How faculty responded to COVID-19: results from a global survey

The impact of COVID-19 on universities, faculty, students, and administrators was rapid, unplanned, and extreme. In March, within the space of 1-2 weeks, or in the space of just days for some, teaching and research moved online. Faculty had no choice; they had to cope, and they had to deliver.

As editors of a journal specialising in education, we were met with an immediate change in participation: while submissions marginally increased, willingness to review plummeted. Our response was to explore what was happening to higher education globally and identify lessons that could be embraced in meeting the ongoing challenge of this vastly altered landscape. Our study involved obtaining, collating, and analysing 1,000-word contributions from 66 faculty in 45 countries reflecting their thoughts, experiences, and hopes arising from this crisis.

It is clear from what they wrote that little time had been given to consider the psychological, emotional, and physical impact of what was demanded (not requested):

  • too little time was given to do what was needed;
  • too little recognition was given to the need to provide effective training to faculty;
  • too little thought was given to the need to provide training to students so that they would be aware of how they should be responding to and interacting with faculty online;
  • too little consideration was given to the impact of decisions upon the health and well-being of staff; and,
  • while faculty had to bend with the wind, the rules, regulations, and bureaucracy appeared to move at a very different, and much slower pace.

Almost half the contributors wrote of issues that implicitly required third-party intervention, i.e. a need for support for faculty; something that was not forthcoming in many cases. It was impossible for faculty to do their suddenly redefined job in the same time and with the same work-life balance as previous to COVID-19.

Teaching and learning issues dominated their concerns and work-effort. Research projects were put aside. While wider university support could be activated to assist faculty, it was slow and cumbersome to respond. It was faculty who carried the immediate responsibility for ensuring continuity of student learning, assessment and progression.

The most mentioned issue was assessment and the changes needed after the switch to online. These were often pragmatically driven, with limited consideration of learning objectives, the suitability of the new assessment methods for an online-only environment, and little consideration of the impact on faculty and students of the changes made.

Not surprisingly, stress levels were extreme­ – 45 different stress-inducing factors were identified in the contributions: 44 of which impacted faculty and 27 impacted students. In addition to assessment changes and increased stress, another 69 separate issues were identified by the contributors. Most were negative, reflecting challenges, bad experiences, and fear, including:

  • Faculty workload significantly increased
  • Internet access issues, including affordability and, in particular, where there were multiple homeworkers and students at home
  • Broadband bandwidth overload issues
  • Limited access to quiet spaces or to computers because the family was all together
  • Other learning resource access issues, for example, to libraries and specialist software
  • Power supply instability
  • Shortage of suitable IT for learning or teaching, including students and faculty with no suitable equipment
  • Students less engaged: not connecting video or audio; communicating less
  • Faculty feeling isolated: no student body language/feedback in synchronous classes
  • Assessment proctoring concerns
  • Faculty preference for face-to-face interactions, and inertia towards moving to alternatives (reflected in several references to relief felt or expected by faculty when they returned to face-to-face delivery)
  • Bureaucracy/Red tape
  • Lost revenue streams (resulting risks for faculty if the foreign student market contracts)

However, optimism can be seen concerning the many benefits of online delivery identified in these contributions, as can many lessons be learnt about what not to do and what must or can be done. It is clear that, when properly orchestrated, the challenges and pitfalls encountered in dealing with the crisis due to shortage of time and pressure on resources can, and could be overcome. They need to be the co-existence of face-to-face and online in increasingly blended formats is, it seems, here to stay.

Alan Sangster, Professor of Accounting History, University of Aberdeen Business School; Greg Stoner, Head of Accounting, Adam Smith Business School; and Barbara Flood, Professor of Accounting, Dublin City University Business School, Ireland.

The full study can be accessed at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09639284.2020.1808487