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October 6, 2020

COVID-19: Opportunity to Invest in Your Future

Distance education must and will improve to become more immersive and engaging for faculty and students alike; C-suite executives should not allow any pushback against last spring’s COVID-induced “emergency remote teaching” to stall this strategic imperative.

Software companies will continue to focus on delivering innovative solutions intended to make the student experience more engaging, which in turn will improve education delivery and outcomes. However, for many institutions whose financial model is built on a scarcity, location-based template, the answer is to diversify, but this is extremely difficult to implement. Institutions must look to technology as “the” enabler to reach more students for less cost.  Where constructing new buildings has been the “unit of evolution” for the last several centuries, institutions today must instead construct new digital solutions that unify the faculty and student experience and optimize institutional support and operations.

The required investment should take the form of improving the digital infrastructure, process, and reach. Most institutions’ information technology (IT) departments have done heroic work during COVID, but this is not sustainable. Maintaining spending on physical experiences, like pouring investment into classroom infrastructure and campus bandwidth, fails to address the fundamental need of supporting faculty to be effective teachers and researchers in this brave new world.

More investment must be made, and it needs to come in a form that engenders real change and transformation for the institutions.  It’s pretty simple to move an accounting class on-line, but institutions also need to wrestle with understanding the pedagogical needs for studio learning in the arts, for clinical instruction in the health sciences, for laboratory-based experiential learning in the physical sciences and engineering, etc.

And, when students are distant in space or time, there is a whole new requirement for remote delivery of student support services ranging from academic advising to financial aid counseling, to research support from the instructional librarians, to student health and wellness initiatives.  There are reasons this is called “transformation.”

Information technology transformation is happening all the time in an institution — from an ERP deployment to systems maintenance upgrades to — and all provide an opportunity to move beyond treating it as merely a technical exercise. These “projects” provide an opportunity to advance how your organization makes decisions, establishes priorities, and offers up more transparency and control to those outside of the IT department.  The increased involvement of IT in larger campus projects and initiatives represents another step towards transformation.

Key Takeaway: There is no time to waste. Why? Market forces are driving disruptive change in the higher education industry. COVID has taught us that location is becoming less important to accomplishing one’s job, and this includes the creation, delivery, and experience of many forms of higher education.  Nothing short of transformation will position institutions for success in this new and still rapidly changing environment.

Call to Action: Expand your reach to include more students while lowering your costs; determine how you can enable more students to access your amazing faculty while reducing administrative overhead for your staff. 

Digital Transformation (Dx) is the complete understanding and commitment by an institution to leverage technology-related investments to improve all facets of your institution. Dx must seamlessly consider, plan and implement related changes in one’s:

  • Organization (how you make decisions and communicate them);
  • Operations (how you implement and support these priorities); and
  • Culture (whether your culture prioritizes conformity or effectiveness).

Here are some recommended actions you should consider taking immediately:

  • Boards, Presidents, Vice-Chancellors, and Provosts must own and drive this change; you cannot delegate — institutional viability could be at stake.
  • Establish necessary organizational changes to implement executive ownership of your digital strategy; for example, promote IT leadership to President’s council, and establish or assign an enterprise-wide executive to own all technology priorities and investments (i.e., Chief Digital Officer).
  • Implement a 12-18-month enterprise-wide digital transformation plan, driven by your strategy to renew the importance of a quality learning experience for students, intentionally well-supported pedagogical environment for faculty, and effective delivery of student support services.
  • Evaluate/audit your entire technology ecosystem to (a) identify your technical debt, (b) prioritize systems and/or technical debt to refresh/retire, and (c) identify investment areas that will enhance your student satisfaction, financial performance, and operational efficiency.
  • Determine and review your IT/technology budget. If it falls below 5% of your overall budget, seriously consider increasing this to 10%-15%, at least during this period of fresh strategic investment. For many institutions, this will require tapping into your reserves/endowments, but just as you justified this for the development of new buildings in the past, you should be able to justify this investment in your digital future.

There is no time like the present to plan for a future that leverages your rich history and traditions but also positions you for success in a rapidly changing market. Your institution, faculty, and learners all have something important to gain. Digital technology is just the enablement of human to human engagement, which is the foundation of teaching and learning.

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