Nov 01 2021

EDUCAUSE 2021: Reflecting on Lessons from the Pandemic to Build a Stronger Future

Higher ed leaders discuss the changes they made that continue to help them tackle digital equity and contact tracing.

Winston Churchill once said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

Across the nation, universities and colleges are building on the momentum of the “Great Pivot,” processing the lessons they’ve learned from the crisis to form new best practices.

During the EDUCAUSE panel “‘Crisitunity’: Learning from a Difficult Time to Make a Better Future,” John Rathje, CIO and vice president for IT at Kent State University, Tim Chester, vice president for IT at the University of Georgia, and Rupa Saran, deputy chief information technology officer at Coast Community College District, discussed how the lessons from the pandemic are helping them tackle new challenges.

Behind Every Digital Equity Initiative Is a Great IT Department

Saran can still remember the date of CCCD’s first online class. It was March 17, 2020, and the weeks leading up to it had been a frenzy.

“Before the beginning of March, we started to work with our vendors to order laptops, Chromebooks and hotspots because that’s something that a lot of students at our community colleges would need,” she said. “So when March 17 hit, we had devices.”

Even though its campuses across Southern California have since reopened, CCCD continues to supply hotspots for students who can’t attend classes in person. IT leaders like Saran are still working behind the scenes to ensure remote students have the bandwidth — and knowledge — to succeed in online courses.

MORE FROM EDUCAUSE 2021: How can colleges begin planning for the ‘birth dearth?'

Kent State also ordered hotspots and computers ahead of time to prepare for remote learning.

The pandemic “showed us just how important it is for learners to have digital access,” Rathje said. To avoid connectivity issues during online learning, Kent State scaled up its learning management systems, video systems and VPNs. The university considered the amount of bandwidth that students, faculty and staff needed to videoconference and stream, and decided to undergo a network overhaul to ensure academic continuity.

Click the banner below to learn more about how Kent State modernized its network.

IT leaders like Rathje are also stepping up to use their institutional power to influence change.

“It gave us the opportunity to share with our state leaders ­that there isn’t equitable access throughout the state of Ohio,” Rathje said. “Some areas have access, and some do not. And some places you’d think would have access do not.”

“We need to figure that out, because digital access is not only a critical part of learning, it’s a critical part of careers,” he said. “I think it’s important for us to recognize that digital fluency needs to be a part of everybody’s responsibility.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Here's 6 ways to close the broadband gap between rural and urban students.

The Right Mindset for Innovation and Adoption

One of the key lessons from the pandemic for Saran was the importance of moving forward on the digital transformation journey.

Five years ago, CCCD deployed virtual desktop infrastructure, leaving the IT department to undertake the arduous task of demystifying VDI to bring faculty on board.

So when it came time to deploy Desktop as a Service during the pandemic, the educators already had a foundation for adoption. “Having that mindset made it easier,” she said.

At the University of Georgia, Chester says the pandemic validated his efforts to reduce the number of shadow systems on campus. “That made the pivot a lot easier,” he said.

In addition to supporting hybrid learners and workers, the university is managing COVID-19 testing, reporting and contact tracing on campus.

Chester cited having an integrated workflow with automation capabilities as critical to efficient contact tracing. When people who test positive alert the university, “there’s a series of workflows that execute automatically,” Chester said. “On the staff side, it notifies supervisors, it notifies facilities that need to be cleaned. And if it’s on the student side, it notifies Student Care and Outreach, it notifies their faculty and so on.”

All things considered, the pandemic forced higher education leaders to see what their faculty and staff were capable of all along. “We as human beings need a little bit of structure — but too much structure destroys innovative thinking and creativity,” Chester said.

Read more EDUCAUSE 2021 coverage, including interviews and advice from higher ed experts.

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