More Than a Lifeline

Technology can no longer be seen as a utility working in the background, writes John O’Brien. It’s a strategic asset that’s vital to every institution’s success.

May 5, 2020
 
 
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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 it 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, IT, 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 institution.

During one weekend in March, I invited our Educause community members to share their personal impressions in emails to me, and I was overwhelmed with the response. More than one campus sent me a long list of work that was somehow completed in days, a collection of accomplishments that one might expect to find in a three- to five-year campus strategic technology plan -- and an aggressive one at that. “Nonstop” work was mentioned repeatedly, and I don’t think it 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 10 hours' notice."

Along with the hard work of the technology teams involved, faculty members and professionals from all corners have come together, working far outside their comfort zones in many instances. Francis, along with others who responded to my invitation to share views, went out of her way to acknowledge the vital role of some key vendor partners, who responded quickly to unreasonable timelines without upselling. She insists, “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 who wrote me pointed out colleagues who 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.” Other campus technology leaders pointed to the vast amount of work their teams had completed, even while dealing with the anxiety and fear that came with a number of infections among students and employees.

Still others praised their team’s commitment to the well-being of their campus community, matched only by their creativity in solving one intractable problem after another. 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. Yet at every turn, technology leaders and professionals have sought and found creative solutions.

In the case of student access, an Educause QuickPoll found that 36 percent of students have found it moderately or extremely difficult to access bandwidth/Wi-Fi, a number comparable to the proportion of students (37 percent) who have found it moderately/extremely difficult to access health services. Campuses have responded quickly and creatively, with 81 percent offering loans of devices and options for free or very low cost. Half are loaning Wi-Fi hotspots to students, and 40 percent 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 necessary connectivity from home. In short, even beyond the initial weeks of the crisis, “whatever it takes” continues to be the mantra on campus, energized by creativity and realized thanks to hard work.

Technology professionals will be the first to acknowledge that the great lift we have seen was made possible by many hands working together across campus. 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 pandemic’s effects.

Those resource needs have only grown 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 significant shift in external support. The higher education sector stands ready to do all it can to help sustain student success and help stimulate 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 help their students acquire and maintain the online access necessary to ensure they can continue learning and earning their degrees.

It is inevitable that everything will be seen in a new light when the crisis fades and our collective heart rate slows. For example, the concept of digital transformation (Dx), which has been the focus of certain colleges and universities, will be seen differently post-pandemic. Dx is the work of transforming the institution’s operations, strategic directions and value proposition through deep and coordinated shifts in culture, workforce and technology. Institutions that were already well along on their Dx journey have found themselves better prepared to adapt to the pandemic. Post-crisis, Dx can no longer be considered an aspirational concept. It must be understood as an imperative. And that well-worn, precious notion of technology professionals on campuses doing work that is only noticed when there is an outage? That, too, needs to be a thing of the past.

Meanwhile, the work continues. We do the right thing to reserve the banging of pots and pans or other grand expressions of gratitude for those amazing health-care professionals putting themselves at personal risk during this health crisis. Given the long history of technologists working quietly in the background, it’s true that our community itself isn’t always comfortable with shout-outs. It may be time, though, for that to change.

Let’s all acknowledge the contribution of our technology experts now and honor them going forward by recognizing a critical reality that actually existed long before this crisis: technology is not a utility. It is not just a lifeline that got us through a tricky situation. It is a vital asset, a differentiating value and a path to achieving institutional goals and stability. Not just in the future but now, technology must increasingly be understood as an integral, strategic part of any successful college or university.

Bio

John O’Brien is president and CEO of Educause, a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education through technology innovation. He previously served as senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and president of North Hennepin Community College.

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