In reflecting on an early pandemic assessment of unexpected opportunities, how have higher education institutions' silver linings fared over the past year?
A year ago, I wrote a piece for EDUCAUSE Review titled "Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste," in which I collected reflections from across higher education on the opportunities that had been uncovered by the pandemic. Back then, I looked ahead "with a mixture of hope, realism, and creativity," trying to imagine the impacts of the pandemic that might help higher education evolve into a better version of itself. I wanted the "overwhelming institutional inertia" to be bound up in the momentum of forward progress instead of being a crippling stasis; I hoped there would be a path ahead that was distinct and far superior to a path that prioritized a return to past times.Footnote1
I'd like to take this opportunity to reflect on what I think I got right, and I'd like to call out where I've seen the shifting sands of the last year expose issues that we weren't aware of in the fall of 2020. I believe the broad themes of my previous article are still relevant; however, an additional pandemic year has added nuance, depth, and complexity to each opportunity I had initially mentioned. Which of those silver linings still shines bright and which has tarnished? What new opportunities have come about during this past year that we hadn't anticipated?
Before jumping in, I'd like to note that others have also taken stock of their own silver linings. The frequency with which those in the education sector are reflecting nowadays is indicative of a continued yearning for a better future state throughout education.Footnote2
A year ago, I wrote that "my greatest hope is that the empathy instructors are showing to students during the pandemic will not fade once in-person education resumes." At the time, instructors were "gaining a window into students' lives in a way they never had before." Educators were being welcomed into students' homes (and cars) while students were frequently on the receiving end of a muted lecturer or a dropped connection.Footnote3 Additionally, the stories I heard of go-with-the-flow students who made the best of awkward situations helped me feel as though maybe teaching and learning weren't going as badly as people said they were.
But a year and a half of speaking into the void, missing out on students' facial expressions to gauge understanding, and not knowing whether a student is even present on the other end of a muted camera-less Zoom call has been exhausting for educators. I experienced this exhaustion recently when I was invited as a guest speaker for a high school summer program, and that was just for an hour! Continuing to have empathy during this time of less-than-ideal conditions has been draining, and I believe the struggle has taken a toll on many higher education professionals. That toll continues to be extracted from educators who are being asked to return to the classroom under conditions they deem unsafe and unhealthy. Although there's no monolithic "educator experience," I think it's safe to say that the emotional burden being shouldered by educators this past year and a half was not something anyone had prepared for or been trained to deal with.
Perhaps a new and unexpected silver lining of the pandemic will be the recognition of and support for educators' mental health. Institutions have made mental health services more easily accessible to students, and I wonder whether these support mechanisms will be extended to instructors as well. As institutions outgrow their pandemic versions, I hope a dedication to the mental health of those charged with the cognitive development of students persists.
Closing the Digital Divide
Early in the pandemic, it seemed like access to a device and stable connectivity would be the crux of the solution to facilitate remote learning. To fill the gaps for students who were missing one or both, numerous companies stepped up to provide devices and free connectivity (for a time). But as it turns out, closing the digital divide is more difficult and more complicated than any one institution could manage alone, much less under the pretense that it can be resolved with a computer and internet access. Yes, those things are a part of the solution, but they are not all of it.
At Dell, we've evolved our own language to describe the digital divide. We've recognized the broader impacts of the systems that led to the divide in the first place. To that end, we've pursued a strategy of digital inclusion built upon the pillars of (yes) devices and connectivity that also includes digital literacy for students, educators, and caregivers, as well as professional development for educators. By recognizing and including each of these stakeholders, we believe that truly being "digitally included" will have ramifications for students' ability to participate fully and thrive in the workforce of the future and all that comes with it.Footnote4
Inclusion also implies a community-based approach to solving the problem of digital equity, and unsurprisingly, community colleges are often modeling how to build opportunities for students to leverage scholarships and grants to purchase devices. While discussions continue about whether to treat broadband as an official public utility, some state and local governments are stepping in and collaborating with school districts and higher education institutions. In the short term, these cross-vertical efforts have the potential to fill connectivity gaps, although perhaps only in an ad hoc way. Will rural students and underserved urban students ever benefit from ubiquitous access to information?
Adopting On-Demand, On-the-Go Learning
One of the promising early indicators for the arrival of on-demand learning was that educators were forced to adapt their teaching for students with various learning needs, styles, and constraints because of the unique circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The hope was that those circumstances would lead to accepted norms for flipping classrooms, recording lectures, increasing time for project-based group work, and embedding personalized competency-based learning. But from our current moment in time—which is still mid-pandemic—it's difficult to know whether these norms will survive the follow-through of a full return to in-person learning.
What I can say is that institutions that are investing in the decentralization of their learning spaces—whether through videoconferencing and lecture capture technologies, streamlined classroom management systems, updated learning management systems, or diversified modality options during course registration—are future-proofing themselves for a world where the look and feel of an academic semester are not yet known. Gone are the days of predictable, repeatable semesters—and that may be a good thing. By diversifying the choices available to students, higher education will be better positioned to adapt and flex based on ever-evolving students and their needs.
But the paradox of choice may have a darker side with which institutions will still need to grapple. How will students have a consistent or comparable learning experience when they have a choice to learn anywhere on the spectrum, from in-person to hybrid/HyFlex to remote/virtual? How will students who have been absent from higher education know the best path to take when attempting to un-strand their credits? Will students learn proper time management when any waking moment could be consumed by an asynchronous lecture or an ever-more-time-invested project? Content overload and choice paralysis are the roadblocks on the way to realizing on-demand learning.
For what it's worth, choice paralysis seems to be a sign of the times. Even Netflix—a service I use frequently—has introduced a "Play Something" feature to circumvent users' endless scrolling. I wonder if higher education could ever have a "Learn Something" button for the on-the-go learner.
Institutions seem to have assuaged their fears of non-compliance and accreditation bugaboos resulting from unrigorous assessments over the last year. I can't say whether the move away from proctoring solutions has been the result of iterated assessment strategies, relaxed assessment regulations, or the recognition that those tools are problematic, but it may be safe to say that the solution to new forms of assessment won't—and shouldn't yet—have a Big Brother technological bent.
With the return to the classroom this fall, I wonder how many instructors will revert to traditional assessment models and how many will build upon what they've learned over the last year and a half. I hope educators will continue to offer students a variety of ways to demonstrate their understanding, an opportunity for knowledge refinement and improvement, and an environment in which an exam is only one technique for tracking proficiency. Time will tell on this one.
Going Digital for Sustainability
Over the last year and a half, the printers, copiers, and (still) fax machines housed in higher education classrooms and offices have largely lain dormant. As I observed a year ago, the "inadvertent shift to more-sustainable processes has been one of the most-common "unanticipated benefits" of the pandemic."Footnote5 And yet, with the return to in-person work and learning, many of these machines seem to have sprung back to life. Most are in need of only moderate maintenance to continue consuming reams of paper and stacks of toner, and yet institutions managed to get by for so long by sharing a screen in Zoom or working collaboratively on a shared document; students survived without printing out that article for class or submitting a hard-copy version of their paper. So why revert to paper-based modes of sharing information in an in-person world?
For me, the reams of paper represent two separate issues. The first is the consumption of paper as part of overall business processes. As back offices continue to work remotely—maybe permanently—I don't foresee a de-digitization (un-digitization?) of the workflows and processes that have taken hold during the pandemic. It is in no one's best interest to break the asynchronous alerts and automations that have been put in place to expedite the flow of important data through an institution's systems. The increased efficiencies afforded by these pandemic changes have meant that humans can spend more time doing things only humans can do, while technology will still be employed to do the messy bits.
The second issue, however, is related to our cultural expectations of an in-person world, which have, unfortunately, not budged while we've been remote. That's a topic for a completely different reflection, but my hope is that decision-makers will continue to push back on the perceived need for the materials and devices that have been shown to no longer be a necessary part of office, library, or computer lab functions. Although the secondary impact of reducing or eliminating our use of materials and devices is a great win for sustainability, the primary impact will be to continue to enable the fluidity and adaptability of a hybrid-functioning world.
Expanding the Institution's Customer Base
A year ago, I considered how the proliferation of remote learning might trigger institutions to grow their curated online programs. At the time, it didn't seem too great a mental leap to think that the recognition of the value of remote learning would easily translate to online, asynchronous programs, which could, in turn, help schools grow their shrinking student populations. But that hasn't happened yet, at least not as widely as I imagined it would, largely because the continued decline of the higher education student population was exacerbated by the pandemic. So how will higher education stop the bleeding?
In perhaps a harbinger of what's to come, higher education institutions are looking to industries for support, and industrial partners are responding favorably to "Partnership-with-a-capital-P" discussions. New training programs are providing opportunities for underserved students to join the industry-aligned workforce of the future, and developments in business-sponsored education programs seem promising even if it's still too early to tell what the ultimate impact of those programs will be.Footnote6 Although cooperation between higher education and industry has long been fruitful, the collaboration models are evolving. I mentioned previously that there's "a tremendous potential for higher education to morph into something new," and industry-academic partnerships may be one way institutions can drive revenue, sustain enrollment numbers, and elevate the brands of both the institution and the industry partner.Footnote7 Although numerous questions remain unanswered (e.g., Will all majors survive? Do students have a pipeline into the workforce? Why bother with broad undergraduate requirements?), as someone who sits on the other side of the academic-industry table, I hope knowing that there's a connection to post-graduate employment will inspire more prospective students to pursue higher education. The skills that students learn in these programs must undoubtedly make them more employable regardless of the sector or industry.
Normalizing Remote IT Work and the Evolution of IT Teams
Last year, the writing was on the wall for IT teams. Despite a pre-pandemic reluctance for remote work, now that WFH has become the norm it may now be too difficult to rescind that option for many. The teams I've spoken with are now faster and more agile, and they are more appreciated by campus leaders because of their work during the last year and a half. But many of those same teams are also smaller. They have lost experienced teammates to better-paying industries (or retirement), are woefully underfunded, or are burning out from an unsustainable number of back-to-back meetings. As IT teams are asked to do more with less, I wonder whether the productivity gains they've seen while working from home have been a result of new ways of working and whether the seat at the table earned by many IT leaders during the pandemic will remain once there's a return to "normal."
A key consequence of remote IT work will be that institutions must now also consider whether a reallocation and redesign of former IT workspaces is in order. Aside from retaining workspaces for IT teams who interact directly with students, faculty, and staff, these spaces could be converted to hoteling arrangements, collaborative pods, or even first-come, first-served desks. Staff concerns regarding these scenarios may not be what you think. Staff members at one institution recently shared with me that their biggest issue with sharing spaces is, well, their seat at the table. Yes, the success of shared spaces may (literally) rest on the chairs upon which staff will sit.
A second key consequence of IT teams working remotely, and remote work in general, has been a renewed (or continued) focus on cybersecurity. Remote work has forced institutions to review their data management processes to determine who has access to which restricted datasets. Remote work has ensured that institutions need not rely only on the security of their network. And remote work has instigated reviews of cloud services that previously had not been thoroughly scrutinized. Remote work has challenged higher education institutions to assess an ever-expanding attack surface while simultaneously future-proofing them for a world in which students, faculty, and staff can learn and work securely from anywhere and at any time.
A third key consequence of remote IT teams is that more teams are using a third party to manage some portion of their service portfolio. As the bandwidth of smaller teams of IT professionals is over-subscribed and the need for specialized expertise in areas like cybersecurity increases, an acceptance of managed services by IT departments enables teams to focus their energy on the technology needs specific to their own institution, while transactional services and services that benefit from aggregate data (e.g., threat detection) can be outsourced. The hope, of course, is that the outside providers don't require more time to manage and that the bandwidth freed up isn't instantly consumed by "other duties as assigned."
Reconsidering the Worst-Case Scenario
When I wrote my early pandemic reflection, I considered that the worst possible outcome for higher education institutions would be to learn nothing from the past year and a half. And although I still think that's the case (How could anyone possibly not learn something?), I now believe the worst case is a bit more nuanced. The challenge of sliding back into old habits is omnipresent. Scott Galloway's market dynamics viewpoint of higher education hasn't disappeared, and for some schools, it's a pain to be publicly listed as "challenged."Footnote8 But as mission-driven institutions, maybe the worst case is being thrown so far off course that institutions are no longer recognizable as belonging to higher education. We've seen how we might classify institutions and, more usefully, parts of institutions—and whether they'll aim to restore, evolve, or transform, but what about those that lose their way?Footnote9 As they necessarily pare down, and in some cases scale back, the most successful institutions are remaining laser-focused on what is essential: student success. Student success is a key pillar of any institution's strategic plan, and so maybe the worst-case scenario is that higher education begins to fail its students.
The challenge facing institutions is to make education work for students who have more complex circumstances and needs than perhaps they had before the pandemic, and maybe it always feels like that's the case. If they can do that with empathy, inclusivity, equity, flexibility, and a touch of sustainability, then maybe things will turn out OK in the end. I very much hope that I'm not reflecting, once again, a year from now and that we're not still in the midst of a health crisis. We will undoubtedly still be living through times of uncertainty, but I believe what we've learned since the spring of 2020 will help us address any ambiguities that might come our way.
I'd love to learn more about what you're trying. Please send an email to [email protected] and let me know what's working and even what isn't working.
- Jeffrey Lancaster, "Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste," Industry Insights, EDUCAUSE Review, January 11, 2021. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
- Jeannie Phan,"PS Poll," Silver Linings (illustration), Ontario College of Teachers (website), 2021. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
- Lancaster, "Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste," 2021. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
- DELL Technologies, Corporate (website), 2021. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
- Lancaster, "Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste," 2021. Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
- Stephanie Condon, "Intel, Dell Bring "AI for Workforce" Program to 18 Community Colleges," ZDNet (website), August 3, 2021. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
- Lancaster, "Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste," 2021; University News, "University of New Haven, Dell Technologies Collaboration to Foster Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Esports," University of New Haven (website), September 7, 2021. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
- Scott Galloway, "USS University," No Mercy No Malice (blog), July 17, 2020. Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
- Susan Grajek, "Top IT Issues, 2021: Emerging from the Pandemic," EDUCAUSE Review, EDUCAUSE (website), November 2, 2020. Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.
Jeffrey Lancaster is a Senior Higher Education Strategist at Dell Technologies.
© 2021 Dell Technologies.