Shopping the IT closet is just one of several emerging trends higher-ed leaders will juggle as education evolves in a post-pandemic reality

3 trends shaping the higher-ed landscape in 2021

Shopping the IT closet is just one of several emerging trends higher-ed leaders will juggle as education evolves in a post-pandemic reality

2021 is already shaping up to be a definitive year for higher education. Colleges are figuring out how to bring students back to campus safely with expanded testing and outbreak contingency plans, while also reinforcing their virtual capabilities to deliver quality online classes and robust virtual support for students.

What’s more, a new White House administration and looming higher education policy change are adding more pressure for institutions to prepare themselves for what may lie ahead.

Here are three key trends that are shaping the higher education landscape in 2021:

Shopping the IT closet

Prior to the pandemic, for higher education institutions, the ratio of disparate IT solutions to core, integrated IT solutions was probably 3 to 1 due to the way institutional budgets are allocated among departments. Some institutions only take advantage of about 20 percent of the features and capabilities in all the technology they’ve purchased.

Last year saw massive budget cuts that may very well continue into this year, and most institutions no longer have the financial flexibility to continue layering on one-off applications for specific, and often limited in scope, requirements. Instead, this year we’ll see them shop their existing IT closet and look for ways to better utilize what they already have for the foreseeable future. This means that institutions be much more sophisticated in how they use their full technology stack, which will provide the benefit of giving them a much better look at what gaps still need to be filled. New budget realities mean that investments must be far more strategic and based on strong business cases. When institutions do start making technology purchases again, they’ll be much leaner and savvier in their approach, asking questions such as “does this scale?” “does it integrate with other solutions?” “can we sustain this approach?”

Crisis solutions are now permanent

Technology that explores new engagement models has shifted from being used in emergencies only to becoming part of standard operation procedure for institutions. Chatbots, video conferencing, click-to-talk, and virtual assistants, which rose in use during the pandemic, are now being recognized as the preferred engagement model for both remote students as well as students who are returning to campus. The result is a an experience that is better, more accessible and cheaper to deliver.

Realizing the benefits of digitizing their operations, institutions are now creating new processes around these technologies that are making things more efficient and convenient for staff, students, and their families. For example, a student having a problem with their financial aid package no longer needs to make a trip to the financial aid office, but can instead connect with a financial aid officer over a virtual call, where they have the ability to share screens to resolve problems faster and become more informed about the financial aid process. Leaning into these technologies is enabling more institutions to meet students and their families where they are, which ultimately drives a better student experience. In addition, these revamped processes are creating efficiencies for staff who may be working remote or are otherwise adjusting to the new normal.

Remote work creates new higher ed hiring practices

As colleges and universities shifted their entire operating models to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, many institutions saw that they can in fact support remote workers and remote work environments without loss of productivity or a decline in support for students. While many schools are aiming to safely bring more students to campus for the fall semester, the reality is that we likely won’t see a complete return to in-person learning and campus services in the near future. To that end, many schools are taking a hybrid approach and we’re seeing an on campus/work remote environment emerge in many cases.

Interestingly, this shift is causing an evolution in recruiting practices, particularly in the IT department. Institutions are finding themselves able to draw from–and afford–a wider pool of talent that doesn’t necessarily need to be drawn from the surrounding geographical area. It may even result in institutions choosing to be more innovative in their technology approach as they look for ways to attract students and enhance the student experience.

With the new year just underway, it will be interesting to see what other trends emerge in the world of higher education. While the past year has been a tumultuous one, there is an opportunity for institutions to rethink how they operate and innovate in their missions to serve students in their learning journeys.

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eSchool Media Contributors