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While the pandemic has caused massive upheavals, it has also forced universities to use technology to bring in much-needed change and innovations. Shutterstock

COVID-19 silver linings: Technology has helped universities be more innovative and inventive

The impacts and burdens of COVID-19 are distributed in a highly uneven fashion. For many, COVID-19 has meant job losses, financial insecurity, adverse effects on their work or increased stress. For others more privileged, COVID-19 has meant an improved work-life balance and improved relationships.

The Pew Research Center recently published a survey of American’s views and reactions to COVID-19. The U.S. context is different from Canada, perhaps most notably in dramatically different death rates: more than 160 deaths per 100,000 people in the U.S. versus 60 deaths per 100,000 people in Canada. But there is much in the Pew survey that no doubt speaks to our experience in Canada.

As might be expected, 89 per cent of the Pew respondents reported at least one negative change in their lives. For some, this included missing family and friends. For others, it was the challenges dealing with newly crowded living circumstances. But the survey also found 73 per cent — well over a majority of the respondents — reported at least one positive outcome. These included more time with family and reduced social obligations.

A graph that shows results of a survey where Americans describe the struggles and silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic
Pew Research Centre, CC BY

In terms of the impact on work, the survey showed work-life balance improved for some but evaporated for others. Twenty-three per cent described how the pandemic had negatively affected their career, including job loss, increased work-related stress or frustrations with working at home.

Only 13 per cent mentioned positive work-related changes. For those people, working from home resulted in greater productivity, reduced time commuting and better work-life balance.

As we mark one year of living with COVID-19, many are reflecting on the past year and how it had altered our work lives. I read the results of the Pew survey with special interest as someone who has started a new job during this unprecedented health crisis.

Ever-evolving workplaces

I was appointed as the new president and vice-chancellor of the University of Alberta on March 17, 2020 — less than a week after the World Health Organization declared the global pandemic and only hours before the university shifted its teaching online in response to an alarming increase in the spread of COVID-19.

It was a strange time to take on this new role, only compounded by unprecedented university budget cuts that predated COVID-19. A time of crisis is difficult for everyone, but it also creates an opportunity to tackle problems in a new way.

My academic background is in corporate law and as dean of the law school at Queen’s University from 2005 to 2019, I helped establish the Centre for Law in the Contemporary Workplace, which examines the legal implications of an ever-evolving workplace. A key one of those changes, as the pandemic has vividly illustrated, is technology.

In my new position, the power of technology helped me broadly engage and connect with our faculty, staff and students over a compressed period of time in a way that would have never been possible using traditional methods.

These opportunities extend well beyond the university, with implications for leaders in both the private and public sectors. Business leaders, for example, are increasingly under pressure to demonstrate their commitment to corporate social responsibly — including actively engaging and consulting with the many stakeholders in and outside the corporation. Technology can help.

A new way to listen

Most new university presidents would start their term with the classic “listening tour” — meeting with faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members. But that wasn’t possible when COVID-19 brought an end to most in-person meetings.

My “listening tour” began with an online town hall in June 2020. Given the acute financial urgency facing the university, this consultation process started even before my official appointment began on July 1. I launched an ambitious process to re-imagine our academic and administrative structures and reduce our administrative costs by over $120 million.

But there were some silver linings with the online format. We had over 2,700 participants in various roundtables and more than 10,000 take part in online town halls over the fall term. It would have been impossible to include so many in a more traditional in-person consultation over such a short time.

We also used ThoughtExchange, a novel online technology that permits thousands of people to instantly identify the group’s top priorities and questions. Participants can outline their “top thoughts,” which are then ranked by other participants. In 15 minutes, you can identify the top thoughts of a group of hundreds or thousands of people with candid and unbiased answers. It is inclusive, anonymous and fully accessible to all participants.

It was a very different process than a traditional town hall where there is time for only a few to speak and often skewed heavily in favour of those who are advantaged or privileged in their ability to speak freely — for example, tenured professors over students or staff. Although not without disagreement, the consultation process led to an unprecedented program of academic and administrative restructuring of the university.

Embracing technology

COVID-19 also required universities to take a huge step forward — largely overnight — into technology-enhanced learning.

A student listens to an online lecture that is being broadcast on his laptop
When used properly, technology can result in more efficient use of teaching time for university students. (Shutterstock)

Technology can lead to more innovative approaches to education — for example, how University of Alberta law professors Steven Penney and Peter Sankoff have used “flipped classrooms.”

I used the flipped classroom technique while teaching at Queen’s. It meant content was delivered online in advance and class time was used for the application of the course content and immediate feedback.

Rather than lecturing in class, I presented problems and questions to the students and used polling to provide them with immediate feedback on their understanding of the material. I received positive feedback from students. They particularly appreciated classroom time devoted to problem-solving with immediate feedback along with the convenience of online access to lectures and course materials.

With COVID-19, many of these technologies and innovations have now been widely adopted across campus, a leap overnight that otherwise would have taken a generation or more to adopt. Although I know our students are anxious to return to the classroom and campus, they will be returning to a learning experience forever transformed and improved by technology.

We have all been changed by COVID-19 — changed in how we work and how we live. The scope of that change is only beginning to become apparent, but I have no doubt it will be profound, particularly for universities. We can emerge more inventive, with an even deeper positive impact in the communities we serve.

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