As university leaders look forward into 2021 and strategize how to emerge from the pandemic, technology will continue to be a driving force in adapting education to better serve students’ needs and to make institutions more agile to overcome future challenges, educational technology leaders said during Educause’s online conference Wednesday.
A preview of Educause’s 2021 Top IT Issues report during the group’s online conference laid out several focus areas for institutions to zero in on as they begin to recover from the disruptions of 2020 and reinvent themselves for a post-pandemic world. The adoption of online learning, replacing outdated business models, responding to public scrutiny over the costs and value of higher education, and becoming more agile in their response to challenges will be critical to the survival of higher education and its continued relevance, education leaders said.
“I do hope that that’s one of the ultimate lessons that we look back on from the pandemic is we made things better for students who want to get a college education,” Susan Grajek, Educause’s vice president of partnerships, communities and research, told EdScoop. “And [institution leaders] believe that higher education is a public good and helps prepare people for the rest of their lives.”
Grajek said there won’t be just one strategy for how higher education institutions emerge on the other side of the pandemic, which is why this year’s issues were broken down into three categories — restore, evolve and transform — outlining three possible scenarios that can help guide pandemic recovery plans.
Institutions can follow a pathway to restore their institution by focusing on what to do to get back to where they were before the pandemic, Grajek said during a session in the online conference. This strategy is about institutional survival, she said, but added that restoring conditions to the way they were before the pandemic is not a realistic possibility in the near term because they’ll be dealing with the aftermath of the health crisis for years to come.
“I also believe that the leadership of colleges and universities understand that things have changed,” Grajek said.
But where institutions do want to see restorative efforts is in recovering their pre-pandemic financial health and ensuring that technology is implemented affordably, according to the report.
“Most colleges and universities aren’t in a situation where they can afford not to think about costs in an even more serious way than they have,” Grajek said.
Another scenario, which Educause labeled as “evolve,” is one in which institutions learn from the challenges of the pandemic and incorporate those lessons into their post-pandemic design, Grajek said.
“Students are using more technology and in more ways now,” she said, “and institutions have also ramped up their use to connect with students and provide them with university services.”
This increased technology use has given institutions access to new data that helps university leaders and faculty understand how students are engaging with their educations and helps universities better support students in their academic journey, she said.
For institutions looking to evolve how they do business and support students’ learning, a continued focus on improving the quality and accessibility of online education are top priorities, as is improving information security to protect the growing amount of data institutions must protect, according to the issues list.
“In many ways the pandemic has just accelerated the change that was already underway [in higher education],” Grajek said.
Institutions now have the opportunity to better prioritize student success through increased access to online learning, she said, and to redesign their modes of delivering education by finding a blend of in-person and online classes best suited to students’ individual needs.
As the pandemic unraveled in the United States last March, many IT strategies transformed from slow, incremental crawls to swift ongoing processes, Grajek said. And the rapid switch to online learning and increased reliance on technology elevated IT leaders to key decision makers for colleges and universities, helping to lead academic strategy and transform education, business and research, she said.
And to continue this trajectory of transformation, institutions will need to continue to change the culture around IT to ensure technology is supporting all aspects of the institution and prioritize a technology strategy that is agile and can adapt to the future needs of students, according to the issues list.
“IT is the area that sees across the entire university,” Grajek said. “The ability of the IT leader is to help synthesize and distill the needs of the institution.”
And by leveraging technology in this effort to transform education, she said, colleges and universities can ensure they remain relevant to students and are better able to support students by readily addressing their needs.