By no means do we want to be disrespectful to the tragedy that the global pandemic has brought to the world. The heartbreak caused by the loss of life and jobs cannot be underestimated. But to cope with tragedy, we believe we must look to hope and try to identify any silver linings of the catastrophe.
In the spring, the COVID-19 pandemic completely upended higher education. It forced colleges and universities to close their campuses and pivot to online learning quickly. Following the rapid transition to virtual learning, the entire campuses shifted to a remote model for staff outside the classroom. Although these changes were tremendously difficult, institutions are finding that some of these transitions brought about change that could positively affect their organizations in the future.
Let’s look at a few of the positive outcomes that the pandemic enabled for the higher education environment.
Before the pandemic, most colleges and universities had some online learning capabilities, but not every institution had the full capacity to support all students for all classes. The 2020 academic year compelled higher education to put their online learning proficiency to the test—with some surprising results.
Many institutions implemented new technologies to drive unprecedented pedagogical innovation. In some instances, faculty who had long been resistant to online delivery models were forced to take the plunge and adapt. While many institutions initially struggled during the spring semester, a lot of colleges significantly improved their offerings and capacity for the fall semester, allowing for a more natural and organic learning experience for students.
This test was critical for higher education, especially as student demographics change. In the future, more learners over the age of 25 and students with full- or part-time jobs are expected to pursue higher education. Institutions that were able to reform their online learning strategies and develop best practices will be in a better position to attract this next generation of students.
When the pandemic hit, institutions realized that they needed to support online capabilities for everyone across their entire campus. In addition to students, staff across admissions, advising, payroll, accounting, and other departments needed to work remotely. While some institutions already had the capabilities for staff to work from home, others had to quickly adjust and incorporate new processes when campuses abruptly closed.
Outdated operational models in which nearly everything was managed on-premises could not easily transition online. As the months rolled on and it became apparent that the pandemic was going to impact learning in the fall and into 2021, some institutions took steps to transition to the cloud.
The cloud has been on the radar for many institutions for some time. However, a significant portion of organizations saw the cloud as a long-term project. In many cases, COVID-19 was the catalyst that spurred institutions to accelerate their digital transformation initiatives, which will ultimately set them on a stronger trajectory going forward.
Without the opportunity to organically engage with students face to face, faculty and staff were challenged with finding new ways to connect with students. Instead of casually meeting each other for office hours in person, faculty and staff were encouraged to take more time to get to know students on a personal level. By engaging with students through videoconferencing platforms, students were able to show more of their personal lives with children or pets becoming part of everyday conversations. As a result, engagements naturally became lighter and less tense and conversations became more personal, allowing connections to grow to new levels.
Many institutions are looking to adopt more engaging digital tools such as chatbots and mass texting capabilities to boost communications across their communities. Meanwhile, more active learning elements, including group discussions, videos, and gaming, are being utilized to enhance student experiences. Looking to 2021 and beyond, it seems like student engagement will continue to be a focus for institutions as they look to build more substantial relationships with students.
IT hiring has been a stress point in higher education for some time now. An unfortunate consequence of the pandemic was the loss of jobs, many of which have been in IT. If there were a positive note for this circumstance, it is that institutions are now able to access a wider range of potential employees thanks to the increased remote working tendencies.
IT departments looking for talent have been able to successfully hire from a large talent pool that otherwise would not be available. Thanks to many work from home mandates, many institutions have taken to hiring decentralized staff. Institutions have been dipping their toes in locationless hiring, increasing the talent pool, and providing flexibility in salaries, which will likely continue in the future.
The pandemic caused monumental changes. Now that entire campus operations are moved online, technology is being leveraged to its fullest extent. IT staff’s work is now at the forefront of many institutional efforts to stay open, continue operating at capacity, and remaining relevant to students and staff alike. Collaboration across departments and campuses is increasing, which is putting IT leadership at the center of many mission-critical decision-making processes. As digital transformations continue to accelerate across the industry, IT roles and responsibilities will likely grow in size and importance.
Everyone in higher education knows that the industry is in the midst of changing times with fluctuating learning environments and evolving student demographics. The pandemic has pushed institutions to be more reflective and responsive by identifying opportunities for growth and success, despite challenges. As we continue to adapt and move forward, it is important to remain positive and identify constructive outcomes that will help the students, staff, and the entire industry now and in the future.
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