It’s a safe bet that colleges and universities didn’t have “crippling global health pandemic” in their 2019-2020 school year strategy plan. That said, disruptions to on-campus learning are not unprecedented, which is why many institutions were able to stand up the IT infrastructure required to support some level of virtual teaching and learning.
However, there is a difference between standing up a framework for emergency virtual learning in response to a crisis and developing a long-term strategy with the necessary support infrastructure. The challenge institutions face in preparing for the 2020-2021 school year isn’t just about the quality of learning. In some cases, it’s the financial viability of the institution itself. With so many unknowns, it’s difficult to know what to plan for.
Dr. Joshua Kim, director of Online Programs and Strategy at Dartmouth College, and Edward Maloney, professor of English at Georgetown University, scoped out 15 potential scenarios for the fall semester – ranging from back-to-normal, starting the semester late, or a HyFlex teaching model, which is built around a flexible course structure that offers students the option to attend classes in person, online, or both.
It is critical for educators to use their experiences from this past spring semester to guide strategy and planning for the 2020-2021 school year, ensuring the right IT infrastructure is in place to support as many outcomes as possible.
Absorb insights from the spring semester
At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the crash course in virtual learning was informative in identifying strengths and weaknesses specific to each program. Virtual learning adoption rates varied considerably from school to school and some professors had difficulties converting their lesson plans and instructional material to a virtual environment.
Each learning environment is different, and recreating lab and research environments virtually is difficult and requires unique software and applications. Extensive planning, collaboration, and prioritization specific to course outcomes should be done in order to design the best learning platforms going forward.
Students scattered across the country – or even the world – will expect continuity of virtual learning if they are required to pay full or near-full tuition, so it’s important to account for variations in access to reliable bandwidth. This requires an evaluation of network infrastructure in and around campus.
Universities also face considerable enrollment uncertainty due to the switch to virtual learning, making it difficult to gauge how much learning systems will need to scale.
Ready your IT infrastructure
The complex landscape of scenarios demands that institutions analyze their IT infrastructure to identify performance or capacity constraints, as well as the most-critical applications their specific institution needs to scale up or down as needed.
Ultimately, a rapid switch to the cloud will mean different things for different education organizations depending on where they sit in their cloud journey. Although some universities have already moved to the cloud, there are new virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) applications that enable IT departments to quickly expand the service without additional on-premises infrastructure costs.
When transitioning your organization to the cloud for the first time, there are a few things to consider. Flexibility and agility are critical, no matter if the infrastructure in on premises, off-premises or in a hybrid cloud model. An architecture that is able to quickly scale compute and store resources is critical in times of uncertainty. The good news is that cloud universities no longer need to be locked into long-term financial commitments requiring payment for the extra storage capacity even if they’re not using it – they can pay based on what they require at that exact moment.
This is an ideal approach for the upcoming fall term. Universities can ramp up their storage needs seamlessly based on the number of classes offered online and pay for the increased usage accordingly. This way they are prepared for any scenario they may face as they look to equip their students for the future.
Universities must be mindful of security protocols around their online learning platforms as well. If solely focusing on e-learning capabilities, their systems are left vulnerable for adversaries to exploit. Failing to incorporate the proper security measures will unravel all the hard work put into creating a robust digital infrastructure, opening them up to potential threats and lawsuits.
Shifting from survival
In a 2020 SurveyMonkey survey of college students, 86 percent found the coronavirus-driven transition to distance learning disruptive, with only 37 percent prepared to shift to an online learning environment. While colleges worked to operate in survival mode for the Spring semester, the data suggests there must be a focus on strategies to help students thrive in the coming semesters.
Schools should take this opportunity to learn more about how long an individual can stay focused in an online learning setting. Rapid adoption of new technology infrastructure could set the stage for a shift to students studying and learning at their own pace or schedule rather than a set curriculum.
Digital transformation in higher education was underway well before the pandemic struck. COVID-19 has accelerated timelines, which can lead to better learning outcomes for students. What is most important is that universities prepare for a variety of outcomes by optimizing their IT infrastructure to provide a more engaging learning experience in a more rewarding environment for all stakeholders.
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