Higher education needs to play the long game with tech after Covid-19

“Leaders in higher education are still working to refine the solutions they implemented during the pandemic, despite a disruptive year and overwhelmed IT teams, there’s reason for optimism”

Tech leaders in higher education spent the better part of 2020 learning lessons of their own. Shifting abruptly to remote learning, keeping students healthy and consistently circulating accurate information were just a few of the efforts IT leaders were tasked to help facilitate.

Like peers in most other industries, leaders in higher education are still working to refine the solutions they implemented during the pandemic. But despite a disruptive year and overwhelmed IT teams, there’s reason for optimism: the pandemic accelerated digital transformation in higher education.

The improvements that were made to campus content services platforms and legacy systems during the pandemic laid the groundwork for a better student experience for years to come.

The tools, strategies and partners that helped weather a pandemic are also effective in addressing the ever-present challenges in higher education. Declining enrolment, increased calls for personal data privacy, retention and the future of student health are all concerns over the next decade — the decisions you make now will impact the student experience long term.

An IT retrospective on higher education in 2020

The fall school year marks the first real opportunity to get students back to campus full-time since March 2020. But most campus leaders recognise hybrid learning will need to be a part of their offerings long term.

To understand the work that needs to be done over the next five years, we must first understand what held many institutions back during the pandemic. The common thread? Content and information management.

  • Contact tracing —One of the many monumental efforts IT has been involved with during the pandemic relates to reporting and documenting cases of Coronavirus on campus. While campus health leaders handled the logistics of testing and tracing, and administrators debated the rules and restrictions, IT leaders needed a real-time way to aggregate incoming test and health data and display it to the public. This often meant ingesting data from disparate systems, anonymising records and building central dashboards of case rates that would be relied on for the safety of the campus and surrounding communities. The lesson: IT systems are still more siloed than they need to be, and higher education needs to be better prepared to give up-to-the-minute, accurate health information to the public.
  • Hybrid learning — Almost no institutions had a sustainable and scalable virtual learning model before March 2020. During the pandemic, tech like classroom cameras and learning tools made digital lessons more interactive. But no aspect of the traditional college experience was spared, with IT offering campus tours, appointments with counsellors and recruiters, course registration and student health provisions. The lesson: 2020 proved how necessary complete student records that join data from all systems of record are.
  • Information sharing —Higher education leaders became de facto news sources for their students. While most were able to set up ad hoc systems to keep students informed, the unpredictability and information overload during Covid-19 made it difficult to communicate a unified and consistent strategy. The lesson: Student information centres and fliers in the hallway are no longer reliable ways to distribute information to everyone. IT leaders need to help administrators understand their options for sharing and collecting information.

Reasons for optimism in IT for higher education 

During the pandemic, IT in higher education has emerged stronger and more resilient. The steps taken toward connecting disparate systems and creating more holistic student records built a solid foundation for institutions over the next several years.

But it’s no secret that enrolment and retention are going to play even bigger roles in the lives of senior campus leaders going forward. Here is how the progress made so far will continue to improve students’ lives.

  • Accessibility —Fully hybrid campuses open the door to a larger, more diverse student population. No longer does a student need to worry about relocation, housing or other expenses associated with the on-campus experience. Campuses that continue to refine the digital experience for students are making a smart decision, as hybrid learning is becoming an expectation, not a perk, for prospective students.
  • Automation —Making improvements to the application and transfer process is imperative. In the past, manual reviews of things like transfer credits and transcripts could take weeks or months to review for an incoming class. However, IT leaders can accelerate the process — and positively impact enrolment — by automating the review and storage of this data.
  • Advisement and recruitment —Steps taken during the Covid-19 pandemic toward more comprehensive and holistic student records can greatly improve the lives of advisors and recruiters. With a complete view of the students’ entire educational journey, advisors can more proactively monitor student satisfaction. Some of the best tools allow administrators to get proactive notifications when it looks like a student needs direction.

IT leaders in higher education built a strong foundation for the future as they quickly and admirably began to improve hybrid learning. The next several years will determine if these efforts were fruitful, and enrolment and retention numbers will tell the story. With the improvements in accessibility, support tools and content services that have already been made, we hope to see overflowing graduation ceremonies again soon.

About the author: Kevin Flanagan is AVP, Sales at Hyland