In the months since the novel coronavirus forced a massive shift toward remote, online and hybrid learning, a trend has grown more noticeable: The further along a university was on its own path toward digital transformation, the easier the transition proved to be.
“In many cases, institutions that already had a vision for the change were able to optimize for a COVID response faster than others,” Anthony Salcito, vice president of education at Microsoft, told EDUCAUSE Annual Conference attendees during an Oct. 27 presentation that featured University of South Florida CIO Sidney Fernandes. The session highlighted a series of pre-pandemic innovations and technology adoptions at USF — including implementing a unified communications strategy and new cybersecurity solutions — which ultimately allowed the school to provide a smoother transition to online instruction for its students and faculty.
“We didn’t know that we were planning for COVID-19,” Fernandes said, “but it turns out the things we were doing set us up nicely for that.”
A Year Shaped by Remote Learning and COVID-19
In a year that’s been largely defined by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent transition to remote learning, it’s little surprise that the first day the 2020 EDUCAUSE Annual Conference focused so heavily on digital transformation and its role in how higher education has responded and adapted. In dozens of sessions throughout the day, IT leaders from universities around the nation shared their experiences and efforts over recent months as their schools raced to maintain some level of continuity for their students, faculty and staff.
At Washington State University, CIO Sasi Pillay and his team found themselves tasked with overcoming multiple significant gaps within the digital divide, with many students lacking the devices and internet access they needed in order to participate in online classes and many faculty unfamiliar with the technologies being used to provide virtual instruction.
“I always talk about the three A’s: access, availability and affordability,” Pillay says. “I think we found quickly that all of these applied to our students. We quickly put together a loaner laptop program and a loaner hotspot program, but we soon found out that this alone was not sufficient. Then we looked at engaging our designers and network folks to deploy Wi-Fi in our parking lots.”
The program, Pillay said, ultimately evolved into a statewide endeavor that grew from 60 locations to nearly 600. The school has also distributed hundreds of Chromebooks and around 1,000 hotspots.
At Auburn University, instructional design specialists quickly recognized a similar problem among their own students, said Shawndra Bowers, associate director for learning experience design. “We discovered there were lots of students who didn’t have access to adequate technology outside of the resources they had on campus,” she explained. In response, the university purchased laptops, hotspots and webcams that were subsequently shipped to students’ homes.
For Higher Education IT, COVID-19 Transformation Comes in Stages
Universities have moved through three stages of transformation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic: react, return and reimagine, said Andrew DeFoe, business development manager at Amazon Web Services. “When the crisis first hit,” he said, “our customers told us they needed to react quickly and ensure their end users were productive from home.”
As time passed, DeFoe said, universities have shifted toward considering what needs to be done in order to return, whether to their physical campus or to some type of new normal. “Organizations of all types are asking what this really means,” DeFoe said. “Most organizations understand that it’s about more than technology. It’s also about people and processes.”
With the fall academic term now in full swing, DeFoe said, schools are now gravitating to a third stage: reimagine. “Our customers want to reimagine what the next phase of their mission will be after COVID-19,” he says. “How can technology be more than just a backup plan for when things go wrong?”
Even before COVID-19 infiltrated normal operations, universities were engaged in conversations about the potential technology held for higher education. “At the beginning of the year, many of us were reflecting on the decade of transformation we would experience,” Microsoft’s Salcito said. “A lot of the themes that were being discussed related to extending the boundaries of the classroom and campus.”
For most, he continued, the journey hasn’t changed so much as it had intensified. “Institutions have started to embrace much more asynchronous and proactive innovation as it relates to leveraging connections beyond the classroom, for instance by extending the value of a learning management system that, in the past, was primarily just used for scheduling but is now a foundation for collaboration.”
While many of the digital transformation projects seen across higher education in recent months have been driven by the necessity of COVID-19, the resulting programs will extend into the future and benefit students well after the pandemic subsides.
“We might have jumped into this program very quickly because of the pandemic, but many of these programs will be sustainable, and we intend to grow them,” Pillay says of WSU’s parking lot Wi-Fi project. “All of these things we are making available will continue to be offered even when we return to an on-premises experience.”