Back to top

How did we do? Universities share lessons learnt 

03 August 2021 | news

Changes to teaching modes; maintaining academic quality; care for students and staff—New Zealand’s universities have shared what they learned from dealing with the challenges of COVID-19 in a report prepared by the Academic Quality Agency (AQA).

The Good Practice Assessment identifies good practices and lessons gained from the universities’ responses to three related questions:

  • What did universities do to move from face-to-face/on-campus to online delivery?
  • How was academic quality maintained for online delivery?
  • What were the key success factors and challenges? 

New Zealand universities began responding to the global COVID-19 pandemic from January 2020, initially focusing on supporting students unable to travel here. The moves to Alert Level 3 and 4 in March 2020 meant they needed to address maintaining teaching and learning and support activities for all students. The report focuses mainly on the challenges faced in the first teaching semester/trimester of 2020.

Universities based their responses on existing plans and frameworks and drew on considerable internal expertise to form cross-functional response teams, which initially met daily and then less frequently as Alert Levels were lowered. Considerable attention was paid to communicating with students and staff.

Overseas, responses included continuing face-to-face teaching, with some amendments, but this was not an option for New Zealand universities.

Rapid transition

There was a rapid transition to online teaching and learning and support activities, and academic quality was maintained through a wide range of measures, including:

  • changes to policies, processes and procedures
  • developing principles and guidance for online teaching and learning
  • enhanced support for online teaching and learning
  • changes to assessment
  • redeveloping student learning support, including support for remote study
  • increased use of analytics.

Treatment of assessment and support for online teaching and learning required particular attention and considerable support was provided by academic staff development, and learning and teaching teams. Some practical and experiential teaching and learning was difficult to transition to online and some courses were suspended and ‘still to complete’ grades recorded.

Overall, universities were confident that graduate profiles could still be achieved and that the grades awarded fairly reflected both mitigation of impact and academic achievement.

Success in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and transitioning to online learning can be grouped into factors to do with:

  • institutional preparedness and other institutional factors
  • people—staff commitment, expertise and flexibility, culture and collegiality, collaborative leadership models, leadership and students
  • technology—learning management systems, additional technology such as lecture capture and examination software, and technology planning and provision
  • response management—fast and early decision-making, cross-functional teams that included subject experts and students, the teaching pause, student-centricity, communications and information provision and having confidence in university ways of working
  • academic issues—making accommodations in academic quality policies and practices, the range and accessibility of learning resources that were made available, student contribution to learning and assessment design, pedagogical developments and improvements and professional learning by staff
  • data—from surveys and through analytics.

Communication and sharing

Universities communicated and shared information with each other throughout the crisis. The Committee of DVCs Academic met weekly, then fortnightly, to discuss common issues and share solutions in real-time. A number of other sector groups, including the Vice-Chancellors, also met frequently from March to June to share good practice across areas of university activity.

Targeted emails and newsletters, live-streaming staff forums and joint sessions between Vice-Chancellors and student association presidents, and dedicated web pages on university websites were some of the communications channels used to keep staff and students informed and involved.

Communications challenges did arise; some due to changing government advice and others due to confusion stemming from inaccurate or partial media reporting. The sheer volume of information to be imparted also created problems and at times staff felt that information needed to be provided more quickly.

The AQA report suggests a specific analysis of communications would help any future planning.


The COVID-19 Alert Levels and the move online exacerbated inequities among students. Universities’ responses included getting a better understanding of students’ home learning environments, providing hardship support—including access to technology—and making support services available online and by phone.

Universities identified a number of factors that would help them prepare for future risks to academic continuity. These include:

  • ensuring departments have plans that set out how teaching and learning and assessment /exams will continue, the technology required and how student contact will be maintained
  • registers for staff on their readiness to work from home and improved connectivity to enable this
  • identifying students’ technology requirements and ensuring that all students and staff are prepared to study and work remotely
  • further attention to communications.

There will also be longer term implications for how teaching and learning is developed and delivered and how students are supported for success arising from the COVD-19 experience. Lessons for the future should be developed to help guide:

  • preparation for future ‘shocks’ and sudden risks to academic continuity
  • future development of teaching and learning and support for students and staff
  • management of academic quality in rapidly changing and novel disruptive contexts.

Most importantly, however, is to remember that the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, the report says. Universities, students and staff continue to feel its impacts and need to find ways to manage teaching and learning and support activities.