On 9 March 2020, the Republic of Cyprus confirmed its first two cases of coronavirus. Quickly thereafter, the government began taking measures in response to the pandemic. The state closed down borders. Nurseries, schools, churches and mosques were to close until further notice. Hotels, construction sites, factories followed. At the time of writing (1 April), Cyprus is in a partial lockdown, with police handing out hefty fines to anyone caught outside their homes without a valid reason and all movement between 9pm and 6am prohibited.
Universities and colleges were the first to close (on 12 March). We did see it coming, and we were confident that we had put plans in place, but, in reality, we had to do a lot of thinking (and planning) on our feet. At the Cyprus Institute of Marketing, we take great pride in us being a small, family Business School, with 350 students and a faculty of 60 spread around two campuses: one in Nicosia and a second in Limassol. We are governed by a Council, which meets once a month, and all academic decisions are taken by the Academic Committee, which meets bi-weekly. In the time of coronavirus, we quickly formed a smaller, more agile team: a crisis management team made up of six members: the Deputy Director-General; the two Academic Directors; the Director of Student Affairs; the Limassol Campus Manager; and yours truly, the Director of Quality. We would still report to the much larger Academic Committee and be accountable to the Council, but we simply did not have the time to wait for these larger committees to meet, discuss, approve. We had to act faster and more decisively than ever.
“As an institution that has been offering Distance Learning studies since the ’80s, and which currently serves hundreds of students around the globe, we thought we were in a good position to move our on-campus studies online.”
Number one on our agenda was, of course, ensuring the uninterrupted offering of classes. All lectures, seminars, tutorials, meetings were to move online. As an institution that has been offering Distance Learning studies since the ’80s, and which currently (under the aegis of Global Business University – Europe) serves hundreds of students around the globe, we thought we were in a good position to move our on-campus studies online. The transition was not entirely glitch-free – but it wasn’t difficult either. Years of silent but significant investment on our intranet platform helped. We didn’t have to worry about setting up new ways of communicating with students or new ways of helping students manage their studies. In fact, this was (many of us felt but wouldn’t say on record!) also our chance to finally get our lecturers and students to make full use of our LMS platform.
“As EADL members will only know too well, online education is not teaching to a camera.”
We have been putting a lot of money and effort in training our lecturers to use all the capabilities of our LMS platform; the pandemic would ensure that they finally did. What also helped was the conscious decision not to worry (or at least to be seen to be worried) too much about our lecturers making the transition to online teaching. They’d all skyped before: this was the message we wanted to get out to all our staff and students. We also wanted to stress that switching online did not mean that they were now experts in online teaching – nor that we expected them to be. As EADL members will only know too well, online education is not teaching to a camera. But we needed to carry on, and we needed to do it quickly. We didn’t want to cease operations – not even for a day. Our strategy was to trust our lecturers fully and to give them a choice: they could use WebEx or Teams or Adobe Connect or Zoom or even Skype. It was up to them; they could do this.
Meanwhile and behind the scenes, we were drawing on our experience of offering DL education and putting our contingency plans to effect – but without letting too much out to students or to lecturers. Our team of DL development began uploading learning material on the CIM intranet platform; our IT team prepared detailed and simple guidelines on how to navigate WebEx, how to record lectures, where and how to upload; our admin staff were trained on how to support lecturers and students. Work-from-home protocols came into effect. We would all work from home except for one of us (working through rotation) who would be in place at the premises. Salaries were guaranteed. All staff had their laptops checked, secured, and given remote access to the server. GDPR forms were uploaded on the platform and students were asked to read carefully and sign. A week in, we called lecturers and asked for their feedback. We explained our plan, informed them we would from now all use WebEx, and that we would provide help and support to help them with that. We thanked them and expressed our appreciation. We told them that they would be paid extra for the time they would spend familiarise themselves with WebEx. We offered pastoral support. And we did the same with students, contacting each and every one of them to tell them about our plan.
On Friday 20 March, a week after we were forced to close our classes, and without missing a day’s worth of teaching, we were able to issue new and final guidelines. All our online teaching would now be done using WebEx but one-on-one supervisions could still take place via Zoom or Skype; all lectures would be recorded and uploaded on the platform, as would any slides; the platform was now providing access to various additional learning resources, databases, books.
It’s been a tough few weeks. We are lucky to be a small, dynamic school and we are lucky to work with gifted and hard-working people. It’s not been easy, and it won’t be easy going forward. All deadlines have been extended and exams postponed by a month until further notice (following guidelines by the Ministry of Education to hold on that decision). Alternative methods of assessment would almost certainly be needed, so we are now developing take-at-home exams, online quizzes, games, presentations.
It seems premature to learn from this. Perhaps, if we learnt something, is that having a plan, trusting those around you, and being willing to learn fast and imperfectly, might just, in the end, save you.