Before the pandemic, while many universities had the ability to record lectures and distribute them digitally, the technology wasn’t used to its full potential and, in most cases, students were actively discouraged from relying on online teaching. For obvious reasons, this has now all changed. Last year, when universities were forced online, they did so rapidly and with surprising ease. We saw the adoption of platforms like Microsoft Teams come into play quickly and the sector managed to pivot to almost entirely remote working, learning and teaching overnight.
It’s been a year of incredible change in the higher education sector and, after 12 months of scrambling to keep up, IT leaders are looking to understand what the next 18 months will look like and how they can scale up to meet the demands of a more hybrid world. With some student groups even demanding tuition-fee discounts due to the impact of COVID, it is more important than ever that investment is made to make digital services fit for today and tomorrow, and ensure that student and employee experiences are as good as they can possibly be.
Making the most of IT
Before the pandemic, CIOs often struggled to demonstrate the importance of IT in higher education and compete against other interest for internal investment budget as the traditional system continued to work. However, because of the COVID crisis and the subsequent raising of IT’s profile, CIOs are finding that their CFOs are more receptive to requests for technology investment than ever before.
University leaders are realising that technology is how they’re going to be able to enhance learning and research as well as provide better experiences for students and faculty, as the invention of online archives did many years ago. IT will play an increasingly important role in an institution’s overall strategy, and leaders will need to explore how the tech infrastructure has to change to meet these goals, asking whether previous ways of working are still fit for purpose.
Back to campus but not as we know it
Microsoft Teams – and platforms like it that allowed universities to transition to remote teaching pretty seamlessly – will have a longer-term positive impact. Research suggests that online learning increases retention of information and takes less time. It also opens the door to more students being able to take courses that were previously restricted by lecture hall size, enabling more people to access higher education from anywhere.
Protecting world-class research
One of the main concerns from commentators at the start of the pandemic was that universities, while able to switch to online working relatively seamlessly, were not prepared for the security risks that this transition would involve. These commentators turned out to be right, with more than 20 universities hit by the Blackbaud hack in July 2020 and more hacks announced later in the year. As institutions become more technologically complex, they become more vulnerable, and that’s only going to increase in the years ahead. Universities will need to look at the kind of organisations they want to be in five years and build a security infrastructure for that model today.
Opening cloud for everyone
Cloud was previously the plaything of the IT department, but the pandemic has accelerated its adoption in the sector and has thus brought other stakeholders – such as faculty and estate management – into play. With the future of education increasingly online, we can expect to see universities increasingly analysing their real estate footprint and considering its purpose as part of their offering to students. More widely, all departments’ business decisions will be impacted by IT meaning that their focus will shift more onto infrastructure and the devices that can deliver enhanced services.
This is a significant shift in how education has operated until this moment and we will likely see more parts of university life moving online and technology used to drive cost efficiencies. Commercially and operationally this could mean a complete overhaul for universities
The past year has been monumental for academic institutions, their staff and their students. In order to succeed in post-pandemic recovery, they have to capitalise on the momentum of these past 12 months and invest in their IT services. Not only will this improve education for students and working conditions for staff but could have wide reaching consequences for the overhaul of the university system completely.
There are some elements of learning, particularly in the more hands-on and practical subjects like medicine or physiotherapy, that mean that these platforms, while useful, cannot completely replicate traditional education methods. As the world opens up again, universities will have to ensure devices keep pace with end-user experience and demand, as well as to build seamless transitions between on- and off-site learning and working.