Feb 23 2021

In Post-Pandemic Higher Education, Plan B Matters as Much as Plan A

If the pandemic has taught higher education anything, it’s the value of a contingency plan.

It didn’t have to be a pandemic. Any event of enough significance — a massive cyberattack, a devastating storm — could have catalyzed the degree of widespread transformation that higher education finds itself facing today.

But in 2020 (and likely well into 2021), the impetus was COVID-19 and the rapid push to embrace remote, online and hybrid learning that ensued. Between climbing tuition rates and evolving student expectations, education was already at a precipice. Now, universities around the nation are realizing that it’s not just their educational models that need to evolve. Their approaches to planning and implementing those models must change as well.

This reality was made starkly clear in October, when EDUCAUSE released its yearly Top IT Issues list during the group’s annual conference. For years, the list has served as a syllabus for higher ed technology professionals, forecasting the top trends and challenges to expect in the year ahead.

There exists the proverbial rub: If any given year is the sum of the 365 days before it, 2021 seems unlikely to prove any more predictable than 2020. How can anyone predict what to expect in a year with no precedent and so many possible outcomes? Ultimately, the experts at EDUCAUSE decided, you can’t.

A New Approach to Predicting a New Year of Issues

The pandemic first began shuttering postsecondary campuses in March 2020, at a time of year when Rebecca Frost Davis and her colleagues at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, would typically be in the throes of strategic planning for the coming academic year. “At the point when we would have been having leadership-level discussions about what our goals would be for the next year, we got the pandemic,” says Frost Davis, the school’s associate vice president for digital learning. “Instead, a lot of our funding had to shift so we could buy things we weren’t planning to have to buy.”

Instead of a long-planned technology refresh and other scheduled projects, Frost Davis and her team had to decide what investments to make to maintain business continuity — and from which initiatives they would have to divert those funds. Complicating things further: They would have to make these decisions without knowing what to expect in the months to come.

Indeed, higher education faces multiple possible futures and scenarios, each with its own complex challenges and priorities, says Susan Grajek, vice president for partnerships, communities and research at EDUCAUSE. Recognizing this, EDUCAUSE’s expert panel decided that a single list of the top 10 IT issues would not suffice.

Susan Grajek, EDUCAUSE
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve all learned a ­different way to plan. We’ve learned the ­futility of ­making ­long-term plans to ­mitigate a ­disease that’s still poorly understood."

Susan Grajek Vice President for Partnerships, Communities and Research, EDUCAUSE

So for 2021, it created three lists of five. “Instead of a top 10 list,” Grajek told listeners in her address during the annual conference, “we used a scenario approach to consider three different ways that institutions might emerge from the pandemic.”

Whatever the next year holds, the EDUCAUSE issues panel said, colleges and universities would most likely find themselves facing three s­cenarios: restore, evolve or transform.

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve all learned a different way to plan,” Grajek said. “We’ve learned the futility of making long-term plans to mitigate a disease that’s still poorly understood. We’ve also learned how useful scenarios can be when we’re faced with uncertainty. Scenarios can help us plan for alternative futures.”

MORE ON EDTECH: What are the top higher ed IT issues of 2021?

A Scenario-Based Approach to Finding the New Normal

Increasingly, many in higher education think that “normal” might not exist anymore. Even so, for many colleges and universities, simply returning certain functions and operations to their prior states might be the most realistic (or even the ideal) outcome.

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

MORE ON EDTECH: Read these 4 tips to make cost optimization part of your IT pandemic plan.

Just because a school might fall under the “restore” scenario in one category, however, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t look to evolve or transform in other ways, says Kathe Pelletier, director of the teaching and learning program at EDUCAUSE.

Realistically, most schools will find themselves facing different scenarios, depending on the challenge or business function at hand. A university that might be aiming for baseline financially, for example, could still be hoping to evolve or transform its approach to other aspects of its business, such as digital transformation. In such cases, Pelletier explains, colleges and universities will want to approach planning and strategies with various scenarios and potential outcomes in mind.

“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,” Pelletier explains. “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.”

Business Continuity, Student Success and Tough Choices for Higher Ed IT

Whether they aim to restore, evolve or transform, universities also face more immediate pandemic-related challenges that could significantly affect business continuity. What happens if there is a COVID-19 surge on campus? What if there’s a ransomware attack? Which classes cannot be completed online?

“We are certainly looking at this day to day on some level, but more likely week to week, month to month,” says Brian Coats, associate vice president of technology operations and planning at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Business continuity, Coats explains, is critical to universities and to students, most of whom have limited time to
complete certain courses and projects so they can graduate on time. “If we can’t educate students in the time they need, they’re going to go somewhere else,” he says. “They’re not just going to give up studying law. They’re going to find somewhere else to complete their degrees.”

At St. Edward’s, Frost Davis and her colleagues devised their own set of scenarios to plan for potential events over the coming year. Level 0, she explains, would be a universitywide closure. Level 1 has all university classes and functions operating remotely. From there, the levels involve gradually allowing more on-campus learning up to Level 4, fully resuming campus-based learning and activities. University of Maryland, Baltimore has devised a similar plan, Coats says.

“What we’ve really emphasized with our faculty is the need to plan for flexibility,” Frost Davis says. “You’re going to have to make decisions like, ‘What is the most important thing I need to teach?’ You’re going to have to cut content, which is normal when you’re teaching online. You figure out what your desired learning outcomes are, and you align your content and activities to that.”

For Higher Ed Leaders, a Long-Term Change in Planning

“The first thing to remember is that the pandemic actually will end,” Grajek told listeners during the EDUCAUSE conference. “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.”

The way colleges and universities approach planning, however, might never be the same — especially at schools determined to preempt crises before they occur. At National University in California, for instance, IT leadership is focusing heavily on creating contingency support for students, faculty and staff who found themselves displaced after the pandemic limited their access to campus resources.

MORE ON EDTECH: Higher ed IT teams adapt back-office operations to remote work.

“Now, our contingency planning includes making sure that our instructors, regardless of whether they’re on the ground or in person, know how to offer online courses and use our online platforms,” says Shannon McCarty, National’s vice president of teaching and learning.

“This has shown us our own versatility,” Coats says. “Next time, the stakes might not need to be nearly as high as they were when we started taking actions in response to the pandemic. Since we’ve already worked through these challenges, there won’t be as much of a leap, whether it’s a pandemic or civil unrest. It could be a snow day. We’ve joked that after this, there may never be a snow day again.”

Illustration by James Steinberg/Theispot