Innovation in higher ed: a guide to success in a time of radical change

The past year was rough for many businesses and organizations, and higher education especially suffered. Campuses closed, online learning proved ineffective for many students, and institutions experienced devastating financial losses to stay afloat despite declining enrollment, according to Victoria Yuen in Mounting Peril for Public Higher Education During the Coronavirus Pandemic, published by the Center for American Progress.

With the pandemic in a state of flux, strategic leaders at higher ed IT departments face a fork in the road. One path leads to the pre-pandemic status quo of decentralized infrastructure and ad hoc systems that spell trouble for IT staff, students, and faculty alike. The other path leads to new ground, where a more unified approach to innovation offers agility, proactive solutions, and faster support.

Universities that will recover the fastest from the setbacks of 2020 and stay competitive in the years to come are those that invest in IT innovation, build more resilient systems, and pave the way for IT systems that support — rather than inhibit — human learning.

The IT challenges of the pre-pandemic campus

Technology issues didn’t begin with the pandemic; they were present long before COVID-19 began shutting down universities.

Even 20 years ago, critics were pointing out that higher education lagged to keep up with the technology arms race. Universities were skeptical of new technologies and claimed they were at odds with the spirit of higher education, with its commitment to “human interaction, discussion, debate, experimentation, and inspiration that are truly worth four years of time and tuition.”

Often, professors simply prefer the lecture style and resist adopting telecommunication in their classrooms. And many campuses allocate budgets to more visible upgrades, like faculty salaries, campus facilities, and scholarships, aimed to attract the best of the best.

Over the decades, as other industries prioritized technological innovation and systems management, higher education has only fallen further behind.

Poor infrastructure resulted in fallible, inefficient IT systems

The pre-pandemic campus had many challenges that continued to plague administrations into the pandemic. These included:

  • Siloed departments: Each department owned its own website and made updates with no regard for the big picture or how other departments used the system.
  • Lack of communication: Departments didn’t just do their own thing; they did so silently and without a record of changes, leading to redundancies and inefficiencies.
  • Security risks: Without big-picture oversight about who had access to which systems and data, what changes were being made, or what compliance checks needed to occur and when, data breaches were a significant risk.

Often, these systems-level challenges were closed book. For example, the University of Missouri understood that it was dealing with “an array of different content management systems, hosting platforms, lack of standards, inconsistent processes, interdepartmental dependencies, and ‘people just doing things their own way.’”

Flawed IT systems produced frustrating experiences for end-users

IT departments struggle with maintaining campus systems, but students and faculty experienced just as much frustration in using them. Systems originating in the 20th century led to frequent service shortages and outages, slow support response times, and performance issues with campus networks.

This poor performance resulted in reputation hits and a lack of trust in most university IT departments, leading faculty to pursue further workarounds and students to suffer in silence rather than seek slow, unhelpful support.

These IT challenges hindered the ability of universities to adapt to the pandemic

Before campuses shut down, students, staff, and faculty could work around poor systems. Students could walk to their professor’s office if they couldn’t submit a paper online. Faculty members could still lecture their students in their classrooms. Departments could manage their websites and systems however they saw fit and respond to issues on a case-by-case basis. Under the restrictions of the pandemic, however, those workarounds no longer held up, and systems came crashing down.

Let’s zoom into online learning, for example. At the drop of a hat, the pandemic forced institutions to improvise online experiences worth $60k per year. However, without any centralized oversight of IT systems, this was near impossible. In addition, university professors aren’t inherently online-capable, and knowledge gaps and uncertainty posed barriers to a successful transition.

Likewise, student access was uneven at best. The New York Times reported how the transition to online learning bred inequality among students, leaving “low-income students, working students and those with difficult home situations” to perform at high levels without the support they’d receive in an in-person experience, including such basic items as reliable internet access.

The thing is, better online experiences exist — just not in traditional higher education. Even before the pandemic, the surge of cheaper, customized online education posed a threat to the traditional, four-year university’s business model. Since the pandemic, these options only make increasing sense compared to universities that can’t justify their price tag with shoddy systems. “We shouldn’t assume that students are going to wait for us to catch up to them,” said Rich DeMillo, Director of the Center for 21st Century Universities, Georgia Institute of Technology. “We need to reach out and meet them where they are now. And right now, they’re online. That means offering more online content.”

Innovation helps universities stay competitive

The pandemic posed challenges for every university, but those that took it as an opportunity to develop sturdier systems bounced back the fastest. “I don’t think it will be a case of ‘Let’s get back to normal and have everyone back in the lecture theatre,’” says Georgina Cox, operating model lead for the public sector at PA Consulting. “But universities might think, ‘Why does it take 18 months to take a new course to market when we’ve demonstrated we can do things quicker?’”

The universities that did the best invested in systems that were more responsive and easier to update. For example, embracing cloud computing systems over manual legacy IT is one way to do this. Cloud computing systems are scalable and easier to maintain, and they often have a central command center. Embracing this, for example, helped the University of Missouri’s IT department become more responsive.

For universities to stay relevant and continue to attract students, faculty and staff will have to be trained on the latest tech to effectively use the new technology that’s introduced. But to ensure success, not all new technology should be embraced. Untested tools, programs, and systems could lead to more issues. Instead, to be more accommodating, universities should prefer tech that offers rapid deployment and that will be adapted internally.

And there are many reasons to make investments. Research has shown that it’s just as effective for a student to use a combination of online courses and in-person learning.

“In 10 years, will higher education institutions be much different than they are today? Yes — we will all change. In fact, we are changing as we speak. At Georgia Tech, we are changing the way we deliver residential education influenced by what we have learned from massive online education,” says Rafael L. Bras, Provost, Georgia Institute of Technology.

Use Platform.sh to support modernization efforts and stay adaptable

Platform.sh provides everything that a team needs to build, run, and scale websites and apps. For universities, we offer services such as:

  • Development environments that are easy to build and tear down
  • Creation of standards and workflows
  • Automation of processes
  • Management Drupal and WordPress sites at scale
  • Shared environments
  • Code and live site cloning
  • Project templates
  • Real-time deployment

Take the University of Missouri as a case study. It used Platform.sh to create standards and standard workflows. This meant that it could build out standard processes and setups, allowing the IT department to manage websites at scale — with fewer developers. The school had hundreds and hundreds of Drupal and WordPress sites that weren’t identical and were set up differently, making them extremely difficult to manage. These sites were rolled over to Platform.sh, which allowed them to easily make changes and push updates and security patches.

Using the system improved processes, so the university can now deploy new features and updates faster and more frequently. This resulted in a 300% increase in the number of requests Drupal and WordPress sites could handle. It also meant that there were consistent backups across every site — regardless of the technology used. Because of Platform.sh, this also means better future flexibility for the IT department.

Get leadership on board

Before any changes can happen, IT needs to get buy-in from the decision-makers. This means changing the culture — all provosts and director- and VP-level administrators need to understand the benefits of transforming. There will always be the internal pushback of faculty and staff used to doing things the way they’ve always been done. A lot of evangelism and education needs to happen at universities to highlight the benefits of digital transformation.

One of the most important benefits is freeing up IT staff. Suppose they’re not constantly doing manual processes and automating what can be automated. It frees them up to do other, more necessary jobs, such as focusing on strategic initiatives and even helping reduce expenditures, which could allow funds to be used for other areas. Reducing silos will also decrease security risks, including ransomware attacks that cost institutions billions each year.

Doing all of this will allow IT departments to be more than just the “cleanup crew.” Instead, IT staff can work toward making higher ed more adaptable and innovative.

Adopt and support technologies at the IT infrastructure level

For universities to pivot and innovate, changes need to be made to legacy IT systems — or they need to be eliminated entirely. Updating and maintaining legacy systems is expensive, and they quickly become obsolete after only a few years. These systems also aren’t very scalable or adaptable.

Moving to a cloud computing environment like a Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) will eliminate these issues. PaaS systems like Platform.sh can be quickly scaled and adapted to accommodate the needs of students and faculty. It also allows IT to automate any processes that can be automated, reducing their workload so they can quickly pivot to issues that need to be fixed or updated. CIOs and CTOs will be able to do more than simply “keep the lights on.” They’ll be able to develop new innovations so that higher eds can transition into more innovative organizations.

Demonstrate need with small wins

Pitching an institutional system overhaul will do nothing more than cause nerves. So instead, look for small wins to make a case for cascading change.

An example of small wins can be seen here: When the previously mentioned Canadian university adopted Platform.sh, the IT department was able to see the full history of the project, perform instant cloning, do automatic deployments, and more, which made IT processes easier and quicker. These small changes resulted in big wins that were demonstrable to management.

Otherwise, the higher ed field will increasingly evolve into two groups: those that harness the power of innovative tech and those who are reluctant or unable to do so.

Modern universities need to adapt to the modern age

Lack of innovation typically leads to loss of business or failure, and that’s no different for the modern university. Failing to embrace contemporary IT management will lead to a loss of competitiveness. And reinventing the wheel is not necessary. The technology is already available and simply needs to be embraced. While selling the need might be difficult, it’s worth the fight.

Backward technology and a failure to become more agile will only result in stagnation. Students can find other universities that will satisfy their needs for flexibility and online learning.