IT infrastructure, from timetabling software to student records, often lags years behind best practice. The current crisis presents an opportunity to change that for the better.
Universities are spending the summer preparing for a new academic year like no other. The Covid-19 pandemic has complicated everything from in-person teaching to freshers’ week parties. Success or failure will depend not just on staff and leadership, but also the often unseen IT infrastructure that enables critical processes such as timetabling, student records and online teaching.
To cope, higher education needs to refresh its digital systems. “Universities seem to be about five to 10 years behind the technology curve,” says Sam Charters, digital technology expert at PA. He adds that universities have customised existing software to fit their needs but have ended up with “monolithic” systems that are hard to change in a crisis, such as now.
Instead, the more up-to-date approach is to use cloud-based systems, and adapt processes to fit the software, rather than the other way around. A student records system, for example, will be similar across the sector, says Charters. “Why not just let someone deploy and manage that at scale across all universities, and realise the economies of scale?”
Traditionally, universities have kept track of their students largely through physical interactions – be it getting advice on accommodation from student services or speaking to academics.
Now, with physical presence curtailed, “you’re heavily relying on a virtual version of that” says Laura Brooks, higher education expert at PA. As a result, sharing information between different parts of the university about student needs has become even more important.
Another challenge is to deliver “personalisation”, says Stefan Vassall, IT delivery expert at PA. For specific advice students would normally speak to someone, receiving tailored help that software can struggle to give. But if the student experience moves online, university systems are going to have to adapt to deliver this kind of personalised help.
Joined-up systems are also needed to help build and maintain relationships with students who decide to defer for a year – as many are expected to do. Universities with effective digital systems will be able to pinpoint particular subgroups of students to target with regular “keep warm” messages to make sure they stay engaged, Brooks says.
Come September 2020, timetabling will also be a particular challenge, given the extra constraints around physical distancing. “That’s going to be an extremely big challenge for universities to adjust those systems,” says Vassall. Existing timetabling software is able to factor in how big a room is but might struggle to model key thoroughfares, for example, or a potential crush of students in corridors. “Those are the real bottlenecks I see,” he says. Universities might have to start modelling footfall through their buildings the way Transport for London does for the underground network.
When it comes to optimising online teaching, Vassall recommends an “agile” approach – sending new learning materials out to students in small chunks, and then quickly process feedback on what works and what doesn’t. A blanket “technology-led” approach to overhauling online teaching “always fails,” says Charters: the focus should be on what students find helpful, rather than a new system for the sake of it.
Universities should also resist the temptation to overhaul their IT infrastructure in time for the new academic year, because they are unlikely to have the time to do so. Instead, the question is: “How can you make use of the systems you’ve got already?” says Vassall.
But with teaching turned on its head by the pandemic, universities must still invest in their digital systems in the medium- and long-term. “The cost of not doing this now is that the competition will do something better,” says Charters.
Universities should think of their digital architecture as being just as worthy of attention and money as new libraries and accommodation on their physical campuses, says Brooks. Yet university IT departments remain “massively underfunded” compared with the commercial sector, notes Vassall.
Over the long term, universities’ digital transformations will enable them to educate a broader range of people – those who cannot make it to campus so easily, for example – in a much more tailored way.
“If universities can crack that, I think the opportunities are massive in terms of access to a greater number of students,” Vassall says. “That’s not going to happen in one to two years, but that’s what you should be going for.”