First-mover advantage? Lessons from the University of Bologna’s response to Covid-19

By Antonino Rotolo

The Covid-19 pandemic has now spread globally. Italy is among the most affected countries in the world and the necessary containment measures were and still are severe. Italian Government containment measures basically amount to (at least by 3rd May 2020):

  • All people cannot move from home (with public or private transportation), except for proven work duties that cannot be postponed, for reasons of absolute urgency or for health reasons.
  • Lock-down of non-essential or strategic production activities. Universities are basically not closed but what we should guarantee is that most activities be in remote mode (except those that cannot be postponed, but in this case strict hygienic and personal distance measures must be guaranteed).

We all hope that these measures can be relaxed in a reasonably short time, but certainly a long, perhaps very long transition period awaits us. What have we done so far as the University of Bologna? In essence, we have digitized all teaching activities (courses, exams, etc) and all research activities that do not require lab work. But this was not enough. In this phase, it is necessary to keep the entire academic community united also with cultural or animation initiatives every day. Finally, we have launched modalities of assistance for students in international mobility.


A) Teaching activities. UniBO has about 85,000 students: teaching activities are related to more than 200 Degree Programmes, more than 50 International degree programmes, 48 PhD programmes, more than 40 specialisation schools, and more than 70 first and second level professional master's programmes. We moved online all courses. We have organised online classes:

  • Lectures are in Real Time Video/Audio stream (better than recorded lectures, which can raise copyright issues);
  • Students interact via chat or voice directly;
  • Professors make sure questions are seen and replied;
  • Access to on-line classes directly from the professor web page;
  • Integration with the University database to associate students to Classes made by UniBO.
  • Professors can manage attendance.

We have devised various and customised online procedures for handling examinations and dissertation defences, including written examinations (various technological solutions are available for written exams, but they are not optimal since proctoring and control are harder).

Library services (book delivery) have been guaranteed and a free e-book catalogue have been made available for students and professors.

We have stopped all practicals and other teaching activities in labs. Some surrogate and temporary solutions have been adopted, such as using multimedia materials.

The effectiveness and social acceptance of the above measures have been supported by continuous communication with students and staff (regular emails and feedbacks on social media, among others).


B) International mobility. We have faced the following problems essentially in managing students in mobility:

  • For incoming students: handling health issues and sometimes language barrier (especially for bachelor and master students) at health care centres;
  • For outgoing students: the major effort was keeping in touch with them and coping with very different situations (very diverse local health systems, epidemic’s management, social stability, countries’ mobility restrictions, lock-down of foreign host universities including dorms). Flexible Learning Agreements to cope with different contingency plans adopted by partners universities that couldn’t ensure online courses.

For outgoing students, we have created online collective chats, one per country of destination, to give real-time support and facilitate communication with and among students.

We have regularly kept informed by e-mail all students and professors in mobility also by spreading useful info and communications from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.


C) Research. The research activities were and are not formally suspended. However, the invitation to researchers and professors who continued their activities was to do it from home, thus avoiding mobility. On the other hand, those who had specific needs (with activities that could not be postponed or were essential according to the criteria stated in the government ordinances: see above) could go to labs, but only by strictly complying with all safety conditions and by obtaining an authorisation from the heads of departments.

PhDs in Italy are regular students, so we have mostly stopped their research activities in labs, except those in support of the health system (including animal facilities).

The contribution of research is essential for defeating Covid-19 and mitigate the effects of pandemic. Also following indications from the government, we have drawn a mapping of all research competencies and projects that can give a contribution in this regard in the medium and long term. We have mobilised the research community to develop proposals for ready-to-go solutions, also thanks to the design intervention of teams of students, and the involvement of strategic stakeholders for the implementation of solutions.


D) Social activities. The time of the pandemic has been a big challenge for the academic community. UniBO has launched a series of online recreational or community-building initiatives (on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram). Daily exercises of physical activity, readings of online classics, evening short videos on various cultural issues have been spread on social media for the whole UniBO community and for citizens.


E) University organisation. Covid-19 containment measures and all the above initiatives pushed us to re-organise the work organisation of university administration. Indeed, more than 95% of the entire administrative and technical staff continued and still continue their activities in smart-working mode. It is a real challenge but also a stimulating opportunity to re-design and innovate  internal procedures.


F) What about the future? In such a challenging context of difficulties, the adoption of innovative solutions is emerging. The future is quite uncertain, but we expect to face a long transition time. This means that it is quite hard to imagine that the next months will see teaching and research activities returning to normality. Quite likely blended modes will be needed for several months. Perhaps, the most striking consequences will affect international mobility: here, the so called “virtual mobility” will massively take place. UniBO is elaborating now plans for that.

Published Apr. 16, 2020 9:41 AM - Last modified Sep. 28, 2021 2:58 PM