As colleges and universities across the United States start a new academic year, they also begin the third academic year that’s shaped by the COVID pandemic. With the potential for disruptions to learning to loom once again, courtesy of not just COVID, but other viruses and climate change as well, how well prepared are higher ed institutions to cope with the need to pivot between learning modes? This was the question that Brandon Shopp, Group Vice President, Product, at SolarWinds addressed in an article during the initial waves of the pandemic, but it’s timeless advice that is worth a fresh look.
When COVID-19 first hit and colleges and universities quickly transitioned to remote learning, we saw in real time the critical role played by IT in higher education. To ensure continuity of learning, teams must develop a learning continuity plan for the unexpected. Below are three things IT pros must consider providing school goes off without a hitch.
1. Plan for the Unpredictable
Pandemics are unpredictable. New strains of the virus and case clusters mean plans are subject to change. But COVID isn’t the only disruptor. As natural disasters and weather emergencies become commonplace, campus closures can come out of the blue.
While each institution will have its version of what a virtual or asynchronous classroom setting looks like—some may leverage the best immersive courses online learning providers offer while others use videoconferencing technology to deliver lectures. One thing is sure, higher education institutions must plan for the unforeseeable.
For example, if schools need to transition to full remote learning with little notice, students and educators will need immediate access to instructions and support to help them get started with online learning technology, document sharing, and other critical functions. Additionally, there may be late nights when teachers need to grade assignments and early mornings when students need to put the finishing touches on assignments. Can they get in touch with a technology specialist outside of business hours if they need immediate assistance?
Institutions should make resources such as chatbots, “how-to” videos and articles, and FAQs readily available to avoid interrupted learning.
2. Overcome the Digital Divide
The absence of internet at home is a problem for many students, particularly those in rural areas where one-quarter of the population lacks access to high-speed internet.
To bridge the digital divide, each institution must be creative and innovative. For instance, some schools now provide students with free Wi-Fi hotspots, so they can participate in virtual learning. Another option is to expand the school’s Wi-Fi signal to parking lots, so students can drive by and download materials. Institutions could also form partnerships with internet service providers to provide unlimited cellular data to school-issued tablets and laptops, emulating an initiative K-12 school districts adopted during the pandemic.
3. Review Cybersecurity Practices
Improved cybersecurity must be a top priority. As the network perimeter shifts beyond the four walls of the campus, cyberattacks against higher education are increasing in frequency and impact. After all, college and university systems are home to a wealth of personal data threat actors are keen to monetize.
Deploying the appropriate tools—such as endpoint protection and real-time monitoring—can help, but technology is only part of the solution. Cybersecurity is also a people problem. According to the 2020 SolarWinds Public Sector Cybersecurity Survey, careless and untrained insiders are the top threat to schools and colleges.
For this reason, higher education institutions must build their security culture and ensure students, staff, and faculty are cybersecurity aware. Knowing how to identify and report a phishing email and practicing password hygiene can make a significant difference in the security posture of any institution as it quickly shifts to asynchronous learning.
And, with the possibility of devices being loaned to students, security administrators should take advantage of automation and IT service management (ITSM) tools. These technologies simplify setting up authentication and ensuring password safety across thousands of remote access points without overburdening IT or impacting the student experience. Detecting risks like viruses, malware, and unauthorized software downloads is also more accessible by integrating these security strategies.
Higher Education’s Future is Asynchronous: IT Must Prepare
In the early weeks of the pandemic, IT administrators’ quick thinking helped directors, staff, and students leverage IT solutions and quickly transition to cyberspace learning – many for the first time. Over a year later, it’s unlikely things will return to the peaceful place where we were before.
Indeed, the pandemic has prompted educators to rethink what works best—for their students, enrollment, and the bottom line. What they’re finding is one model doesn’t fit all. For some, online learning brings opportunities; for others, it creates challenges. But one thing is sure, higher education IT pros must prepare to support a new asynchronous learning environment that is accessible, convenient, secure, and inclusive of all—regardless of what Mother Nature throws at us next.
Brandon Shopp is Group Vice President, Product, at SolarWinds and a contributor to Today’s Modern Educator.