• Special Feature / Interview
  • 04.21.20

How COVID-19 Is Impacting IR/IE Right Now

  • by Suzanne Simpson, Director of Institutional Research & Assessment, University of Alabama in Huntsville

Due to COVID-19, our working environments have radically changed. During this unprecedented time, we are leaning on our neighbors to help us through various challenges. Fortunately, I was able to reach out to some amazing colleagues for input onCOVID-19-SF how they are handling many of these trials and tribulations at their institutions.

Thank you to Eric Atchison, Vice President for Strategic Research, Arkansas State University System; Sandi Bramblett, Assistant Vice President, Institutional Research & Enterprise Data Management, Georgia Institute of Technology; Emily Campbell, Chief Enrollment Management Officer, Louisiana Community & Technical College System; Jennifer Moore, Director of Institutional Research and Assessment, Mississippi University for Women; and G. Marc Turner, Director of Institutional Research, Texas State University for their keen insights and contributions to this article.

How are you encouraging your staff and/or colleagues to adjust to a remote work environment? Any software we should check out?

Sandi: The lines between work and home can be obliterated if you’re not careful. The separation is important, so keeping an area of your house, apartment, condo, yurt, etc. is super important. One of our team members makes it a point to send a good morning email to the office every day. They usually include a fun picture or something uplifting to think about. The rest of the team responds either with a simple good morning or more often than not, pictures of their own. We’ve seen beautiful farm scenes, great breakfasts, sunrises, and more. It sets a great tone for the day! 

Jennifer: I call my employees several times a week to check in with them.  Letting employees know that you're reachable by several different means: email, text, phone call, and Microsoft Teams is important.

Do you think this will have an impact on enrollment in your online and/or face-to-face operations?

Emily: I think there will be an impact. For the community colleges I serve, many of the courses are technical in nature (welding, electrical, etc.) and those are difficult to offer 100% online. But, I do think we have a unique opportunity to change the way we teach long term, even technical courses. I do not foresee all courses being online, but I do anticipate there will be a lot more courses in a hybrid format in the future. I also expect there will be many more virtual student services going forward. I think students like not having to come into campus to take care of things like financial aid and admissions.

Marc: We expect to see a decline in both our incoming class and returning students as result of the outbreak. One positive is the encouraging feedback from students about being able to meet with advisors and other offices on campus virtually, rather than having to come to campus for what could be a brief interaction or meeting. We expect to see the online option continuing in many of the student service areas around campus moving forward. I also see more administrators realizing what work can be done remotely, allowing greater flexibility for employees in terms of schedules and where they live in relation to the institution.

How do you think this will impact the future of IR/IE?

Eric: Depending on how productivity is maintained (or not), institutional leadership may consider allowing the creation (or expansion) of remote employment for staff rather than allowing a good employee to leave a position when external forces require them to change locations.

Sandi: IR/IE can use this time to show their value to their institution by providing decision support to their leadership. Think about what your leadership needs to know and figure out a way to put that information in front of them. There are also opportunities to create partnerships with others who can enhance that decision support role. What’s the financial impact of the pandemic? Check with your budget office. How do we avoid furloughs? Work with your human resources office. What is the impact on our students? Talk to your provost and dean of students. Opportunities abound to create relationships that will extend beyond the pandemic.

What are you doing to support your local communities and/or campus community in regard to COVID-19?

Eric: I have been in regular contact with our neighborhood property owners’ association to ensure everyone has what they need (e.g., toilet paper, gloves, face masks). At the end of March, Arkansas State University suffered an EF-3 tornado with 140 m.p.h. winds.  I immediately reached out to my contacts at A-State who have now been impacted by two disastrous events. I think it is important to remember that there is more than COVID-19 affecting our institutions, communities, and friends during this time, and to provide support whenever possible.

Sandi: I joined a group that’s making face coverings for our essential employees who still come to campus every day. We’re also supporting local food banks that assist families who are dealing with the economics of the pandemic.

Emily: I serve on the Board of a local charter school, so I have been doing things to support the students, faculty, and staff there.

How are you handling your emotional, physical, or mental stressors? What advice can you give to the AIR community?

Jennifer: Connecting with family, friends, and colleagues is still important. Taking time to call friends during this isolation period has been one of the best ways for me to manage stress.  

Marc: We’ve been leveraging many of the recommendations found in the extensive literature available on remote work arrangements (e.g. as establishing a dedicated workspace, making sure to take breaks during the day, and recognizing that work is not 24/7 just because it’s now in your home.) Another piece of advice some have found helpful is to maintain a “work routine” that involves the behavioral cues of getting ready for work, including getting dressed. Then at the end of the day, you should change out of your “work clothes” to help signal the end of your work day.

The move to all online/hybrid formats provides an opportunity for the collection of a massive amount of new data (student login time, duration of online engagement, etc.). What metrics do you think may be most helpful to college administrators in this new space, and how is your college seeking to capture/quantify/analyze these data?

Eric: We have been thinking about how to provide an analysis comparing student outcomes, including course activity such as login frequency/duration and grades for students that were originally enrolled in at least one online course for fall 2019 or spring 2020, versus those who were not.

Sandi: We have this awesome moment in time where we had to make a huge change to how we deliver our education. While it might be easier to change history than it is to change a history course, we can use this to study the effects of change on our students both in the short term (how they performed in subsequent courses) and the long-term (what impact did this have on time to degree, course offerings, etc.)? It would also be interesting to study the effects on faculty and staff.

Emily: This is a new area for us and we are still in the early stages, but I would like to see us build out dashboards to visualize online activity.

Marc: The most useful pieces of information relate to measures of student engagement. We had already started to look at gathering this information in relation to student success through our LMS, but with the move to all online instruction, interest in data has spread to more areas around campus. Although we are still in the early stages of examining the available data, we're excited about the potential insights it could provide.

What data security risks do you think may arise from IR/IE professionals working remotely, and what is your college doing to mitigate those risks?

Marc: Along with VPN access, our institution is requiring additional cyber security training for all employees. Several of these initiatives were already planned prior to recent events but were moved up as a result of more people working remotely.

Is there anything that you’d like to add that has not been addressed?

Eric: I am concerned that institutions currently seeing financial and budgetary reductions could lead to furloughing or laying off IR/IE staff that are determined to be non-essential.

This conversation took place remotely via email, so don’t worrywe stayed six feet apart at all times. For more Q&A with colleagues about COVID-19 and how institutions are responding, read the article from the most recent edition of the eAIR newsletter.