Six takeaways on tech innovation during the pandemic

Trends & challenges in higher education

An estimated 56 percent of higher education leaders said that the strategic influence of IT increased greatly during the pandemic. In addition to ramping up their capacity for online teaching and learning, institutions relied on digital solutions to facilitate remote operations, sustain research, deliver student services, and meet goals for admissions, enrollment, and fundraising. Leaders had to meet the needs of various stakeholders while operating under tightened budgets and an unpredictable future.

The solutions developed didn’t just facilitate an emergency switch to remote instruction. New modalities of teaching and learning have changed the future of higher education, and that transformation shows no sign of slowing down.

At Ellucian, we are completely focused on using technology to support higher education success and proudly partnered with The Chronicle of Higher Education to sponsor a survey of more than 600 senior administrators from colleges and universities. This report explores how technology has equipped institutions to meet the challenges of the pandemic while also paving the way for future innovation.

Below are six key takeaways from The Chronicle of Higher Education Report about the strategic technology decisions made during the pandemic and their impact on the future of higher education.

1.    HyFlex could be the way of the future

Students aren’t willing to let go of the flexibility that came with online learning. In-person experiences are still a critical part of higher education, but many predict a new “HyFlex” model—learning in the classroom, online, or both—will become the new traditional way of learning.

As students expect more individual choice in their education, institutions with the infrastructure and willingness to offer a wider range of learning experiences will find a competitive edge. “I anticipate that the number of instructional modalities we’ll be discussing will be much, much larger than it was the last time we looked at a contract,” says Mary Ann Rafoth, provost of Robert Morris University.

Whether or not the HyFlex model becomes the norm remains to be seen, but its staying power will be bolstered by the new revenue streams it creates, particularly regarding those students who may not have otherwise enrolled in exclusively in-person programs.

2.    The CIO has a bigger seat at the table

The CIO has always had an important voice in technology discussions, but as a greater portion of higher education processes go digital, CIOs are playing exponentially larger roles in keeping institutions competitive. This is not only true in terms of operational needs—as would be expected throughout the pandemic—but also regarding institutional strategy. In a 2020 survey of senior IT leadership conducted by Educause, over half of respondents noted an expansion in how IT informed key business decisions and shaped academic directions.

“We are seen as the ‘connective tissue’ of the institution, a key partner in making the pivot to remote teaching, learning, and administration,” said one survey respondent of their role in information technology. Just as the digital transformation hasn’t slowed down, the strategic influence of IT is likely to continue growing in the future, positioning CIOs as true thought partners for presidents and other institutional leaders.

3.    Collaboration among campus leaders is key

According to more than half of respondents to The Chronicle’s survey, when institution-wide decisions were needed during the pandemic, more faculty members, administrators, and other stakeholders were brought into the conversation than had previously been the norm. With varied opinions and needs being expressed beneath one clear objective, challenges were circumvented earlier, leading to quicker wins overall.

Results from the survey suggest that while decision-making may have become more democratic, it has not always been streamlined. Institutions that strike a balance between effectiveness and efficiency will be best equipped to navigate the landscape of higher education as it continues to evolve.

4.    The integration of technology is key to campus operations

When the pandemic hit, business-as-usual wasn’t an option. It took a dramatic shift from the traditional way of doing things as institutions leaned on technology to support students in the new normal. Moving forward, the benefits that the cloud, automation, and artificial intelligence bring have been proven and can be implemented on a wider scale.

Success does not depend on technology alone, but also on the people and processes putting it to use. When asked about challenges for technology investments, 56 percent of respondents identified “faculty reluctance,” while nearly half were concerned about training the campus community to use new learning tools.

Furthermore, while many students demonstrated comfort in remote learning, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. “When we had to suddenly move everything online, it brought into very sharp focus the divide between the haves and the have-nots in terms of what [technology] students had at home, and how much harder online learning is for low-income students,” one respondent says. This “digital divide” will persist until institutions make concentrated efforts to close it by ensuring all students have the tools they need to learn online.

5.    The time for cloud is now

The cloud has been a key part of the massive digital transformation being experienced by higher education, as supported by 96 percent of responding leaders citing cloud-computing services as “somewhat valuable” or “very valuable” during the pandemic. Institutions saw firsthand how the cloud improves student outcomes, increases security, enhances operational efficiency, and enables business continuity.

“Leaders know that they have to simplify technology management. They know that they need to invest and reinvest,” says Susan Grajek of Educause. “Cloud moves a lot of that effort and expertise offline. It helps to simplify technology management.” The cloud gives you the agility and space to innovate. When products work in the cloud, your institution can make better decisions and your IT staff can focus on the most critical priorities.

6.    Budget constraints are the top concern when it comes to implementing technology

As digital solutions continue to advance rapidly, institutional access to them may struggle to keep pace, as evidenced by 75 percent of respondents citing budget constraints as a significant barrier to adopting academic technologies.

While the pandemic stretched higher education institutions and forced them to make quick decisions about technology, it also showed them what they could be doing better. It proved that students can learn effectively online, processes can be improved to save time for staff, and more can be done with data.

While budget will always be a barrier, the cost of not innovating and adopting technology will soon overcome it, which is why competitive institutions will continue investing in future solutions.

Conclusion

We are headed toward a “new traditional” that will mean future investments in the critical strategic role of technology. Reflecting on that potential, John O’Brien, the president of Educause, noted that “technology can no longer be seen as a utility working quietly in the background. Now more than ever, technology is a strategic asset that is vital to the success of every higher-education institution.”

How those tools will be utilized is a question for each institution to answer. This is particularly true when addressing ongoing challenges in higher education such as improving affordability and accessibility, serving diverse student populations, and establishing new academic programs in line with a choice-driven market.

Meeting these challenges will require not only executing solutions on an operational level, but embracing technology as a core pillar for strategy and big-picture decision-making. Institutions must meet constituents where they are to improve the student experience at every stage and in every learning environment. They need to move away from manual practices and streamline processes, implement machine learning, and increase the use of data and analytics to make smarter decisions.

The results of the survey show that despite the challenges of the pandemic, institutions are committed to student success. They understand the importance of exploring new processes, embracing technology, and maintaining a clear focus. The world has changed—so has higher education.

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