With the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, it seems hard to imagine that so little time ago everything was business as usual. For most of the world, 2020 started like any other year. Now compare that to what’s going on today. Governments are authorizing disaster relief assistance, national and international travel is crippled, and whole cities are under special quarantine measures. What’s more, the economy is grinding to a halt as revenue streams – and in some cases even production capabilities – dry up.
Whole industries have transitioned to a short-term remote work environment. Some suggest that the pandemic’s impact to the economy is such that, even after quarantine measures are lifted, many industries may continue with remote work environments in some context.
Higher education has also been disrupted by the pandemic. The traditional campus-based experience of higher education has been replaced by remote learning and remote work. Just as in the for-profit sector, there is some question about how, now that these remote capabilities are in use, the genie can be put back into the bottle.
Can these challenges to higher education provide any food for thought to those in the commercial sector? I believe they can. In this sense, higher education institutions can be thought of as service industry with students as our primary customers and education and career preparation being the provided service. Traditional college campuses further provide a college experience. The life and experiences of a college student on campus provides an experience unique in the lives of many and often factors into a prospective student’s decision on where to pursue a college degree. In that sense, higher education institutions share much with service industries tied to physical location and experience such as restaurants or tourist industries.
As I’m working from home these days, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on how the University of Missouri is dealing with the challenges presented by COVID-19 and possibly provide some insights on how enterprise architecture may be able to help higher education as well as service industries with a relatable service and customer experience model.
The University of Missouri System is composed of four universities with campuses in Columbia, Kansas City, St. Louis and Rolla. In 2017, we had 72,000 students enrolled as well as 6000 faculty and 1700 staff, including around 800 employed in IT. Lastly, we’re a land-grant university which means we have a responsibility to the citizens of Missouri as well as our students. By most measures, we are a large, complex organization.
Dealing with Covid-19
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant effect on our operations. As I write this, our campuses are empty except for essential employees. In the space of roughly two week, we’ve transitioned not only to an online remote workforce, but an online learning institution.. The result of this transition is that, today, everything the organization does is dependent on IT. This includes every faculty interaction with students, every piece of homework that is turned in etc.
One reason why we were able to transition so quickly is that over the past few years we were taking measures to address the trend for online higher education. This was a trend in which we had a direct interest – much like a commercial entity would keep an eye on up and coming competitors. So, we had set up productivity tools capabilities; we were just in the process of finalizing a deal for enterprise web communications. The University System had also hired a Director of Online Learning, to coordinate online learning strategy and use of technology. Therefore, a lot of technology and processes were already in place.
Nonetheless, the pandemic has greatly accelerated the timeline of that process for us. Whereas beforehand we thought it was a given that cultural change would take a while to happen, the health crisis actually gave us a clear mandate to enforce everything quickly. We had to make it happen in a two-week timeframe. Fortunately, we did have actual, real plans to carry out these changes so when the time came to address the problem of students being unable to attend class, we knew exactly where to look and didn’t have to scramble finding our next step.
Challenges of accelerated change
Naturally, the large-scale change also meant that we had to play catch up in some instances. Some faculty members had difficulty adjusting to the new way of working, which led to some technology problems for us. For example, even though we had adopted cloud storage systems several years ago, we still had people continuing to use network file shares which could only be remotely accessed via VPN. As such, we had to significantly increase our VPN capabilities to accommodate this segment of our user base.
In addition, this discovery told us where the cultural shift towards using new technology had been much slower than previously thought. The technology was in place, but people hadn’t transitioned, which revealed to us where further adoption efforts were necessary. All in all it could be said the pandemic precipitated the adoption of plans that were already in the works but over a much longer arc of time.
Throughout this planning and adoption, enterprise architecture played a role in identifying current online learning architectures so that transformation plans could be formulated. Rapid transition to cloud solutions to aid faculty was monitored by an IT compliance process to ensure that new solutions continued to protect student information and provide accessibility accommodations.
Looking to the future
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in one truism in higher education. We are all online institutions at this point and, in that sense, are on an equal footing. The question now is: How will we differentiate in the future? When life has returned to normal, what will have changed about the way – we, in the education sector, and other organizations across all sectors – approach things like digital transformation, or operational resilience? How will the traditional physical-based college experience change or return to normal? Is it possible to replicate the customer experience of life on a physical campus with any sort of online offering?
One thing is clear. Today, higher education has a significant dependency on well-funded and well-architectured technology. Technology is the infrastructure that’s allowing us to still carry on our business, albeit in a slightly altered format. Any industry employing remote work or customer service is in the same situation. This should give leadership pause as we come out of the over side of COVID-19 and have to decide where to invest and cut spending. COVID-19 has exposed the dependency of industries on technology. Technology, then, will likely play a pivotal role in how industries, and higher education, can differentiate themselves from their competitors. In a time of spending cuts, leaders should be considering spending increases in good technology and IT workers.
A second thing to consider is this: The shift to remote learning already has students asking themselves fundamental questions about the value of higher education and the role of the traditional campus experience. The past week’s news cycle has seen stories of universities that are seeing students demand partial refunds because they’re not getting the kind of experience that they paid for due to the quarantine measures. They’re not wrong. Yet at the same time they are, day after day, slowly but surely earning a degree. The question Why do I need to physically attend lectures anyway? will start popping up in everyone’s mind in the future. Which then kickstarts the larger discussion revolving around what it is to attend a higher education institution.
What does it mean to attend university? And if from now on such a digital/online paradigm becomes more mainstream, how can we give that experience, which by definition will be more detached, the burden of significance that it has enjoyed up to this point? Because I think we’ll have to find ways to make it more meaningful, and more enjoyable if we are to remain attractive to applicants and also to differentiate from other educational institutions. My guess is that technology will be key to ensuring that idea cross-pollination still occurs, even if students no longer share the same physical location. It’s a complicated, philosophic issue, and touches on the very raison d’être of our sector.
Lastly, one has to wonder what the economic downturn will mean for universities in terms of funding. I think it’s safe to assume that we’ll see a decrease in the number of grants and, generally speaking, in the amount of money spent on education. This scenario, of course, is unfortunate. But it’s also a great opportunity for enterprise architects and the IT function as a whole to play a vital role in supporting the business as it is busy tackling new challenges like finding new sources of revenue, new ways to receive grants etc. Again, remember, that in this new world, technology will likely provide the way for an industry to differentiate itself from its competitors.
IT is often regarded as a utility of sorts. The same way pipes underground carry water, IT delivers technology. However, what we’ve been doing here over the past several years (in general) and weeks (in particular) shows that IT, far from being just a useful utility, can provide a core differentiation in higher education.
What the recent transformation caused by Covid-19 at the University of Missouri shows is that good EA planning and a business value-oriented IT department can elevate the business just as much as anything. In our particular circumstance we were able to completely transition to an online experience and still ensure that business goes on as usual. Faculty and staff continue doing their jobs, students are receiving an education, and business continuity is safeguarded. That’s a powerful testimony for technology.