​Universities across the world have closed their doors and opened their laptops, with Covid-19 initiating a global, no holds-barred IT transformation. What have Higher Education CIOs learnt from the experience, and what are their predictions for the future?

We hosted a digital leadership event to discuss – below are a few of the key points. A massive thank you to all attendees for their great insights.

IT front and centre

IT has never been so important to the success of a university and its students. With this comes major pressure, but also the chance to drive major transformational programmes forward at a pace previously unimaginable.

Driving the tech IQ of staff up has been a key priority, with staff training being executed at scale and service desks becoming conduits of digital literacy. The adoption of digital across the faculty will be a major asset to technology teams in the future: as one attendee observed “for us, life will never be the same after this, but in a positive way – because the teachers who had said they weren’t comfortable with the technology are now using it everyday.”

Hardware, software and security

A key priority has been the availability of enough hardware to ensure that every student has the adequate tools to carry out their course at home. Some IT leaders have had to courier laptops to student’s houses, leading to renewed conversations about the value of moving to a full VDI environment.

Analytics has played a crucial role in identifying where there is a lack of access to hardware by giving IT teams insight into who isn’t able to log on. Indeed, online learning has opened up new possibilities around monitoring student participation and which resources they engage with, which can be mined as a source of actionable data. Such is this new capacity for insight that one attendee observed “in some ways know students a lot better than we did before.”

Leaders have also had to make rapid decisions about the right tools and software to execute digital learning, with the key players being Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Hangouts and Blackboard Collaborate. However, particularly in larger organisations which have several campuses globally, it’s sometimes been a challenge to enforce the use of a single “official” programme through which to communicate, with individuals reverting to their preferred programme, problematizing security. IT Leaders have had to stand firm in their choices, drawing up guidelines for digital ways of working to maintain control.

Learning quality and analytics

Having sorted the hardware and software, learning online is still an inherently different experience to in-person teaching. What observations have CIOs taken from the online classroom?

Undoubtedly, the process is ongoing, and there have been challenges in forming a digital product of the same quality of the online curriculum. As one leader observed: “You don’t suddenly become an online university. Other universities have been doing well in this space for some time – to suddenly pick it up is hard.”

However, the experience has opened up universities to new ways of working. Leaders are trailing different ways to use software to maximise engagement: one attendee mentioned forming “communities of interest” on Microsoft Teams – online clubs which encourage participants to work together.

Moreover, certain students seem to be warming to the learning style: sessions are shorter, not always synchronous, and with the capacity for interactions to feel less immediate, some students are more comfortable engaging with online discussion than they were in a classroom.

What does the future look like?

So, what might the future of higher education look like? Of course, number one concern is funding – with doubt about whether all foreign students will want to return to university, institutions are potentially facing significant losses. Options for resuming university could include a combination of online learning and socially distanced in-person lessons where absolutely necessary, (for example, engineering labs.) Many leaders have plans in place for a range of scenarios whilst there is not more certainty about the relaxation of restrictions.

What is certain is that Higher Education CIOs have pulled off a phenomenal feat over the past few months in converting large organisations to a completely distributed model at lightning speed. Certainly, the learnings from this experience will enhance the quality of digital education they’re able to provide, improving their capacity to deliver higher quality education to remote students, including those who have attendance problems or who are ill. As one attendee cited ‘we have transformed into a flexible learning organisation – and incredibly quickly at that. It’s been a unique opportunity for these kind of changes.’