Professor Heather McLaughlin, PVC/Dean of the Faculty of Business and Law, De Montfort University is positive about the new reality for universities and about their continuity to attract students if we can get things right.

We are the midst of a global crisis and the world is suddenly a very different place. It’s a digital place which throws up many challenges, but also creates opportunities. I don’t think any of us quite predicted how dramatically the workplace would change as COVID moved closer to home and then finally landed.

The life of the Digital Dean seems to change daily, but the intensity is constant. Whilst I’m amazed how easily we embraced the technology – MS Teams, Zoom, Whatsapp, and have even advanced to virtual backgrounds (there much amusement when this was discovered), we miss those accidental or unintended interactions which can spark creativity as well as maintain the sense of humanity and normality. The digital day is largely ‘stage-managed’ with a series of virtual meetings which keep us routed to the same spot (mine’s the kitchen in close proximity to the fridge) and glued to the screen.  It’s exhausting!

The intensity of the working day has grown with the gravity of the unfolding situation with its huge impact on society and on the Higher Education Sector. Only 6 weeks ago, we took the decision to move to online or remote delivery for the rest of the academic year. Thankfully we only had a few weeks to go, and we believed that some normal business would resume, maybe not in September but perhaps a late or even a January start as a worst case. Now in the 6th week of lockdown, with little hope of a mass-produced vaccine on the horizon, it is difficult to envisage any sense of the old normal for the whole of the next academic year.

So what next? What is the new reality? Many universities are scenario planning for online for the whole year, partial online, and ’socially distanced’ classrooms. Whatever happens we are seeing a paradigm shift in terms of pedagogy. I don’t think it’s really about the technology (we all have a variety of tools at our disposal), but more the course design which has to be seen through the eyes of the virtual learner. Some faculty staff will need a lot of help with this. It’s not simply a question of content, but of delivery to ensure genuine learning outcomes. There’s already a wealth of resource out there without simply recording lectures. We need to break everything down into much shorter learning objects and be able to offer flexibility and personalisation. COVID or not, this approach is long overdue and will no doubt herald the start of a more blended model relevant for the 21st century Business School.

If we can get this right, we have a golden opportunity to continue to attract students (home and international) onto undergraduate degrees and encourage those who have graduated to think about postgraduate study in preparation for a more promising economic environment. For many it could be the obvious choice as the job market contracts and international travel restricted.

There is definitely room for optimism. So, perhaps digital is not so bad as long as sanity is maintained through my weekly virtual Gin & Tonic with a group of fellow deans. Thankfully the gin is real. Cheers everyone and good luck!