Nov 12 2020

Looking Ahead to the Top Higher Ed IT Issues of 2021

After such an unusual year, EDUCAUSE has taken an unprecedented approach to naming next year’s highest-priority tech issues.

In a typical year, the EDUCAUSE Top 10 IT Issues list would be exactly that: a list of the 10 most pressing issues expected to affect higher education over the course of the coming year.

But 2020 has not been a typical year — and 2021 seems likely to follow suit. So, when it came time to compile next year’s list, the EDUCAUSE IT Issues Panel had a much more complex undertaking than in years past. After all, how do you forecast a year’s worth of priorities when no one can reliably predict what tomorrow holds?

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve all learned a different way to plan,” said Susan Grajek, vice president of partnerships, communities and research at EDUCAUSE, during the organization’s annual conference in October. “We’ve learned the futility of making long-term plans to mitigate a disease that’s still poorly understood. We’ve also learned about how useful scenarios can be when we’re faced with uncertainty. Scenarios can help us plan for alternative futures.”

Higher education, Grajek explained, is facing multiple possible futures and scenarios, each with its own complex challenges and priorities. Recognizing this, EDUCAUSE’s expert panel realized that one list of top IT issues would not suffice.

So, this year, they created three lists instead.

3 Top IT Issues Lists, Endless Possibilities

Whatever the next year holds, the EDUCAUSE issues panel decided that colleges and universities would most likely find themselves in one of three scenarios — or perhaps some combination of three scenarios: restore, evolve or transform.

“Instead of a top 10 list,” Grajek told conference attendees, “we used a scenario approach to consider three different potential ways that institutions might emerge from the pandemic.”

The result is a set of three lists of the five top issues that universities can expect to face per scenario, depending on where they are in their response to the events of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting shift to remote, online or hybrid learning.

The lists, Grajek continued, were made with three assumptions in mind.

The first, she said, is that COVID-19 will eventually subside. “The first thing to remember is that the pandemic actually will end,” Grajek told listeners. “At some point in the future, epidemiologists will no longer be regulars on news programs, public spaces will no longer be marked every 6 feet, and March will be a month of madness again.”

Next, Grajek said, panelists embraced the assumption that the best and most useful scenarios would be high-level overviews of a given potential future, including what recovering from the pandemic might look like for colleges and universities. The final assumption, she said, is that a single scenario is unlikely to fit most institutions. Instead, some universities might find themselves at the transform scenario when it comes to, for example, student success, but still at the restore or evolve scenario when it comes to other issues, such as financial health or cybersecurity.

“It’s not just a monolithic situation in which a campus might only fall under the restore scenario, or only in the evolve or transform scenarios,” says Kathe Pelletier, director of the teaching and learning program at EDUCAUSE, in an interview. “Institutions likely find themselves at various points in these issues. Their cost management strategy might be in the restore scenario, but their institutional culture is in transform.”

MORE FROM EDTECH: See why purple teams are an effective tool for cybersecurity defense.

Restore: For Some Colleges, Getting Back to Normal Is the Tech Goal

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been a common question with an elusive answer: Will things ever go back to normal?

“Some institutions might be doing their best just to go back and restore conditions to what they were before the pandemic,” Grajek said at the conference. “In some cases, that turns out to be sensible in relation to things like financial health.”

Institutions in the restore scenario might be the ones who face the greatest financial risk and whose students might struggle the most. “Institutions choosing the restore scenario were focused on helping their students gain access to institutional resources and learning anywhere, at any time,” Grajek told conference attendees.

In the restore scenario, the top five issues selected by panelists — all EDUCAUSE members — were:

Cost Management: Institutions are focused on reducing costs and increasing workforce efficiency.

Online Learning: Strengthening online and hybrid education is a top concern.

Financial Health: Universities will need to revise their budget models and IT governance.

Affordability and Digital Equity: Schools are focused on providing increased support for students’ technology needs and enabling technology availability.

Information Security: Institutions might require heightened information security leadership.

Evolve: There’s No Going Back for Higher Education

For many some institutions — or at least in some aspects of their future strategies — going back to the way things were before the pandemic is not an option.

By now, students and faculty across higher education have experienced — and somewhat adapted to — remote or online learning, or, for professional staff, working from home. New norms have been established that are unlikely to be eliminated when the pandemic subsides and the face masks come off.

“A lot of institutions,” Grajek says in an interview, “will conclude that there is no going back; there’s only moving forward from where we are. So, we said our second scenario would focus on evolving from where we were when the pandemic ended.”

That leads to the second scenario and the issues that accompany it: evolve. In this scenario, colleges and universities have accepted that they must adapt to a new version of normal. For them, the top five IT issues are:

Student Success: Schools may be looking to advance student support services to help students attain academic and career goals.

Equitable Access to Education: Diverse users will need better access to technologies and support, and policies will need to exist to ensure this.

Online Learning: What began as emergency remote teaching must now advance to rigorous, intentional online learning.

Information Security: Evolving universities still need a well-developed cybersecurity operations strategy.

Financial Health: Universities will need to consider developing and partnering with new funding sources.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Learn how to optimize your blended-learning classrooms.

Transform: An Active and Innovative Role in the Future of Higher Ed

The third scenario might be considered the most advanced and, ultimately, the direction that many universities might find necessary for survival. “We believe that in some instances, some institutions might say, ‘We don’t just want to evolve from where we are,’” Grajek explains. “For them, the pandemic has been an inflection point for higher education.”

The institutions most likely to already be on the path to transformation are the ones furthest along in their digital transformation journey, Pelletier explains. “It really takes a leap of faith to get in the digital transformation mindset,” she says, “but it can lead to more sustainability.”

Organizations facing the transform scenario have decided that evolution might not be enough; instead, a full overhaul is in order. These institutions, Grajek says, will most likely play a defining and active role in shaping the future of higher education. The top five issues here are:

Institutional Culture: A university’s culture must support comprehensive transformation, including from a technological standpoint.

Technology Alignment: College IT teams will need to identify and apply sustainable strategies and innovations.

Technology Strategy: Universities will need to develop an enterprise architecture that keeps pace with strategic changes and directions.

Enrollment and Recruitment: Exploring and implementing creative holistic recruitment solutions will be a top priority.

Cost Management: Digital transformation will be a key focus.

Take Action to Move Forward Amid the Pandemic

While the EDUCAUSE list has traditionally been intended to guide higher education IT teams as they plan their upcoming year, the 2021 lists come with an even more critical mandate: to help schools in their attempts to recover from the effects of COVID-19.

“This entire year has been a tightrope walk,” Grajek says. When EDUCAUSE and its member panel first began considering how to approach this year’s list in early 2020, recovering from COVID-19 wasn’t yet on peoples’ minds, she explains. “Then we realized that we were still solidly in the pandemic. There were a lot of times when we tentatively tried something out and then pulled back from it,” Grajek says of the process.

“One of the lessons of this project has been that you have to be comfortable taking some risks as you’re moving forward,” she continues. “You have to move. Sometimes the bigger risk is letting yourself get paralyzed by asking, ‘Well, what if I’m wrong? What if it isn’t perfect?’ But if it isn’t perfect, if we’re wrong, well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

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