One thing the crisis has revealed very starkly is that it is the everyday that we value. It is not the expensive truffles you need now, but toilet roll. It is not the innovative silicon valley entrepreneur we value now but the person stacking shelves in supermarkets. There is a lesson in this for education too.
I’ve seen people suggesting radical new ideas, innovative things to do in teaching and research. Now is not the time for your social distance jetpack idea. The best thing we can do for students, staff and researchers is to try and keep things as everyday and calm as possible. And by everyday I don’t mean ‘carry on giving face to face lectures’, but I do mean, no new fancy tech you’ve always wanted to try. Email lists might be all you need right now.
For the Open University, while some of this can be realised, there is a big struggle to get all the support staff set up at home. This may be unsexy, non-innovative work but it is actually the stuff that matters. For researchers, reassuring them that they won’t lose grants or studentships is more important than suggesting they pivot their research to include a COVID-19 angle. Business near to normal would be the greatest achievement we could realise.
To clarify – I don’t mean we should expect staff and students to carry on as if it is business as normal. Working or studying from home (with children or family around), being ill, or just the general psychological stress of living in a dystopian movie are going to mean people are definitely not going to be productive as normal. What I mean is that institutions and individuals who can, should focus on the mundane elements that will help people retain some sense of normalcy. Payroll is an obvious example, make sure that system is working if everything else goes down. Websites, and access to main systems. If your team has a regular Wednesday morning donut gathering, then replicating this online is more of a priority than ensuring the strategic review is still on track. These boring, everyday things we take for granted are the key to the next few months.
When you live in extraordinary times, the ordinary becomes remarkable. It is time to get ordinary, get beige, get vanilla, get boring.