7 Steps for Universities To Develop an Immediate Digital Plan to Address the Impact of Coronavirus

COVID-19 Update

Universities and other academic institutions are facing a very real threat to the health and safety of their communities posed by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and many lack a digital plan that can be implemented quickly to ensure continuity of quality education. As a result, some are scrambling to get up to speed on how to effectively shift classes to online environments as campuses shut down.

The effects of this transition will extend far beyond this crisis period. Some universities will opt for a quick fix and be forced to re-evaluate their digital learning strategies after the dust has settled, when they have time to design a more comprehensive digital plan. While long-term considerations are important for the overall strategic direction of your university, here are seven steps that can be taken now to address current needs while allowing flexibility for future strategic planning.


1. Establish a Task Force, and Ensure All Stakeholders Are Involved in the Process

The first steps in change management are to identify all stakeholders, form a task force and establish effective communication channels. For universities, the stakeholders will include the administration, faculty, students and staff as well as the broader community. While the instinct in a time of crisis may be to form a task force made up of administration and faculty alone, it is essential that all key stakeholders be involved, and that includes students, staff and the community as a whole. Decisions may ultimately be made by the administration, but to do it without proper input and communication with the full range of stakeholders would be a mistake. We recommend that your task force be no more than ten individuals, with representatives from each of the stakeholder groups, who will be tasked with attending all meetings, providing input and communicating developments from the committee. If resources allow, consider engaging an outside consultant to fill an objective project management role, corralling the task force to set and meet meaningful goals, procedures, realistic timelines and deliverables.

2. Quickly Assess the Current State

In preparing for the transition to online classes, universities should perform an inventory of what digital solutions—software and hardware—are available and already in place and how those solutions are currently used. Universities should also identify the various use cases or functions in a classroom experience, such as classroom discussions, student presentations and test taking. For some use cases, the right digital tools may already be in place but may not be fully utilized, requiring additional training during the transition. For others, there may not be a digital solution, or the existing tools may not be robust enough to maintain a quality experience online. Protocols for test taking, for example, are harder to enforce online and may require more careful evaluation of tools. A quick but thorough assessment should reveal gaps in digital resources and capabilities and can inform requirements for training and/or new technologies and platforms.

3. Standardize for a Smooth Transition

Universities must strike a balance between minimizing the time it takes to transition online and maximizing the quality of the student learning experience. Standardization of digital tools will be critical to the latter, but will require longer-term planning. In the near-term, universities should define guidelines related to how and when the various digital tools are used. For example, should classroom discussions be held on the existing learning management system (LMS), such as Canvas, or on a tool like Slack? Should students schedule one-to-one virtual meetings with the instructor using the LMS or a tool like Calendly? While innovative approaches to teaching and classroom interactions should be encouraged, guidelines related to how and when tools are used will be important to creating consistency and avoiding confusion for students and instructors in the near term.


4. Invest in Proper Onboarding and Training

Once the tools have been selected and the standards and guidelines defined and communicated, universities should develop the associated training content and facilitate live or recorded training sessions with faculty members, teaching assistants and students. At this point, training and technology teams should be available to provide around-the-clock support to faculty members and students making the transition. Access to onboarding resources and technical support for each of the tools available should be centralized online, and the resources should be organized to reflect the teaching experience, focusing on classroom functions, such as breakout sessions or office hours, as opposed to organizing by technologies. Classes that require physical equipment or environments, such as science and art labs, will need special consideration. For universities with the resources, additional support services may include basic production capabilities and guidance, including tips on proper lighting and audio, especially for faculty members with less technical proficiency and/or availability.

5. Establish Feedback Loops To Maximize Success Today and in the Long Run

During the onboarding phase and as classes resume online, universities should establish feedback loops or measurement programs that track progress and issues and that measure results with more frequent reporting cycles. In the transition phase, the feedback loop should focus on (1) understanding the progress related to onboarding and training, and (2) tracking and resolving technical, training and content-related issues. This includes quantitative feedback, such as the percentage of classes progressing through each subphase of the transition on a daily basis, and qualitative feedback, such as the most common technical issues experienced.
As the virtual classes commence, universities must collect feedback to gain insight into (1) the effectiveness of the tools and processes established and (2) the overall satisfaction of students and teachers with the online experience. Examples of metrics include the percentage of students staying through a live session or the percentage of students using the interactive features to engage. Observations that compare levels of engagement online versus face-to-face, at least qualitatively, may produce additional interesting insights. This feedback loop among the school, faculty and students will not only enable the school to respond quickly and improve the faculty and student experience over time, but also inform the school’s long-term digital learning strategy.


6. Identify Legal Issues, and Update Policies and Procedures

While the virus raises a plethora of potential legal issues for universities, involving employer and personal liability, employment law, contract and insurance claims, safety, the supply chain, and civil liberties, among others, three main categories of legal issues need to be considered in launching an online education initiative: copyright and intellectual property ownership; privacy and data security; cheating; and cyberbullying, harassment and defamation. Each of these issues also exists in the classroom environment but takes on a heightened importance when applied to online education, which is more exposed to the public. With regard to copyright and intellectual property ownership, guidelines need to be reviewed and updated, and clear policies must be put in place that take into consideration how courts determine infringement when materials—articles, images, audio and video—are being posted on digital platforms. In addition, one must consider the applicability of the major exceptions to the copyright law that are commonly used by educators: fair use, face-to-face instruction and virtual instruction, including how the TEACH (Technology Education and Copyright Harmonization) Act applies.


7. Focus PR and Messaging Both Internally and Externally

How you communicate your digital plan, both internally and externally, is critical and needs to be considered in light of the reputation and the broader footprint of the university. Students, the most important stakeholders for the university, may be skeptical and critical of the change to come, and it is essential that your public relations strategy guarantees proper internal communication with them. An effective strategy will first communicate all changes to the people who will be affected by the change process before announcing externally. Internal communications should provide ample opportunity for feedback, with the goal of obtaining support and input throughout the change process.

Why It Matters

University leadership that considers these seven steps will be better positioned to endure the impact of the virus now and will proactively position the university to prepare for the next phase of strategic considerations, such as setting up robust, ongoing online education programs or preventing data privacy breaches and academic espionage.

Our digital and technology consulting team at Manatt is experienced in e-learning, digital transformation and change management. If you are an academic institution concerned about the effects of COVID-19 on the continuity of your ability to deliver quality education and seeking outside support backed by data, marketplace analysis and stakeholder input, please reach out to us at nsherman@manatt.com.

Ned Sherman is a partner and leader of Manatt’s digital and technology consulting practice. Prior to joining Manatt, he was CEO of a leading event organizer and digital publisher. In addition to serving as chairman and founder of Digital Media Wire, a conference production company for which he has produced over 150 conferences, events and webinars, Ned has personal experience with virtual education. He recently received a master’s degree from HEC Paris (Europe’s top-ranked business school) through a fully online program in entrepreneurship and innovation, spending 18 months working on the online platform Coursera and with Slack, Zoom and WhatsApp as side communication channels. He also received an A.B. with honors from Brown University and a J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law.



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