Interview with the CEO of Australian Institute of Higher Education (AIH) - eduLAB and AIH’s Response to COVID-19

Michelle: Thanks, Coralie, for your time today. I’ve heard such fantastic feedback about how amazing you are as a leader, leading AIH in tough times like these. So first of all, please tell us about yourself and your experience in the industry.

Coralie: Thank you, Michelle. I come from a very diverse background in education. I didn’t get into education until probably into my late 20s. I had been working in a business environment first and then went into having my first child and decided I was bored. So, I did some studies and I got offered a job in the education sector.

Coralie Morrissey, (AIH) Chief Executive Officer

I ended up then working in the TAFE sector in Western Australia, and taking on my last role over there was as general manager of the largest TAFE college in Western Australia with fifty-five thousand students.

I was approached then by Victoria University, as one of the first dual-sector universities, to take on one of their roles in the executive team. I got further into higher education, then started working and getting involved in that, took on a job at Swinburne University. Then, the deputy vice-chancellor there approached me to ship to Sydney and go into the private sector with her when she took on the role as CEO in Laureate Education in Australia running two colleges – one Business, the other Hospitality and Hotel Management. I worked with them as an executive dean, looking after the business. Loved working in that environment. Absolutely loved working in the private sector. I then took up a position with a Canadian owned company in Melbourne. So, shifting back to Melbourne, that company had bought out an Australian organisation. They needed to set it up to make sure they had their accreditation, their registration and being able to deliver higher education. Then both daughters settled back in Australia and settled in Sydney. So, they were pushing mum to shift back to Sydney, especially having a grandchild on the scene now. So, I made a decision to look at job options here. I was then approached to apply for this new CEO position and met with the owner and the managing director. We got on exceptionally well and joining AIH was fantastic.

Michelle: What a journey. Well, this is a very special time. What is the biggest challenge AIH is facing due to COVID19?

Coralie: I think you’re so right Michelle. It is a time that the majority of us in today’s world and in Australia have never seen before. We don’t come from generations that have seen anything like this before. And so, a lot of it is new for us. I think the biggest challenge for us has been that students will vote with their feet not to come to classes if they think there is a risk for them.

We have a timetable that allows us to be in trimesters and start later than what some of the others do. So, we were not affected as much as some of the other schools and other colleges around us, in Sydney. And I think the fact that we’ve responded to the COVID19 regulatory compliance requirements, and the notices notifying students, making sure they knew what was going on and looking after the staff, was extremely important.

Also, finally making the decision to not run classes was probably one of the biggest decisions I’ve had to make in the education sector in a small organisation. We are owned by shareholders. You have to take their business requirements into account when you make a decision like that, but you also have to look after the health and wellbeing of our students and staff. So, the decision to go online or virtual delivery for us was a decision that was not made easily, but recommendations up to the board agreed to that.

Deciding to give the students the week off was risky but it was important for the staff to prepare courses to be run online and to ensure they had proper training. We’ve run several lots of training sessions this week and they’ve been really well-received by our staff members and it’s been well viewed by them. I also have to say that a lot of people have had to take onboard additional duties and they’ve had to make significant changes at extremely short notice and jump to make sure something can happen.

So, going online next week for us has been a big move, but we’ll be as prepared for it as we can be. Just only 10 minutes ago I was telling the staff that they need to be prepared, that not everything will go right. Not everything will work 100 per cent the first time they do it. Some of them are not comfortable going online. They’ve never done it before. Eighty per cent of our teachers have never done it before. So, we made sure they’ve got the tools available, making sure they’ve got a backup system. We’ve put a buddy system in for every subject. So, they’ve got somebody to help them through every class if they want. We’ve done a lot of work and we’ll probably still be doing it over the weekend before we go online.

I think it is important to make sure that the students are well looked after in this period of time. A lot of students will have lost their jobs. There will be a lot of mental stress going on for them. A lot of financial stress. I’ve had talks with our staff and looking at different financial means for them. We have also looked at what other means or ways we are able to support them such as changing their payment plans. It’s a time that we’ve never seen before and we have to be flexible enough to be able to change with whatever happens on any given day. I think I’ve forgotten about plan A, B or C, I think I’m up to about double Z!

Michelle: You mentioned how your physical delivery had to go online and become a virtual delivery and your staff and students are not used to it, but they have to adapt to it. AIH adopted eduLAB, a cloud computer lab delivery just recently. Has that helped you in transitioning from the physical to a virtual classroom delivery?

Coralie: Oh, definitely. Most definitely. I think the fact we only had one week to be able to see how eduLAB works was probably not a good trial. But the fact that we were able to now use that for the subjects that we’re still teaching next week and because what we’ve done, by going virtual, students could stick to their timetable. They’re using the same timetable and the teachers will go into them and do their virtual classes the same time they would normally do it.

So, where they had classes, that was going to be eduLAB and they still access that. Teaching staff are fantastically supportive of the fact that they haven’t had to do anything new. All they had to do was to write some materials out about how they conduct their classes because we’ll be doing them on the different timelines, not quite as long as how we do them. So, the fact that they can still access everything via what they had there originally is just a lot easier for them to be able to handle. And it would have been a lot harder for us, I believe, to shift across and transition across to a virtual classroom without being fully online. To be able to do something like that without having the tools would have been a lot harder.

Michelle: What would have been the situation if there was no eduLAB and you only had a physical computer lab to deliver it?

Coralie: I would dread to think.

Michelle: Which feature of eduLAB has been the most beneficial?

Coralie: I think the flexibility, the flexibility being that we’d only run one week of classes in there, then suddenly we had to stop and shift online. Also, not having to worry so much about where to teach them, what resources do teachers need to have, how do they access them and what can the students use? All of those questions, if you had an ordinary computer lab, would have mattered. We didn’t have to go through all of that angst and trauma. The teachers are already going through enough without having to add that to it.

Michelle: Do you think eduLAB can also be helpful to other colleges?

Coralie: Look, I think we’re in a different environment. I hear some provider on the news saying they’ve gone online, they’ll be going online as a virtual classroom like we’re doing, because there’s no way that you could provide really good learning materials in such a short period of time to be truly online.

The ones I’ve seen successful are the ones that have already been delivering online. So, firstly the fact that you’ve got a system that allows you to be working up in the cloud, and requires a minimal amount of hardware support for students. And the software being available to be in the cloud, I think allows you the opportunity to be able to expand this out to more classrooms.

I know we’ve talked to you about the fact that when we grow, and we were looking at going into other locations, that we would probably be looking at setting all our classrooms up that way. Although there is a difference from a business perspective, as far as assets are concerned, I think the benefits of going to somewhere like eduLAB outweigh those from a business perspective as well.

Michelle: Going back to COVID19, what are the things colleges could do to minimise the impact?

Coralie: I think we were doing everything we possibly could. We were using sanitisers. We were using antibacterial wipes. We were shifting classrooms around. So, there was the least amount of people sitting in the classroom when the social distancing came in place, making sure that students were further apart. One of my concerns started when we used our big classrooms because you can’t do that if we had everybody attending. Once we got into the second and third week, they would be too close. That was one of the reasons we looked at why we would go off-campus. Making sure the staff were looked after and cared for, making sure they had the ability to work at home if they could, where they could.

It was a busy time for us. It wasn’t an ideal time. That’s why we have rostered staff on so that not everybody is working every day on campus. I’ve also made a decision to not work traditional hours simply because, it allows our staff to travel in non-peak periods to be a little bit healthier again and for them to feel a little bit more comfortable in doing so. There were some staff who didn’t feel comfortable being here. We’ve tried to make sure that they could actually access everything from home at the same time.

We’ve also been in a unique situation, unique for us anyway, maybe not for other companies. We’ve had a staff member that has been stuck in China and has not been able to come back, and who is a valued staff member for us and does all of our data analysis.

If we hadn’t had the likes of our systems, this staff member was using the access through eduLAB to be able to connect to working in Australia, we couldn’t have got through the firewalls over there. If we hadn’t been able to work something out for her, then her contract would have had to have been finished or she would have had to go on unpaid leave for that period, because she’s not allowed back in the country and not allowed back probably for another five to six months. She is a Chinese national, and is here on a visa. So that restricted her being able to fly back to Australia. Being able to give access to staff to be able to work at home is critically important to us.

That’s critically important because staff have to feel that they’ve still got a job. Especially today, how many people are unemployed and what’s happened is that they would never have thought they’d be in that situation. We want to try and make sure that staff feel comfortable in knowing that they’re employed and that our aim is not to stop any of that.

We’re fortunate that we’ve got students, we’re in education and we’re in an environment where we can continue to teach them. We’ve got a regulatory company, the organisation that’s allowing us to be lenient in how we go about doing that teaching. Again, that’s important. If we can continue to operate that way, then we know that we’re financially sustainable and that our staff will continue to have jobs. And that’s really important.

Michelle: Thank you so much for your time and your advice today. And I know that this content will help other colleges as well.

Coralie: Oh, good. Thank you. Pleasure. Absolutely.

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