Impacts of COVID-19 in Higher Education: Tidbits from Our Webinar Series

Deidra Peterson Specialist, Vertical Solutions Marketing Published 13 Jul 2020

Recently, we’ve kicked off a new webinar series: Establishing a New Normal. Our first interactive session, “Key Considerations for IT Leaders,” focuses on emerging industry and technology trends because of the onset of COVID-19, as well as strategies for reopening, rebuilding, and remobilizing. We spoke with technology leaders from sports and entertainment, higher education, and healthcare to get a better understanding of the new normal across verticals. In this post, we’ll focus on what we learned from Ryan Turner, Head of Networking at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

Impacts of the pandemic in higher education

There have been many major changes in higher education institutions like UNC-Chapel Hill, located in central North Carolina. Historically, most universities consider the in-person, in-class model to be the paramount methodology for delivering education. Yet, practically overnight the onset of COVID-19 has forced higher education institutions to rethink how they’re teaching curriculums and delivering IT services to customers, staff, professors and students. “It’s been a real challenge,” said Ryan Turner, Head of Networking at UNC-Chapel Hill. “Before this, work from home was discouraged, then almost overnight working from home was mandated.”

Interestingly, many staff members within higher education preferred a work from home option prior to the pandemic, but many are recognizing that too much working from home isn’t to their benefit. As it turns out, hallway chats and in-person collaboration lead to teamwork and inspiration in a way that’s difficult to replicate in a Zoom meeting.

Emerging trends and new standards for universities

It’s generally agreed that higher education is at its best when students are in class directly interacting with instructors and other students.  At the same time, universities globally have seen firsthand that flexibility and wherewithal to deliver class online is critical to continuing the mission to educate. At present, higher education institutions need to operate as many classes as possible flexibly. Students expect high quality, flexible teaching methodologies. “I consider online education components to be table stakes for most students. If we don’t come to the table leading the way with an engaging, high-quality online experience, we’re likely to see the number of applicants decline,” Turner explained.

Though plans are in place for universities to reopen in the fall, the only option until that point is online coursework. There’s also the fact that given the unpredictable nature of pandemics, it’s difficult to plan definitively further than a month in advance. Thus, it’s incumbent upon university leadership to not only offer online coursework but to create a truly engaging learning experience. This will call for a significant amount of investment in new course designs and instructional assistance, especially when it comes to emerging remote learning mandates.

Establishing digital programs for creating connection and virtual community

Many students are currently unable to travel from their country of origin to the U.S. due to recent events. As a result, universities are also highly focused on creating digital programs aimed at forging a sense of connection among students and instructors. “Here at UNC, we’ve been focused on being able to give our students abroad the Carolina experience,” reflected Turner. One example of this initiative is esports, currently in the planning stages at UNC. It’s one of many efforts among higher education institutions focused on bringing students together online despite current circumstances.

Planning for digital campus life combined with mask to mask instruction

There’s still some level of uncertainty with respect to the future. While higher education schools are aiming to reopen in the fall, plans are fluid, and leadership must plan for a combination of in-person and remote accessibility experiences. It’s possible that students will experience a hybrid approach, which will require additional investment in classroom technology to allow for a higher quality, engaging remote learning experience. In the past, state-of-the-art, high tech types of classrooms were generally showrooms; they weren’t the norm at most schools. Despite funding issues, schools will have to find a balance as they make plans for technology investments going forward. 

Further, schools will have to ensure adequate network capacity to allow for remote learning. “Fortunately, UNC invested heavily in wireless deployment within residence halls,” Turner said. Those who make investments for the future will be prepared to enable online learning successfully.

No matter what the future looks like, there are silver linings. The missions of higher education institutions differ from one another, but each share a common interest: educating students to prepare them for their futures. Though the impacts of the pandemic have been difficult, IT departments in higher education institutions have had the opportunity to contribute to the cause of remotely mobilizing students and staff to continue learning as usual. In the past, the IT department was often seen as a cost center. Today, university IT departments are enabling their institutions as a partner, allowing them to deliver on remote learning initiatives at unmatched scale with little advanced planning. If there were doubts around IT investments before, it’s likely that they’ve been quelled after the effects of COVID-19.

“We all need to continue to invest in the infrastructure, and we all need to get in the technical weeds. We’re being asked to deliver on complex, but very interesting initiatives that are extremely demanding of technology – so we all need to be prepared.” -Ryan Turner, Head of Networking, UNC-Chapel Hill

This blog highlights some of the higher education focused key takeaways from our interactive session, but the webinar itself dives into further detail. To get the details on key considerations for IT leaders covering higher education, sports and entertainment, and healthcare, check out the webinar on-demand: Establishing a New Normal: Key Considerations for IT Leaders.

Get the latest stories sent straight to your inbox!

Related Higher Education Stories