Start thinking how to mitigate Covid-19’s impact on researchers’ productivity, says Kyungmee Lee
I lead an educational research group. Last week, two of my doctoral students contacted me to discuss their progress since Covid-19 measures had disrupted their data collection.
One, whose study is self-funded, was particularly frustrated, and desperate to find a way forward. But with schools shut down, classes dismantled and social contacts prohibited, it seemed impossible for her to collect data. She decided to take a leave of absence to stop her academic clock.
The other student, who is funded by his government, did not have this option, as his funder would not allow any leave of absence. I suggested he conduct interviews online, but we both knew this would yield far inferior data compared with the in-person interviews with teachers in their classrooms that he had planned. Obviously, he was very disappointed.
The precise effects of the Covid-19 pandemic will depend on each researcher’s circumstances. But, like my students, most will be experiencing sudden interruptions to their research, reduced productivity, and distress over their personal and professional circumstances.
The difficulties created by the outbreak for researchers and their work will be immediate and long term. They will affect every aspect of academic life, and all of researchers’ diverse identities and roles. Identifying and understanding them is the first step towards mitigating them.
Most urgently, following the suspension of face-to-face classes academics are moving their classes and teaching online. This shift is having direct and indirect impacts.
In normal circumstances, developing an online course involves a team of academics, designers, librarians and technicians. Following a careful analysis of students’ learning needs and prior knowledge, a range of instructional methods and strategies are reviewed to find the optimal approach to teaching particular content to the target students.
The resulting package, typically including elements such as lecture videos, quizzes, assignments and group com-munications, is reviewed using institutional, national and global metrics and regulations. Once the course is uploaded and delivered online, a team of tutors and online learning support staff monitor and facilitate students’ learning.
At the moment, however, many academics with no previous experience of online teaching are working mostly alone to put their courses online. This is necessarily rushed and unsystematic, and the quality of online teaching suffers as a result.
Being the frontline contact who receives frustrated students’ queries and feedback can be more work than online teaching itself, while the sudden loss of face-to-face contact with students and lack of feedback can be disconcerting. After putting lectures and resources online, many academics are unsure if students are learning anything meaningful from their course, but checking students’ learning and providing further support can be arduous.
Many academics are also parents. Those at an early stage of their career are the most likely to be juggling teaching and working from home with figuring out how to homeschool their kids. There are online resources to be explored and contacts with school to be managed. Prioritising the needs of their children and students will increase overload and fatigue, reduce productivity and push research projects back.
There is also a rapid increase in email traffic. Organisations and committees are making urgent contingency plans. Decisions on what to cancel, what to postpone and what to do remotely and how require many conversations.
Having to do all this from home makes decision-making less efficient. Added to this is a stream of emails asking researchers to step into this or that role should their colleagues fall ill.
Tenured academics are at least lucky that Covid-19 may not dent their income or job prospects. For many non-tenured researchers, a period of relative inactivity has more serious implications for their future career. For those on casual contracts, including many doctoral students, the suspension of research activities may have a more immediate financial impact.
Given everything else going on, it might be unrealistic to expect immediate support for researchers to be made available, but we need to understand the challenges they face.
As a community, we need to support each other by acknowledging the issues we are dealing with and the importance of having realistic expectations for ourselves and others. When the outbreak ends, we can work out how to repair any damage to research, and minimise the long-term damage to careers.
This article also appeared in Research Fortnight and a version also appeared in Research Europe