Feb 24 2022

Why Higher Education Institutions Are Investing in Upskilling

As the labor shortage continues, colleges and universities prioritize upskilling initiatives — and the technology to drive them.

At Kent State University, administrators have been upgrading technology in support of upskilling programs designed to help employers meet emerging needs for talent.

“It’s a very digital world, and it’s changing rapidly. That means we need to continually invest in ourselves, in our teams and in our future workforce to be ready for what the industry needs,” says John Rathje, CIO and vice president of IT at the university.

As the labor shortage worsens in the U.S., colleges and universities have started emphasizing certificates, microcredentials and other upskilling initiatives to meet the academic mission and drive new revenues. They are looking to technology in support of these efforts.

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Why Upskilling Is a Worthwhile Investment

Maryville University President Mark Lombardi says there’s a pressing need for such programs. “There’s 46 million people in the workforce right now who already have college degrees and have a set of skills they acquired over the last five to 20 years,” he says. Many of these “are having to reskill and retool in their jobs.”

At Arizona State University, Head of CareerCatalyst Meredyth Hendricks says this work is core to the university’s mission. “It is fundamentally aligned with ASU’s commitment to serving the public to use the assets of the university to scale job-relevant education programs for learners,” she says.

“There are important workforce dynamics that are demanding an innovative approach to workforce education,” Hendricks continues. “Many technical skills have a half-life of fewer than three years, which means that learners from all educational backgrounds will need to invest in education throughout their careers to keep their skills fresh. This presents ASU with the opportunity to impact learners not just through degree programs but throughout very long careers.”

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Google has meanwhile been supporting community colleges in their efforts to expand certification programs. Technology undergirds the upskilling effort, says Steven Butschi, head of education at Google Cloud.

“It’s been exciting to see institutions innovate to ensure they are meeting the needs of students and their institutions,” Butschi says. “We’ve seen that pace of innovation accelerating recently as institutions have risen to the many unprecedented challenges they face and seized new opportunities to improve.”

By adding and expanding skills and certificate programs, “institutions can meet student needs, help increase the sustainability of their institutions and help society by filling gaps for critical jobs,” he says.

Technology plays a key role in making that happen.

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How the Right Technology Helps Upskilling Efforts

At Kent State, a range of recent upgrades support upskilling.

Leveraging funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, the school worked with CDW•G and Aruba to install 48-port Aruba CX 8325 switches with 100Gbps line-rate interfaces. They implemented Aruba 7000 Series controllers in conjunction with Aruba Mobility Master, a master controller capable of handling up to 10,000 access points at a time, and added two management solutions: Aruba NetEdit and Aruba AirWave.

“We want to be able to provide an experience that supports an ‘any location, any time, any type of content’ capability for our students, our faculty, staff and our researchers. That means the network has to be prepared to move with us in that direction,” Rathje says.

“These upgrades give us greater capacity, greater speeds, and they also give us greater flexibility to create experiences based on location and context,” he continues. “The network is prepared for groups of people to congregate and also move seamlessly from one location to another.”

San Joaquin Valley College likewise worked with CDW•G, Apple and Meraki on a one-to-one device rollout, deploying iPad devices in support of upskilling across its 17 campuses. The effort also included deployment of about 350 wireless APs, as reported in a recent CDW case study.

Headshot of Steven Butschi
We’ve seen that pace of innovation accelerating recently as institutions have risen to the many unprecedented challenges they face and seized new opportunities to improve.”

Steven Butschi Head of Education, Google Cloud

At ASU, the upskilling portfolio includes an on-demand course library of about 250 courses, along with digital boot camps and custom corporate partnerships. “We’ll work with a company or organization to understand their workforce education needs and align our program development to fit the partner’s goals,” Hendricks says.

To bring these offerings to life, “a scalable, accessible learning management system is essential,” she continues. “We use Canvas, along with a variety of learning tools to extend the functionality of Canvas — things like custom discussion boards, interactive tools and tools to support particular skill sets.”

To make upskilling more accessible, ASU is experimenting with mobile-enabled learning and piloting a virtual reality effort. “The potential to develop programs that actually allow learners from anywhere to develop their skills by being virtually immersed in real-work scenarios is hugely exciting,” Hendricks says.

On top of all these tech offerings, “we need an integrated system that brings all these tools together,” she says. “Our website, catalog and student portal all leverage Amazon Web Services for hosting, and we rely on API integrations to streamline our data delivery. All these systems are sharing data back and forth between our student information system, provided by Salesforce.”

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Upskilling in Higher Education Requires Key Tools

Google’s Butschi describes some of the key components needed to support a robust upskilling program, noting that “tools that are simple, powerful and create access can really move the needle for institutions.” These include:

Secure, equitable and powerful collaboration and support tools: Solutions like Google Workspace, Classroom and low-cost Chromebooks increase access for faculty and learners, whether they’re in physical classrooms or joining from home.

Virtual desktops: These can give access to niche tools that historically have only been accessible on campus premises or with expensive equipment.

Data warehousing and visualization: “Some schools are thinking about what this means for modernizing the academic transcript,” Butschi says. “As such, they are turning to technology companies on how they collect information on courses taken, certifications completed and internships.” Visualization tools help bring this data to life.

For universities struggling with enrollment challenges and declining revenues, an investment in technology to drive upskilling can offer a way forward. “The traditional higher ed business model has to be really revolutionized and radically altered,” says Lombardi.

For those undertaking such a transformation, it helps to leverage outside expertise.

“Any organization that is growing and modernizing requires strong partners in that journey,” Rathje says. “CDW•G has been a very strong partner in helping us to think about the possible and helping us architect solutions that support our needs now and where we want to be in the future. They see things we don’t always get a chance to see, and those insights help us improve our planning and delivery.”

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

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