The past year has put the higher education industry to the test. The onset and continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic has required a massive operational shift that many institutions were not prepared for, and schools have had to pivot quickly to make sure that systems and staff alike are as well-prepared as possible to exist in a now predominantly virtual environment.

Perhaps the biggest lesson we’ve learned so far is that higher education institutions must increase their resiliency and agility in order to meet evolving staff and student needs.

Move to the cloud

With the school year well underway, we’re clearly seeing that some institutions were better prepared than others to handle a crisis on the scale of COVID-19. Those already operating on a modern cloud platform have exhibited a much greater degree of institutional agility and have had a much easier time transitioning to virtual operations.

These schools found themselves better able to address challenges such as managing large-scale communications with students around adjusted admissions and enrollment processes and deadlines, as well as collaborating across departments. For example, instead of updating its operational systems every 10 years, Boise State University is able to update on a quarterly basis, making the systems far more agile in an ever-changing landscape. This shift also enabled the university to more easily manage its systems remotely, which is obviously a huge advantage.

On the other hand, those on legacy systems faced difficult headwinds to put the necessary infrastructure in place to manage essential functions online. These legacy systems lacked architectural flexibility to support new service delivery models and easily accessible and accurate data to support student needs. Many institutions also found it challenging to transition their employees to remote work as they were dependent on on-premise back-office environments.

Technology has played a huge role in not only enabling these industry leaders to keep up with the operational changes necessitated by the pandemic, but to reimagine how they want to operate for the future in order to better serve students.

Build a flexible infrastructure

The road ahead for higher education is uncertain, but we do know that traveling it successfully will require a bold, new vision for the future and exceptional execution attuned to current realities. How can institutions build the bridge between innovating for tomorrow and budgeting for today? A key trend that is emerging is the ability to find internal cost savings and operational efficiencies. These savings can be reinvested into developing innovative programs and futureproofing infrastructure, as well as creating more cross-collaboration between departments to drive seamless functionality across the entire organization.

Northern Illinois University migrated to the cloud in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. The move helped the university streamline its IT operations, freeing up a large amount of on-premises resources and simplifying processes such as maintenance and patching.

How higher ed is learning to become more resilient

Devoting resources to staff development is another important component. Schools that will thrive–not just survive–post pandemic will automate routine processes where possible, such as around admissions and financial aid, to save time and enable staff to focus on more critical tasks and student engagement. University staff are suddenly finding themselves having to acclimate to new processes, roles, and functions, and it’s crucial that the institution invests carefully in that development in order to ensure successful outcomes.

Modernize the approach to student engagement

By implementing the right multi-year strategy, higher education institutions can efficiently transition to new cloud solutions that can dramatically improve the overall student experience and optimize internal operations. Student expectations are evolving, and universities must meet students where they are. Many institutions are increasing support of device-agnostic service delivery, communication strategies that leverage social channels, hybrid, and hyflex learning–and cloud solutions can help institutions move faster and more effectively with these initiatives.

Emerging technologies such as AI and machine learning are further being used to modernize the campus, whether it be virtual or in-person. Some institutions are utilizing chatbots to better manage would-be calls to help desks and enrollment offices. Not only does this solution ease pressure on these departments, it has also helped boost online enrollment and student engagement. Loyola University Chicago, for example, built and deployed chatbots for students and advisors. The results have been exceptional. The pilot chatbot was able to successfully answer 86 percent of questions, compared to a success rate of 74 percent by first-call human interaction. In addition, the chatbot was available 24×7, responded in a matter of seconds, and was able to process in multiple languages. When users were asked to comment on their experience, 91 percent provided positive feedback.

While the months ahead for higher education are likely to be difficult ones, the heroic actions of faculty, administrators, staff, and students at institutions around the globe over the last year suggest that the post COVID-19 era in this industry will bring tremendous innovation and transformation. A modern, cloud infrastructure and application landscape will be an important part of institutions marshaling the necessary agility and resiliency to bring it to life.

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About the Author:

Nicole Engelbert is the Vice President of Higher Education Development at Oracle.