        


Don’t overcomplicate the technology 

When it comes to tools and technology, keep it simple. Be considerate and focus on students and the technology they already have. Universities should be trying their utmost to use the same tools and also communicate consistently about how they’re meant to be used institution-wide. 

Where new tools are being introduced, universities must try to ensure that they are following their own regulations when it comes to safeguarding and handling of student data online. Outside of official institutional use of LMS, VLE and videoconferencing, encourage students to support each other through their own channels. Many student interactions would typically already occur on social media, in the library, or a coffee shop – the university doesn’t need to have control over these, which relieves an additional data protection burden.   


Over the medium-term, universities can use this period to test and iterate approaches 

By the end of the next term or semester, the ‘crisis license’ universities have in the current situation may well have expired, and the quality of solutions implemented is likely to come under much closer scrutiny. Once courses are online, reflect by taking onboard staff and student feedback, using this to iterate and improve on how courses and assessments are delivered.  

In many institutions, conversations around increased online teaching were already taking place, and the current situation has only accelerated this change. It would, however, be imprudent to expect a full transition to complete, cutting-edge online in three months, or even within an academic year. Once the initial reaction is out of the way, this period presents an opportunity for universities to challenge preconceptions about what can and cannot be delivered online, test assumptions, and experiment with different approaches. 


We encourage universities to consult students in this process and allow them to help co-create their learning experience. Alongside designing a learning experience that better meet their needs, this also gives them shared ownership of the solution and provides the opportunity for work-integrated learning experiences, developing valuable skills in how to collaborate, communicate and deal with multiple stakeholders.

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