The lesson from the corona crisis: care for students and teachers should be the highest priority

Prof. Jasmina Havranek PhD, Mina Đorđević and Željka Plužarić
The lesson from the corona crisis: care for students and teachers should be the highest priority
2021

Concern for the psychological well-being of students and teachers should be high on the agenda of higher education institutions under normal circumstances, and even more so in extraordinary circumstances.

This thesis is based upon on the survey of the study experience during the coronavirus pandemic and social isolation in the Republic of Croatia[1] in the period from March to May this year. The state-level survey was conducted by the national agency for quality assurance in higher education and science, the Agency for Science and Higher Education in June and July 2020.

Electronic questionnaires were sent to the all higher education institutions in the Republic of Croatia (129). 764 employees of higher education institutions (teachers, heads or members of the management board, heads of organizational units (e.g. departments, etc.), employees of the professional service (e.g. student services, libraries, information services, etc.) and 1114 students (395 male and 719 female students) responded to this questionnaire. Their answers were completely anonymous.

The survey consists of the following sections: technological conditions of studying in an online environment during extraordinary circumstances, quality of online teaching, quality of student support, grading of student work, student workload, and social and psychological aspects of teaching in an online environment. It presents the challenges of studying and working in extraordinary circumstances, and desirable forms of support from higher education institutions and other bodies that can influence policy making in higher education.

This paper discusses the students' and teachers' view of social and psychological aspects of online teaching in extraordinary circumstances, as well as the needs of students and teachers, which can be considered as recommendations, primarily to higher education institutions, on how to act in similar situations should they occur in the future.

According to the assessment of health authorities in the country and the crisis management committee responsible for adopting measures in the fight against the pandemic, the present epidemiological situation (16 October 2020) is very unfavourable. The situation is particularly serious in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, which has the highest number of higher education institutions and students. Due to such circumstances, a large number of higher education institutions employed the so-called hybrid teaching model, i.e. a combination of traditional in-person teaching and online teaching. It is difficult to predict which teaching method will prevail by the end of the semester, or by the end of the academic year - online teaching only, hybrid or traditional (in-person) teaching. However, according to the results of the survey, the majority of students and teachers (at least taking into consideration those who took part in the survey) believe that online teaching is appropriate for theoretical knowledge, but perhaps not so appropriate for teaching practical knowledge, delivering exercises, art projects, etc. In case it is the only available mode of teaching delivery, significant modifications should be made. Likewise, most respondents from both categories believe that human contact is irreplaceable and that it cannot be compensated for in teaching delivered through online platforms.

This is certainly one of the reasons why 40% of the students and 41% of the teachers who participated in the survey believe that the overall psychological well-being during online study was lower and much lower than in the pre-quarantine period. However, it is difficult to clearly distinguish when the (dis)satisfaction is a consequence of isolation, pandemic, financial crisis, etc., and when it is a consequence of the distance learning having replaced traditional (in-person) teaching.

Half of the students (50%) and a similar percentage of higher education institutions’ employees (44%) answered that during online study they experienced the feelings of anxiety and/or depression more and much more than in the pre-quarantine period. We were not surprised by this feedback, given that the situation in which they found themselves was unexpected, unknown and uncertain. For example, one of the teachers stated that she witnessed feelings of concern, uncertainty, distraction, fear of the future; there were also examples of improper behaviour, such as instances of overreacting, raising one’s voice in case people do not follow instructions, warning those who acted irresponsibly, disruptions in communication.

A student said that the level of stress and obligations was much higher than under normal circumstances and professors did not make it easier for us in any way, and she added that: most of us could not leave our books and laptops for a second because it was impossible, and the whole experience was traumatic at the faculty and in general.

Therefore, the students needed support from teachers and higher education institutions. Around a third of the students believe that the support provided to students was weaker than before the quarantine, while a small number of teachers share their opinion. It is also understandable, since most teachers put in a lot of effort into adjusting the teaching content for online delivery in a very short term, and made themselves available for students at all hours, responding to their inquiries, providing them with explanations, holding consultations, etc. when they were working from home, and the boundaries between their private and office time were often blurred. However, there is never enough support, especially in unfamiliar and unprecedented situations such as this, so this could be one of the reasons why the perception of students and teachers differs to this extent. This was also confirmed by a student who said: we need support and understanding from teachers; individual approach is the most important now that we have been deprived of face-to-face contact. Teachers also find that they did not receive adequate support: besides surveys on this topic, teachers were not provided with any other form of support as to their psychological well-being, a teacher said in his/her answer.  

Slightly above half of the students (56%) believe that their workload during online study was higher or much higher than before the quarantine. While 23% of the students believe that it was equal, 18% of the students believe that it was much lower or lower. Teachers have responded differently: while 38% of them believe that student workload during the quarantine was equal to their workload in the pre-quarantine period, 20% of them believe that their workload was lower (lower and much lower), and 34% of them find that student workload was higher or much higher.

The majority of the students mentioned that their workload increased as they had much more independent work. On the one hand, a considerable percentage of teachers opted for an increased number of tasks (problem-based, research, project tasks, etc.) in order to compensate for the practical exercises and field work that could not be conducted, and on the other hand, in order to continually monitor student work and progress. Naturally, this type of studying and assessment of student achievement is successful if teachers provide a lot of support to students and use an individual approach. This, naturally, causes an increase in teacher workload, and in a situation of large study groups and work from home, leads to a great workload on both sides.

The students who participated in the survey frequently commented teachers for their success in the organization and delivery of online teaching, for encouraging students to interact during the lessons, for their availability for consultation, for providing students with feedback, etc. but they also criticized some teachers regarding all these aspects. [JM1] [JM2] [ŽP3] 

For all these reasons, a large number of students and teachers have voiced their need for psychological support in extraordinary circumstances, and for learning the skills necessary to cope with anxiety. Teachers should understand student needs better and vice versa – students should take into considerations the constraints teachers are facing. One of the students in the survey responded that the faculty should take care of physical and psychological health of their students and spare them all the unnecessary obligations in crisis situations.

It is impossible to exactly predict the future consequences of the quarantine and the impact it will have on students’ skills and knowledge, as well as on the physical and mental health of both students and teachers. However, the conducted survey has clearly shown that the psychological well-being has seriously declined, and identified the need for a systematic support in coping with stressful events such as isolation. Therefore, in the coming period, in Croatia at least, it will be necessary to provide high-quality institutional care for students and teachers, which will include the possibility of psychological counselling, as well as a much-needed understanding of individual circumstances and needs of both students and teachers.

 

Literature:

Bezjak S., Đorđević M., Plužarić Ž. (2020.) Izazovi u visokom obrazovanju za vrijeme pandemije bolesti COVID-19 i socijalne izolacije: iskustva i potrebe studenata i djelatnika visokih učilišta. Zagreb: Agencija za znanost i visoko obrazovanje

 

Authors:

Prof. Jasmina Havranek, PhD

For most of her professional life, Prof. Havranek has been promoting the importance of quality standards and culture and raising awareness about the importance and improvement of public policies in science and higher education. In the period 2003-2005, she was President of the National Council for Higher Education of the Republic of Croatia, and in 2007 she was appointed Director of the Croatian Agency for Science and Higher Education. Prof. Havranek participated in numerous national and international conferences that covered topics of higher education and science, and also was an invited lecturer.

Mina Đorđević

Mina is responsible for the Agency’s international strategic engagement, including the participation in European and international associations for quality assurance in higher education, establishing partnerships within international developmental projects, representing the Agency in working groups and similar bodies in HE, promotion of Croatian higher education institutions at international HE exhibitions, organization of international conferences in Croatia, etc. Mina is also involved in strategic planning of development activities at national level and preparing project proposals for grant support from a range of EU funding schemes as well as in the implementation of project activities and dissemination of results.

Željka Plužarić

Željka has vast experience in public relations in both private sector and the ASHE with a focus on the development and implementation of communication strategies, direct communication with the media, website and social network content creating, preparing and editing annual reports, newsletters and other publications. She is also participating in communication activities related to international projects and organizing ASHE events and workshops. She is a member of the working group for the promotion of Croatian higher education abroad.

 

[1] Results of the survey „Challenges in higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic and social isolation: experiences and needs of higher education institutions’ staff and students“ were published in the Croatian language on ASHE's website https://www.azvo.hr/images/stories/novosti/Rezultati_istra%C5%BEivanja_I... and publicly presented on the webinar held on 30 September 2020. 

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