Jul 29 2020

For Higher Education, a Hopeful Approach to an Unprecedented Year Ahead

To better gauge the expectations, insights and plans of stakeholders across higher education, EdTech spoke to a variety of administration and technology leaders on how to address remaining issues.

A year ago, if you were to ask what the biggest challenge or trend might be at the start of a new academic year, the answers could have spanned miles and gigabytes: Socioeconomic inequities and disparities. Digital transformation. Affordability. The list could go on.

Ask the same question today, however, and the answer will likely be some variation on one theme: The traditional learning model has been upended by a forced pivot to online, remote and blended learning. All the previous challenges still exist — they’ve just been magnified and exacerbated.

The conversation around the merits of online learning dates back almost as far as the internet itself. For years, decades even, higher education leaders debated the efficacy and value of virtual vs. physical classrooms, often to a degree that hindered experimentation with — let alone adoption of — blended learning models.

Then came COVID-19, and with it proof that necessity isn’t just the mother of invention but also of implementation.

The pandemic proved a hugely effective — if incredibly stressful — catalyst for blended learning adoption at university campuses across the United States. Still, despite the rapid uptake of key collaboration and communication technologies that make distance learning doable, common issues remain, including:

  • Accessibility. Whether related to socioeconomic factors, disabilities or physical location, not all students have the same degree of access to the technology required to succeed in blended, online or remote learning.
  • Engagement. Once students do gain technology access, how can instructors promote the same degree of student engagement they might expect in a physical classroom setting?
  • Security. As an ever-increasing number of users access higher ed servers, how can colleges and universities ensure that stakeholder data remains safe and uncompromised?
  • Health Safety. For some faculty, staff and students, venturing onto campus isn’t optional, it’s inevitable. How can universities protect the health of stakeholders who must go to campus in order to meet academic or professional expectations?

To better gauge the expectations, insights and plans of stakeholders across higher education, EdTech: Focus on Higher Education spoke to a variety of administration and technology leaders. Here’s what they had to say.

Access: The Technologies Students Need to Thrive

No matter how good the online instructional design is, students cannot learn if they cannot access the appropriate technology, along with reliable internet. While many universities and colleges have bolstered their investments to provide loaner laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to students in need, and though the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act has allocated significant funding for rural students without broadband access, many issues remain unresolved. For students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students, just gaining access to virtual classrooms can be a challenge.

Here’s a look at how different educational stakeholders and activists are considering the students who risk being left behind.

Consider the Needs of Students with Disabilities

Cyndi Wiley
The issue comes back to reliance on accommodations rather than building something that would be accessible from the beginning."

Cyndi Wiley Digital Accessibility Program Manager, Iowa State University

“A lot of faculty like to use engaging content in their classes, of course. They may search YouTube for a video they have permission to show. But they may not know to check it for accurate captions. They might post that link into their learning management system. But when a student who is hard of hearing or deaf or is an English-language learner turns on the captions, it may not be accurate. That’s immediately leaving out a ton of students, with or without disabilities.

The issue comes back to reliance on accommodations rather than building something that would be accessible from the beginning. I would highly recommend faculty members look into an organization called Teach Access. It’s free for people who have a .edu email address to join. They are working to write curriculums that allow us to teach digital accessibility in relevant programs. After all, computer science is a natural fit for digital accessibility. We can make the code that we’re building accessible, the software that we’re developing accessible, design the graphics in a way that is accessible and make the overall user experience accessible. This can be done if attention is paid to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standards.”

Cyndi Wiley, Digital Accessibility Program Manager, Iowa State University

 

Who the CARES Act Leaves Out

Clint Odom
The places least likely to qualify for broadband infrastructure funding or even adequate broadband subsidies are nonwhite, multiracial and/or Latinx or Hispanic."

Clint Odom Senior Vice President of Policy and Advocacy, National Urban League

“Congress did its part by appropriating about $325 million in the CARES Act to address a variety of rural connectivity issues. But in urban areas like Kansas City, the majority of people living in households with no broadband are the people in the largest cities and the least rural counties. The places least likely to qualify for broadband infrastructure funding or even adequate broadband subsidies are nonwhite, multiracial and/or Latinx or Hispanic.

A recent study by the Kansas City Library and the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition shows that parts of Kansas City with the highest levels of poverty have the lowest rate of internet adoption. And overall, despite impressive gains that the city has made over the past few years, Kansas City still lags behind the national internet adoption rates.”

Clint Odom, Senior Vice President of Policy & Advocacy, National Urban League

 

How Universities Can Step Up to Support Broadband Connectivity

Marshall Stewart
We can't do our job if those communities don't have broadband. We can't deploy healthcare if those communities don't have broadband. This is in the best interest of all Americans.”

Marshall Stewart Vice Chancellor for Extension and Engagement, University of Missouri

“What we need to start talking about is how to deal with this nationally, how to deal with this across a state, how to deal with this at every level of government. It’s going to take all of us. We’ve created mobroadband.org, a web site we’d like to call a resource rail. We have combined the intellectual capacity of the UM System universities and researchers working in this space from all different perspectives.

On this site, you’re going to find ways for community leaders to find grants, and you’ll find opportunities to partner with carriers. This is a tool that we’re constantly updating. It’s going to take people on the ground-level working in communities to make this happen—in both rural and urban communities. We’ve all got to do our part.

We also regularly work with the Missouri state broadband office and a community of thought leaders here in the UM System across all four university campuses, from the University of Missouri–St. Louis, to University of Missouri-Kansas City, to Missouri University of Science and Technology, to Mizzou, working collectively to figure out what new technologies, what new research can we deploy in our communities to make a difference. It’s going to take all of that.

The bottom line is we can’t extend knowledge into our communities, be it formal or non-formal education, be it degree-bearing or credentials—we can’t do our job if those communities don’t have broadband. We can’t deploy healthcare if those communities don’t have broadband. This is in the best interest of all Americans.”

—Marshall Stewart, Vice Chancellor for Extension and Engagement, University of Missouri

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how to increase college success for underserved students.

Improving Engagement in Online Education

According to a joint study by Teachers College, Columbia University, and the Community College Resource Center, personal interaction is the most important factor behind student success in online courses. In fact, the study notes, students in low-interaction courses earn nearly one letter grade lower than their peers in high-interaction classes.

Why? Because the human element is what makes complex content relevant to learners. The study found that when students can relate to an online instructor, they begin to see themselves as part of a larger community. Further still, they’re more likely to feel motivated to excel in class.

Although long distances may physically separate students from professors in digital courses, human connections do not have to cease. Here’s how some higher education leaders are personalizing the experience.

 

Humanizing Online Learning and Virtual Classrooms

Joe Way
We’ve taken most of our group study rooms and turned them into production spaces, putting in cameras, ceiling mics, and a mini AV system."

Joe Way Director of Learning Environments, University of Southern California

“Teaching to a webcam is not online teaching, it’s simply lecturing to a webcam. We are creating an environment where students can feel as much a part of the university as if they were actually sitting in a class.

For example, we’ve taken most of our group study rooms and turned them into production spaces, putting in cameras, ceiling mics, and a mini AV system. When faculty members can go in, they just hit start and lecture from that space. The background is the university classroom they are used to, giving the students a sense that faculty are talking to them from campus. It can provide some comfort and familiarity. ‘Oh, that’s Taper Hall. That’s my place. That’s my major. I feel comforted.’ It’s about creating those moments.”

—Joe Way, Director of Learning Environments, University of Southern California

 

 

Connecting with Online Students on a Deeper Level

Fataneh Taghaboni-Dutta
Online students actually become very connected. I am convinced that they’re actually more connected to us than students who I had taught in physical seats."

Fataneh Taghaboni-Dutta Clinical Professor of Business Administration, Gies College of Business, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“Online students actually become very connected. I am convinced that they’re actually more connected to us than students who I had taught in physical seats. One of the reasons why I think that happens is because the students who come to campus are only in my classroom on Tuesdays and Thursdays, during those specific hours. They graduate and they leave campus. But what I see in online students is that they never actually leave. They’re always there.

Three years later, four years later, I’ll still get emails from them where they ask questions about something that they’re doing now at work. Or they’ll tell me what they have done at work or share a news article that they think I should share with my class. I feel like they don’t actually ever leave the class. They always remain in cyberspace. I am always one email away from them.”

—Fataneh Taghaboni-Dutta, Clinical Professor of Business Administration, Gies College of Business, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Taghaboni-Dutta has been teaching courses online since 2016.

 

Never Waste a Good Crisis

Greg Flanik, CIO, Baldwin Wallace University
I see these as opportunities or touchpoints for us to engage our administration and our faculty leadership to take a look at this and build a new market vertical for how we deliver instruction. I’m excited about it."

Greg Flanik CIO, Baldwin Wallace University

"How do you create an immersive and personalized experience for that student? I think that is where the opportunity lies. If you look at the digital companies out there today — take Macy’s, Amazon, and Netflix — everything is about creating a personalized experience. How do you create that experience in higher ed? Where, when I’m browsing for chemistry courses online and then go elsewhere on the university’s portal, I see advertisements for jobs as a chemist, or an internship at places like Sherwin-Williams, Eaton and Goodyear? How do you create that experience and package it together so that students have a personalized journey as they move through their academic experiences?

I see these as opportunities or touchpoints for us to engage our administration and our faculty leadership to take a look at this and build a new market vertical for how we deliver instruction. I’m excited about it. I’ve had these conversations with other folks about it, and there’s a willingness to rally and build on it.”

—Greg Flanik, CIO, Baldwin Wallace University

 

Security: More Devices, More Problems

It started with a spate of videoconference intrusions, during which uninvited users would infiltrate online classrooms with displays of racist propaganda and other disturbing content. Then came NetWalker, a breed of ransomware unleashed by a collective of cybercriminals taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to exploit vulnerable users. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that a recent study by VMware Carbon Black revealed that organizations of all types and industries have experienced an increase in cyberattacks since the onset of the pandemic and resulting shutdowns.

“What it changed in terms of the security landscape I think boils down to endpoints, devices being outside the standard framework for the ASU network,” Arizona State University CISO Tina Thorstenson recently told EdScoop. “In the security space, we have to be really careful that we don’t move so fast as to make mistakes.”

Around the nation, higher education networks are seeing a massive uptick in off-campus users and third-party and shadow IT applications. For colleges and universities, this can mean an equally significant increase in risk. Here’s what some university IT leaders are expecting and experiencing as a result.

 

Focusing Anew on an Existing Problem

Sol Bermann
In some ways, the move to remote learning, it’s not just exposing new problems but it’s expanding or exacerbating things that have been happening increasingly anyway."

Sol Bermann Executive Director of Information Assurance and CISO, University of Michigan

“In some ways, the move to remote learning, it’s not just exposing new problems but it’s expanding or exacerbating things that have been happening increasingly anyway. As we’ve pivoted to a remote learning and work environment, we’re more reliant than ever on individuals and their endpoints for security, whether on their personal phones or tablets or laptops.

We’re seeing an increase in new tools, along with greater use of existing tools. From strictly a security perspective, I think that naturally means we are going to just have more risk and we’re going to be responding to more potential IT security incidents, because these individuals and their devices aren’t on campus.”

—Sol Bermann, Executive Director of Information Assurance and CISO, University of Michigan

 

Educating At-Risk Users (i.e., Everyone)

Pete Koczera
You can’t just think from an IT perspective; you need to think from a design and user experience perspective."

Pete Koczera Solutions Expert, CDW•G

“It’s critical that you provide a digital experience that limits complexity and tedium while providing the dynamic and engaging online environment they need to promote successful online learning. You can’t just think from an IT perspective; you need to think from a design and user experience perspective.

Do your users truly understand the risks of downloading and using shadow IT? From your users’ point of view, that unapproved software download or file-sharing app probably seems harmless enough. But IT professionals know better: Every unsanctioned application opens up your university to varying degrees of potential harm, from malware to insider threats and countless other risks.

Lacking solid adoption of their sanctioned IT investments, university IT teams can expect to repeatedly encounter noncompliant applications downloaded by faculty, staff and students. In the process, those users open up your network to any number of security threats while simultaneously letting your technology investments go to waste.”

— Pete Koczera, Solutions Expert, CDW•G.

 

Security Evolves to Meet User Needs

Brian Kelly
There’s going to be different technology. And there’s going to be technology that’s getting used very quickly, right now, ad hoc. Our users shouldn’t be afraid to engage with the cybersecurity and IT professionals on campus to help them do their work."

Brian Kelly Cybersecurity Program Director, EDUCAUSE

“Information security used to be the office of no, as in N-O. We used to say, ‘No, you can’t do that. No, that’s not secure. But what we’re becoming is the office of know, K-N-O-W. Because it’s a matter of users knowing how to use Zoom or Webex or RingCentral or any software. Avoiding problems going forward requires raising awareness of best practices and collaborating on the right way to do things.

Certainly, our needs are changing now. But it’s important to make sure that there’s conversation, right? I keep coming back to having that engagement. The security side of the house would rather have a conversation with a faculty member about what they’re using and why they’re using it, so that we can help them use it securely. That’s better than making them feel like they have to sneak around and not tell IT that they’re using an unsanctioned application.

The takeaway in this new world is that there’s going to be different technology. And there’s going to be technology that’s getting used very quickly, right now, ad hoc. Our users shouldn’t be afraid to engage with the cybersecurity and IT professionals on campus to help them do their work and accomplish their academic and educational goals in a way that doesn’t jeopardize student privacy or put data at risk.”

— Brian Kelly, Cybersecurity Program Director, EDUCAUSE

 

Safety First: Navigating the Health Crisis in the Fall

MedRxiv recently published new research from the Yale School of Public Health that suggests the only way for colleges and universities to reopen safely is to test all students and staff every two to three days.

Though the study is grounded in science, the authors of the report are aware the recommendations may not be feasible for many higher education institutions.

“Screening every 2 or 3 days is needed to permit the safe re-opening of campuses. This sets a high bar — logistical, financial, behavioral — that may be beyond the reach of many universities and the students in their care,” David Paltiel, a public health professor at the Yale School of Medicine who co-authored the study, wrote in a tweet.

So, how can higher education leaders address this problem? Let’s take a look at what different educational stakeholders are thinking as they approach this critical issue.

 

When Students Live with Vulnerable Populations

Kevin Walthers
Even though our students are probably largely safe, if they get the virus, we run the risk of making our city a hotspot by sending those students home and infecting their grandparents."

Kevin Walthers Superintendent and President, Allan Hancock College

“We made the decision to stay remote in the fall before the spring semester ended. Our students had a strong preference for face-to-face instruction, but realized that it was unlikely to happen. They felt the most important decision to make was to choose a modality for the whole semester, and that’s what we did.

We serve about 15,000 students in a community that’s historically underserved in higher education. Our students are not just first-generation college students, many are first-generation high school students. Since California housing is expensive, a lot of our students live in multigenerational families. Even though our students are probably largely safe, if they get the virus, we run the risk of making our city a hotspot by sending those students home and infecting their grandparents.

With that in mind we made the decision that we’ll be remote with just a few exceptions in the fall — such as welding and machining, nursing and law enforcement classes. Our automotive and our welding classes are in big, open-space labs with a lot of airflow. And welding students already have face shields on, so we can make some adjustments there.”

—Kevin Walthers, Superintendent and President, Allan Hancock College

 

Collaborating with Public Health Agencies

Lizette Navarette
One key role that colleges play is communicating with their county public health agencies to identify and evaluate case levels."

Lizette Navarette Vice Chancellor of College Finance and Facilities Planning, California Community Colleges

“We are a system that has 73 locally governed communities in their districts. Each of them are in various counties. There are multiple layers to reopening for our system. One is at the state level, in terms of identifying consistencies, ensuring that our colleges are aware of state guidance, orders, new rules and regulations. And they know the protocols on how to connect and communicate with their local counties, which may have slightly different protocols for safety that can go above and beyond the statewide guidance. Locally, one key role that colleges play is communicating with their county public health agencies to identify and evaluate case levels.”

—Lizette Navarette, Vice Chancellor of College Finance and Facilities Planning, California Community Colleges

 

Track When High-Touch Surfaces Are Cleaned

Dr. Linda Lee
It’s important to be able to accurately track how many times, and how frequently, high-touch surfaces are wiped cleaned. You need a data analytics platform to give you that feedback."

Dr. Linda Lee Chief Medical Affairs and Science Officer, UV Angel

“In university settings, there are often contract employees who may not feel comfortable touching technology. They’re afraid to break it or mess it up. Or they may not know who is actually responsible for sanitizing high-touch technologies such as computers. If you’re in a medical university, a medical setting, or a university hospital, there’s usually a fine line between biomed, housekeeping and nursing. If I’m the nurse manager at the university hospital, I think housekeeping is cleaning it. Meanwhile, housekeeping thinks nursing is cleaning it.

It’s important to be able to accurately track how many times, and how frequently, high-touch surfaces are wiped cleaned. You need a data analytics platform to give you that feedback. What is nice about the UV Angel, a UVC light treatment tool that attaches to high-touch surfaces like keyboards, touch screens and monitors, is that the system registers data and reports it wirelessly to the UV Angel cloud. It registers whether those high-touch devices are cleaned at the right times or at all. It gives you data insights on when, and how many times, people are using those devices so schools can develop better safety protocols and cleaning regiments around that.”

—Dr. Linda Lee, Chief Medical Affairs and Science Officer, UV Angel

 

Higher Education Will Carry On — No Matter What

Even when life seems to come to a screeching halt, the world keeps turning and so must higher education. Colleges and universities find themselves in an unprecedented situation. Despite massive financial and logistical challenges, they have no choice but to keep pushing forward.

Even with fall 2020 immediately on the horizon, many schools and their constituents still don’t quite know what to expect. Some remain uncertain about whether classes will be held on campus or online. What universities do know is that to survive, they must move forward — no matter what.

“Even beyond the initial weeks of the crisis,” writes EDUCAUSE CEO John O’Brien in an op-ed for Inside Higher Ed, “‘Whatever it takes’ continues to be the mantra on campus, energized by creativity and realized thanks to hard work.”

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