Higher education: academic leadership in the new normal | Sunday Observer

Higher education: academic leadership in the new normal

11 April, 2021

Context is important in any consideration of leadership practice. Context has the capacity to shape meanings and underlying organisational behaviour. This article describes the context in which a typical educational institution with no pre-plan in hand responded to the new situation, the spread of Covid-19. Initially, Operational Guidelines on Preparedness and Response for Covid-19 Outbreak for Work Settings was issued by the health authorities. A specific guideline for universities was also issued while emphasising on the teaching and learning atmosphere. Indeed, teaching and learning is the primary aim of dissemination of knowledge (learning about), and the practices in the knowledge domain (learning to be). However, online learning became the only option all had since then.

Achieving these through remote teaching and learning is in fact a challenge for the academics and students. Hence, the universities set up an action plan to actively steer its activities for any anticipated lockdown. The goal was not necessarily to retain normalcy but absorb interruptions to some extent and continue to deliver teaching and learning through a variety of online platforms.

Google Class and Zoom were among the digital platforms the academics and students soon embraced.  Academics reported that teaching approaches had to be adapted and varied, creating smaller sections of module content, discussion forums and mini assessments and revising. 

There was a sense of urgency and purpose, with the goal that no student or staff member should be left behind. The first module delivered online was the research methodologies via Google Class and Zoom platforms. As such, the centerpiece in the strategy was to ensure that academics and students were actively represented in the processes of response. In hindsight, more time for reflection and coherence would have been valuable. A work home plan was devised and implemented while sign in and sign out mode of attendance introduced. As befits the situation, the academics and non-academics reported to work on a rostered basis. Nevertheless, students had no access to the university. They too were worried over the technological interruptions during online deliveries. A massive shift like this inevitably raises an onslaught of questions.


As a remedy, several academic considerations had to be factored in continuing the academic year. In planning to transition to remote teaching and learning, the university had to undertake the following actions given the disruption to contact teaching and learning; Covid-19 response plan, Revision of the academic calendar; Making available guides and toolkits for remote teaching and learning for staff and students; Workshop for student and staff orientation (how to learn remotely); Revision of modules to take into account deferring of practical, laboratory sessions or field training; Online assessment of modules and how best to transition all undergraduate modules, Revision of assessment for remote learning; Ensuring that all academic changes to modules including assessments were submitted through Faculty Boards and to the Academic Council.

While the preceding account is true for almost every university, the speed of transition to online teaching required the sequential processes described above to be collapsed into one strategic maneuver. The IT arm stimulates the use of academic teaching, learning and assessment technologies at the university. With the strategy to recover the academic year, the staff methodically reviewed every undergraduate module for online readiness using the markers as follows: (a) a structure students can easily follow, (b) a learning guide, (c) evidence of engagement in online activities, (d) presence of assignments, and (e) presence of online assessments. Capacitating academics for the new normal was the key component of curriculum delivery under vastly changed conditions. 

Academics were supported by multiple divisions in the university before and during the transitional period. As academics have had to acquire new skills, they have also continued with research, administered and reflected on the changes required, and engaged with one another pertinently on teaching and learning issues. In sessions with academics, it was patently clear that juggling multiple tasks took its toll.

Unfortunately, the lockdown resulted in the suspension of many research symposiums. While the pandemic can affect all stages of the research process, the severest impact is likely to be on the data collection phase. For example, students who were conducting experimental research can no longer access the laboratory or field and students planning to conduct face-to-face interviews or use paper-based questionnaires can no longer meet participants and will only be able to do so if following strict health and safety guidelines when lockdown ends.

While online methods could be explored, there were still restrictions, which led to revision of strategies. The final semester students can also focus on writing the parts of their dissertation that can be written prior to data gathering and analysis. In some cases, students can start on writing the articles and other pieces of work that are required prior to the completion of their degrees. Given the circumstances and uncertainty, it became necessary for some students to rethink their research design. However, students found that the change in research design also represented an opportunity by challenging predominant research methods in a discipline and encouraging supervisors to learn new methodology and methods. Although the research progress of some students may be impacted, students who are able to continue with their research designs are being encouraged to do so and concomitant ethical aspects are being reevaluated. 


The choice of the mode of delivery was not a conscious one but was propelled by circumstances. Collegiality and teamwork were needed at every step in the shift to remote learning and teaching, which needed fine-tuned multiple teams and student cooperation throughput. Meanwhile, much discussion has taken place about how universities might effectively adapt in a new normal way. For example, although the university may have the infrastructure, there can be no assumptions about the students’ ability to access learning, or whether it is effective. This may require us to redefine our teaching and learning enterprise – to consider whether we need to invest in technology, provide different resources to support the new mode of delivery, and what kind of graduate is being produced for a post Covid world and society. Indeed, new technologies were rapidly bought, sourced and adapted, and budgets must offer the green light to accommodate this. The rapid transition required redirected resources. These included human resources, academics to transition teaching fully online, assessing online and the conundrum posed by disciplinary differences where practical, clinical training, and work integrated learning were required. 

Much discussion took place on what the key skills of the future are and on the different skill sets that will be needed, with digital capabilities identified as critical for success. This was not straightforward – it required a paradigm shift in attitude towards curricula, teaching pedagogies, and how to provide students with the highly flexible, mobile mindset that they will need in the 21st century workplace. Will the future be one where online is the norm? If yes, then social exclusion and inequity could deepen with the distinctions between advantaged and disadvantaged students determining access to learning in yet unprecedented ways. An appropriate social justice framework must therefore, be a key to Sri Lanka’s higher education approach. 

From the academics perspective, distributed leadership has become the default leadership response in this current crisis requiring more leaders, at all levels, to connect, share, learn and network their way through issues. Through absolute necessity, rather than by design, effective leadership is now connected, collaborative, creative and responsive.

A new leadership order has emerged which has no leadership standards, no preparation or development programs, no audit or appraisal framework, no KPIs, no benchmarks. There are no precedents and no blueprints to help leaders through the current tumult that is Covid-19. Leading in disruptive times means being able to navigate a different course. 

The writer is attached to the University of Vocational Technology.