Not in the Future—Now

Special Message: COVID-19

min read

EDUCAUSE President and CEO John O'Brien talks about the remarkable work undertaken by the higher education technology community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Credit: Olivier Le Moal / © 2020

An earlier, condensed version of this column appeared as "More Than a Lifeline," Inside Higher Ed, May 5, 2020.

Over the course of days and weeks, higher education institutions around the world have moved with unparalleled speed and agility to serve students and work together in the shadow of a global pandemic. It's an open question whether the crisis cascading throughout higher education will persist until, or even through, the fall. In fact, this uncertainty and the intense difficulties ahead may be the only thing everyone agrees on completely. As one exasperated colleague told me a few days ago, "My problems have problems."

In spite of the problems, when one steps back from the day-to-day effort, the move to remote teaching and learning, research, and services was and continues to be a remarkable accomplishment. What the leap to "remote everything" lacks in elegance it more than makes up in scale. Even though doing so feels like trying to be heard during a windstorm, I want to acknowledge and thank the technology staff from colleges and universities who have redefined "above and beyond." These professionals from academic technology, information technology, instructional design, libraries, and elsewhere on campus are literally doing whatever it takes to get their institutions through this crisis. Their tireless work reminds us 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.

During one weekend in March, I invited community members to share their personal impressions, and the response was inspiring. Several respondents shared long lists of work that was somehow completed in days—more than enough work for an aggressive three- to five-year campus strategic technology plan. As EDUCAUSE Board Chair and Rutgers University CIO Michele Norin said: "This is a truly unprecedented period in the history of higher education, and campus technology staff have played a pivotal role in making the initial transition successful. The timing was impossible, but staff have handled the unreasonable demands with grace and determination." Jennifer Sparrow, Penn State associate vice president for teaching and learning with technology and EDUCAUSE board member, outlined the significant work that academic technology staff completed for the "lift and shift" to remote teaching and learning, including offering instructional design open office hours, creating training resources, and addressing emerging challenges with hardware and Wi-Fi access. She noted that creative thinking was the key to success: "The team responded to the challenge, listened to the needs of faculty and students, and pivoted, adapted, and changed what they did to meet the need."

"Non-stop" work was mentioned repeatedly, and I do not think that phrase was meant to be a rhetorical flourish. One representative expression of gratitude came from Paige Francis, vice president for information technology and chief information officer at the University of Tulsa, who spoke passionately about moving all classes to remote delivery with "less than ten hours' notice." Along with the hard work of the technology teams involved, faculty and professionals from all corners have come together, working far outside of their comfort zones in many instances. Francis, along with others, went out of her way to acknowledge the vital role of some key vendor partners, who responded quickly to unreasonable timelines without upselling. She insisted: "It's a crazy time. A scary time. And we are the better for all of the folks we surround ourselves with. I AM THANKFUL." Many EDUCAUSE community members pointed out colleagues who had canceled vacations, paused work on doctoral programs, and made any number of personal sacrifices to do whatever it took while the clocks were ticking down to "go."

Sharon Pitt, vice president for information technologies at the University of Delaware, stressed that there were simply too many colleagues to thank, so she painted with a bigger brush, pointing out the vast amount of work completed during the anxiety and fear that came with the rising number of infections among students and employees. Marty Ringle, chief information officer at Reed College, praised technology staff enthusiastically and added: "They have demonstrated a level of commitment to the well-being of the community matched only by their creativity in solving one intractable problem after another. There should be a Nobel Prize for what they are accomplishing!"

As campus technology professionals worked to exhaustion to sustain academic continuity at their institutions, a broad range of stress fractures quickly appeared. In fact, like clockwork, almost every few days a new problem would make itself known. There have been challenges with lab courses, test proctoring, commencement, privacy concerns, and the distressing digital divides that leave some of our most vulnerable students struggling with limited or no broadband access and/or without appropriate devices to engage in learning. As Ringle noted, at every turn technology leaders and professionals have sought and found creative solutions.

In the case of student access, a recent EDUCAUSE QuickPoll found that 36% of students have found it moderately or extremely difficult to access bandwidth/Wi-Fi, a number comparable to the proportion of students (37%) who have found it moderately/extremely difficult to access health services. Campuses have responded quickly and creatively, with 81% offering loans of devices and options for free or very-low-cost services. Half are loaning Wi-Fi hotspots to students, and 40% are helping students purchase equipment, including mailing the equipment to them. Many campuses are expanding campus Wi-Fi nodes or moving Wi-Fi hotspots to parking lots for students who need to connect from there because they don't have the necessary connectivity from home. In short, beyond the initial weeks of the crisis, "whatever it takes" continues to be the mantra on campuses, energized by creativity and realized by hard work.

Technology professionals will be the first to acknowledge that the great lift was made possible by many hands working together across campus. But more hands are required. Globally, help in the form of government support is badly needed, in particular for the massive technology investments that have been so quickly made. While $14 billion in federal funding has been made available to colleges and universities in the United States, that is only a fraction of the roughly $50 billion requested by the higher education community to address the effects of the pandemic. Those resource needs have grown only more pressing as clouds continue to gather on the horizon when it comes to revenue projections, enrollments, state support, and any number of other areas. Many institutions will not see a path to financial sustainability without a dramatic shift in external support. The higher education sector stands ready to do all it can to help sustain student success and support the nation's economic recovery. To make that possible, the federal government must provide additional funding as well as tax and regulatory relief now. It must maintain that funding and relief over the next several months. And it must help institutions assist their students in acquiring and maintaining the online access necessary to ensure they can continue learning and working toward earning their degrees.

Meanwhile, our work continues. Campus technology staff and leaders have been "doing the right thing" while reserving grand expressions of gratitude for the amazing health-care professionals who are putting themselves at personal risk during this health crisis. Rightly so. But given the long history of technologists who work quietly in the background, maybe it is time for that silence to change.

Our world will be seen in a new light when this crisis fades and our collective heart rate slows. At EDUCAUSE, we are confident that digital transformation (Dx) will be seen differently post-pandemic. Higher education institutions that were already well along on their Dx journey likely found themselves better prepared to adapt to the pandemic. Dx can no longer be considered an aspirational concept. It must be understood as an imperative. And that well-worn, precious notion of campus technology professionals doing work that is noticed only when there is an outage? This too is a thing of the past.

I have never been more impressed by a community-in-action. Let's join in a loud celebration of outstanding higher education technology professionals. They deserve it. Now.

And let's also dedicate ourselves to the more nuanced but critical message that technology is not a utility. It is a strategic asset, a differentiating value, and a path to achieving institutional goals and stability. It is not just a lifeline that got us through a tricky situation. It is and must increasingly be understood as an integral, strategic part of the successful college or university. Not in the future. Now.

John O'Brien's signature

John O'Brien is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE.

EDUCAUSE Review 55, no. 2 (2020)

© 2020 John O'Brien. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.