COVID-19 has become a global pandemic and has caused disruption to life as we know it. As of April 2, at least 216,000 cases of the virus had been reported in the U.S. alone. Colleges and universities are responding and reacting to the issues caused by this virus. Whether it’s creating spur-of-the-moment online learning courses, cancelling study-abroad programs, or moving students off campus, faculty and staff at institutions representing over one million students are working around the clock to minimize disruption and continue to ensure student success.
eAIR caught up with eight higher education professionals who are data experts. See what they and their institutions are doing to address the issues created by COVID-19, and how they are persevering in this unprecedented time.
Thanks to Eddie Bolden, Associate Director, Institutional Research, Case Western Reserve University; Steve Graunke, Director of Institutional Research and Assessment, IUPUI; Erika Hill, Associate Director, Data Collection and Assessment Support, Utah Valley University; Michael Johnston, Executive Director, Institutional Research, Pensacola State College; Erik Lovik, Director of Institutional Research, Radford University; Nic Richmond, Assistant Vice Chancellor, Planning and Institutional Research, Pima Community College; Suzanne Simpson, Director of Institutional Research & Assessment, University of Alabama in Huntsville; and Justin Rose, Director of Institutional Effectiveness, Southeastern University for their outstanding contributions to this article.
eAIR: What, if any, impact is COVID-19 having on your work and the work your office is currently doing?
Eddie: We have been required to work remotely, but there has been minimal disruption to our office's contributions. There have been one or two unique survey requests (preparedness for teaching online and room usage during the remainder of the semester while students are off campus), but nothing else outside of the usual.
Steve: We anticipate that our administration may have more data requests as the situation develops. Our office is fortunate in that all our work can be done remotely, so most of our staff will be working remotely for much of the next several weeks.
Erika: Our office has been majorly impacted as this week we all shifted to work from home. Focus groups and anything that required face to face contact has been cancelled for now and we’re weighing whether to shift certain projects. For us personally, it has also impacted our many student workers that are part of our office who are unable to come in or work remotely due to the type of work they perform.
Michael: So far, nothing major. I am still trying to get our IPEDS reports completed. I have had to complete some ad-hoc data and report requests specifically targeting online students, face-to-face students, and populations by permanent address. However, I suspect that my counterparts at universities with dorms must dive into this much more.
Nic: We're all working virtually, with only a few of us on VPN (and with data access). So, we are prioritizing mandated reports and doing our best with everything else. Staff without VPN access are focusing on training and professional development. We also oversee all aspects of strategy and we are using the opportunity to build out our project portfolio management system. We're also thinking through how we track what happens in our formerly in-person, and now virtual, classes. This may run into the fall and we need to figure out what remote options work best for students.
Suzanne: Our current concern is being able to meet deadlines due to the possibility of working remotely. For instance, the deadline for IPEDS is April 22, and we still have surveys to complete and review. This will impact our reporting practices and response times on certain items.
eAIR: What, if any, impact do you anticipate COVID-19 will have on IR offices for the rest of the year?
Steve: A lot of IR offices are going to need to adapt to working from remote locations and we are all going to become a lot more familiar with video conferencing capabilities. The fact that this is hitting mid-March will likely have a great effect on our ability to track, project, and report on enrollment, as we don’t know how this event will affect the enrollment behavior of the incoming class or students’ decisions to re-enroll for next semester.
Erika: I would anticipate that there is likely to be a shift in the types of analysis for many of us as we answer questions related to the budgetary impact, impact of pass/fail grading, impact on enrollment, and the shift to online learning.
Michael: As a leader in my department, I am trying to help my team remain calm. Naturally, many fear the unknown. I have not had any state or federal reporting date requirements change—IPEDS is due April 22. We may have to complete more ad-hoc reports, but it’s not anything we can’t handle.
Nic: We'll be out for an unknown period and we'll just do the best we can. Once we are back, we'll have a major period of catch-up to do. We're also late into a mission review year and I'm not sure what is going to happen to that process at the moment.
Suzanne: If there is any impact, I would say we will see modified deadlines on projects. Our constituents should be prepared for units asking for deadline extensions and we should also keep lines of communication open to ensure we are forthcoming with the policies and procedures on our campus in the wake of COVID-19.
eAIR: Is there anything in particular our readers should be taking into consideration or planning for, given the current crisis? How can we be proactive?
Eddie: Consider ways you can help support other areas (Provost, administration, planning, etc.). This has pushed a lot of things back, so be ready for discussions on budgets and measuring impact once things return to normal.
Steve: I think we are all learning as we go, but this will be a great opportunity to gain greater familiarity with the resources your university offers for telecommuting. Several open source applications (such as R) might prove useful if you do not have access to your usual toolkit.
Erik: Many institutions are continuing the support operations without students living on campus or taking courses on campus in order to limit the spread of the virus. It is possible that select personnel might be advised or required to work from home and stay physically distant from campus. IR professionals should have in place the means to be able to work from home if they are called to do so. This includes having a reliable computer, whether it is personal or provided from the institution, access to work files through a secure connection, and necessary applications to do a majority of the work normally handled in the office. For example, if you use a report generator or SQL query tool, be sure to have the software installed and working successfully.
Nic: Make sure mandated reports can be completed. Keep in close contact with team members to ensure people feel connected (for those people who are virtual). Try to get ahead on the things that can be done, so there is time available later to catch up on things that had to be left unfinished.
eAIR: How, specifically, can IR offices help their institutions during this time?
Eddie: Support at every institution looks different. Some of our typical priorities have become back-burner issues, but we are facilitating surveys that address current need (building usage for sanitation and security purposes and preparedness for remote learning). We are also trying to turn as much of this as possible into a learning experience and "preparation for next time" in hopes that there isn't a next time.
Steve: Be available. Many of us are the gatekeepers of university data. The situation seems to be changing rapidly, and our ability to provide accurate, timely information will be useful for a variety of reasons. At the same time, remain mindful of the implications and ethical considerations of the data requests you receive.
Erika: By proactively providing information to the administration, especially those who have access to real-time data related to LMS activity or future semester’s enrollments, etc.
Erik: IR offices could be asked to provide rosters and contact information for students, faculty, and staff. IR can support student affairs, academic affairs, and HR in this way by ensuring that all available information is in the hands of those who may need to communicate individually with anyone from the campus community.
Nic: For us, we are mostly sticking with previous priorities, though working through scenarios for summer and fall to understand where enrollment drops might occur so we can be proactive about engaging with students is new and important. As we are data experts, we can also assist in "translating" some of the coronavirus articles, to help people understand why things like social distancing matters. Some may not understand the details.
eAIR: What, specifically, can we do in this moment to positively impact student success, as students are being sent home and asked to take classes online for the rest of the semester?
Eddie: Stress empathy. Nobody was "prepared" for this. We cannot expect our faculty to be exquisite online facilitators and our students to be regimented online learners; instead, consider more than the 'student' or 'faculty' and look for the whole person—what might they be going through that is unique to them? Faculty may have children who cannot go to school. Students may have to be moving out of their dorm with little notice. Everyone is going through something stressful for them, so it's okay to alter your expectations and reset your priorities.
Steve: As an IR professional who also teaches, I conducted a quick survey of my students to assess their technological capabilities and their access to essential technologies before designing remote instruction. I’m going to be using that data to shape how I construct the course for the next few weeks. The digital divide is real, and the most vulnerable students are the ones most likely to be affected. I want to make sure my students have all they need in order to succeed. I will likely be spending spring break designing some SPSS instructional videos to make sure my students can access resources remotely.
Michael: Perhaps publish success stories about live-online instruction. There is data to support that live-online instruction has better outcomes than asynchronous instruction, and in some cases, better outcomes than face-to-face instruction. Data show higher participation rates and lower absenteeism for this type of instruction. The use of private messaging increases participation by reducing the fear about getting a question wrong in a public forum.
Nic: Carefully monitor attendance and within-semester grade books, to try to identify people early who may not be doing well in the virtual environment. Benchmark practices elsewhere to help see what is working in a different location.
Justin: IR and assessment professionals can inventory their institutional capacity and readiness to maximize the collection of academic assessment data and other information relevant to making data-informed decisions for student success via learning management systems and other online platforms where usage will significantly increase during this transition. At my institution, this looks like working with faculty, and especially assessment liaisons, who usually teach face-to-face courses to ensure that their online course shells are properly set up to capture meaningful data.
eAIR: What advice would you give others in your position at other institutions?
Eddie: Be creative and think about what you can learn through this experience that you can apply to your work. For instance, if it's making meetings virtual, that has a certain appeal for some people that others might take for granted in typical day-to-day work.
Steve: I think this is a time when the “soft skills” of IR become more important than ever. Things are moving fast, and it’s going to be important to stay connected with others at your institution to learn what is happening. Use your contacts and share information with your colleagues. If work starts to slow, this could be a great opportunity to engage in professional development. For example, AIR has plenty of pre-recorded webinars on their website.
Erika: Take it one day at a time, but be understanding and flexible especially for those who have staff where kids have been sent home, or are dealing with illness in their families, etc.
Michael: My team is being just as responsive as we normally would be by handling requests as they come in. We have experienced crises before, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, etc. This situation reminds me of preparing for a hurricane situation, except that the length of this crisis unknown relative to a hurricane. We are assisting our media (both institutional and student newspaper) with data responses. I’ve been here late at night, but I know our student media is important too and proper analytics can help quell much of the anxiety and fear being experienced.
Erik: Keep yourself healthy, remain calm, and stay on top of available information. Use this information to maintain a realistic perspective about the size and scope of reported cases in your region. Continue to be vigilant, but don’t overreact. Take the initiative to have IR assist your vice president in any way possible, even if it means handling some tasks that you normally wouldn’t.
Nic: Focus on personal and family health first—this is a stressful time for everyone. Recognize that some scheduled work simply won't get done if you must go virtual. Just prioritize and do the best you can. Plan for staff absences due to illness. Keep connected—social distancing is important, but many people suffer from loneliness. Take steps to protect yourself and the staff who work for you from that.
Suzanne: Check with your technology department about how to set up remote access to make sure your connections are secure and that they function off-site. Remain calm, yet attentive. Be prepared to make changes quickly, but strategically. In our line of work, we are always adjusting to change, so approach this situation in the same way.