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COVID-19’s Lessons for Colleges and Universities

Sean Paterson
|
August 28, 2020
Featured Image - Woman with Mask and Coffee Siting Outside with Laptop

Responding to COVID-19 hasn’t been easy for higher-ed institutions. They’ve had to absorb new costs with less revenue. Their IT teams had to mobilize remote learning on a vast scale in very little time to salvage last semester.

Still, there are silver linings to be found. COVID-19 incentivized schools to adapt with unprecedented speed and embrace changes they may have put off indefinitely under normal circumstances. Some of these lessons and changes could have value well beyond the current crisis.

Here are four lessons that academic institutions can take away from the pandemic.

Online Education Isn’t Going Away

When schools moved their courses online this year, it was purely out of necessity. With campuses closed by the pandemic, this was the only way to continue operating. But measures initially intended as stopgaps may turn out not to be so temporary.

For many schools, remote education will remain the norm for the rest of this year at least. According to an EDUCAUSE poll, the majority of US colleges and universities plan to either keep courses online this semester, adopt a hybrid approach blending online and on-campus education, or at least have a contingency plan to go remote again if necessary. Only 3% will be reverting all the way to business as usual.

Even after the pandemic, the push to make education available online isn’t likely to let up. The world is becoming more connected and digitized by the day. There’s a growing expectation that information and services of all kinds be made available online. Schools will inevitably need to keep pace.

Expanded online learning options are part of the future of education. Incentivized by COVID-19, schools have made an impressive amount of progress toward laying the groundwork for this future. Hopefully, this progress will be built on rather than scrapped when the pandemic passes.

Optimizing Costs is Critical

COVID 19’s financial impact on academic institutions has been severe. Between added tech costs and reduced revenue from enrollment, higher education has felt the pinch more than most industries.

These new financial pressures aren’t all short-term. The costs of providing remote education will remain for all but the relatively few schools planning to return to business as usual this fall. Indeed, they may grow now that many free offerings that were available early in the pandemic have expired. Enrollment won’t return to what it was until travel restrictions lift and public confidence returns after the pandemic.

Operating under tight budget constraints is old news for academic institutions, but the pandemic has proven just how fast things can go from bad to worse. And though cost-related concerns have been a staple academic IT priority for years, COVID-19 has lent them renewed urgency.

IT can help with this in several ways. They can analyze tools and processes with an eye not just for limiting costs but for minimizing support requirements and maximizing long-term ROI. They can centralize the procurement of software licenses to achieve greater economy of scale. To further limit licensing costs, schools could implement a cost-recovery strategy like Austin College’s, wherein students and educators are charged for course software.

Fortunately – for reasons discussed below – this is an ideal time for IT to push for such changes.

IT is Essential

It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to describe IT teams as the heroes in higher ed’s response to COVID-19. These teams rose to the challenge and mobilized remote learning on a massive scale and in an impressively short timeframe.

Libby Robinson, Kivuto’s Director of Product Management, discussed this in a recent webinar on the “New Normal” for academic IT teams. “Who did everyone turn to when the lights switched?” she asked. “Everybody turned to IT – all of a sudden, [IT teams] were front and center of every conversation and of every solution.”

There are two lessons in this – one for schools, one for academic IT leaders. First: schools need to remember that IT teams are more than support organizations. They’re mission-critical departments that deserve a permanent seat at the decision-making table. Their response to the pandemic proved this, and their input will only grow more valuable as education grows more reliant on technology.

Second: CIOs and other IT leaders should see this is the perfect time to push for initiatives that will optimize costs, streamline processes, and otherwise benefit their institutions. Their clout and influence are at an all-time high. As Libby put it: “This is really an opportunity for IT to highlight its value.”

The Education Industry is Resilient

If there’s a single truly positive takeaway from COVID-19’s impact on higher education, it’s that the industry’s more adaptive than it’s often given credit for.

Colleges and universities have a reputation for being traditional institutions, slow to change the way they do things. Their rapid response to the pandemic flies in the face of that perception. They remodeled education for online delivery on a mass scale in mere weeks. It’s hard to overstate the scope of this accomplishment or the level of effort it took.

This isn’t to say the transition was smooth or the end result was perfect. There were speed bumps along the way, and more likely lie ahead. And, as established, the pandemic’s put schools in a precarious financial position from which they’ll take time to recover.

Still, stakeholders in higher ed – IT teams in particular – have earned a victory lap. If they remember the lessons this pandemic has taught and build on the progress toward modernizing education that it kick-started, some long-term good may come out of this crisis after all.

Sean Paterson
|
August 28, 2020

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