What IT leaders told us about their COVID-19 response

Expert Insight

What IT leaders told us about their COVID-19 response

Over the past two weeks, the IT Forum hosted a series of five webconferences dedicated to COVID-19 with Chief Information Officers (CIOs) from across the country. During those conversations, our partners shared how the pandemic has affected both their institutions and IT organizations. This post outlines the major takeaways and lessons learned for the IT organization as they move from a position of fire-fighting to strategic preparation and enablement.  

The immediate response to the pandemic—“so far so good”

“For the past 5 years we were preparing for the pandemic without realizing we were preparing.”

Chief Information Officer

With little to no warning, IT organizations were tasked with logistically moving entire universities online—a herculean challenge requiring significant time, effort, and ingenuity. For the most part, however, CIOs report “so far so good” about the move to remote.

IT leaders were able to use extended spring breaks to stop non-critical work, shore up applications for remote work and learning, conduct numerous trainings for faculty and staff on these applications, and subsequently redeploy back-office staff for IT support. Enabled by the cloud, online course delivery and work-at-home capabilities have been established relatively seamlessly for students, faculty, and staff, and networks and systems have held up with no reports of major failure.

Many CIOs therefore share a sense of pride that the IT organization has enabled their institutions to continue operations on short notice, with some feeling they have finally demonstrated the value of IT to the university. However, they also acknowledge that systems and staff are under stress and that these short-term improvisations will have to be reinforced to remain reliable.

The second wave of COVID-19 imperatives—what comes next?

With rough-and-ready online instruction now being delivered and work-from-home in place for staff, IT leaders are faced with the next order of challenges, namely: digital access, teaching effectiveness, security, and project re-prioritization.

Online instruction has required the IT organization to take a central role in ensuring that students can continue to access their course materials. In particular, CIOs share concerns about those students who lack personal computers or laptops, as well as those lacking WiFi at home. IT organizations across the country are now loaning university laptops to students in need through loaner programs or purchasing. Additionally, some CIOs have established WiFi hotspots on campus, usually in parking lots, to enable students to connect from their cars. Still, many CIOs are left wondering—what more can we do for students in need?

Teaching effectiveness is another point of concern for CIOs moving forward. Almost universally, the IT organization was tasked with preparing a substantial portion of faculty who had little to no experience with teaching online. Large scale training efforts passed along basic tool skills and functionalities, but more must be done now to promote alternative pedagogies and teaching modes. IT organizations are also working closely with faculty and university leadership to facilitate asynchronous instruction options, where possible, to both ease bandwidth for the institution and to reduce schedule misalignments for students. Additionally, CIOs are assessing their tools’ capabilities to improve the accessibility of their online tools to support learning outcomes for students with disabilities.

Security, so often top-of-mind for IT, continues to raise strategic questions for CIOs. In the rush to go online, many CIOs scaled up their VPN and VDI capabilities to support remote and secure access to the network; however, some security practices have been relaxed, and protections built into the campus environment cannot always be extended to the home. Several CIOs brought up “Zoombombing” and provided tips about configuring Zoom to reduce vulnerability (for more, see our expert insight). CIOs are also concerned that staff using institutional laptops at home will download inappropriate software or share account information with family members. While some CIOs have stressed the need for enhanced or supplemented multi-factor authentication procedures where possible, others have started to think about new, targeted training efforts for students, staff, and faculty.

Lastly, many institutions have freed up staff to redeploy for IT support by temporarily suspending big projects like ERP implementations. Now they are revisiting project plans, balancing cost savings from project postponements or cancellations against potential benefits from increased efficiency or enhanced revenue. Now, more than ever, CIOs and IT leaders must ask—are we focusing our efforts on the right projects?

The long road ahead—what are the long-term implications and lessons learned for my organization?

“We’ve implemented 2 years of tech adoption in 2 weeks, and I don’t think we understand the ramifications of that. What does this mean going forward? What does this mean for how we educate students in the future?”

Chief Information Officer

With the first part of the crisis handled, CIOs are turning their attention to the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on their business model. In particular, CIOs brought up the following:

Given the expected recession and enrollment decline, what are the budget impacts? How can we be intentional with funds and operations?

IT units have historically been hit hard during periods of financial austerity. However, some of our partners noted that IT has been a lifeline in the COVID-19 crisis that leadership will wish to maintain. Indeed, IT will likely play a major role in enrollment and recruitment, and in realizing efficiency gains for the university. CIOs are anxious to maintain the momentum of digital transformation on their campuses to prepare for the next big crisis and move their campuses further into the digital age—but they also recognize they require a more effective methodology to calculate and explain the ROI of technology investments. On the whole, our participants expect to absorb cuts but remain optimistic that they may not be as deep as in the past.

Still, the question remains—how will the impending budget cuts impact operations, projects, and future investments?

What does this mean for operations and teaching of the residential college?

Some CIOs have started to wonder if this crisis has increased the risks facing the residential college model. As one CIO stated, institutions have essentially scoped down college to course delivery and wonder the extent to which they will need to continue to deliver teaching, learning, and campus life remotely through the next year. CIOs anticipate a cultural shift for their campus community that re-sets expectations for online learning and remote work and reduces the on-premise footprint. There are questions, then, of what teaching, learning, and work will look like post-COVID, but also into the next academic year.

CIOs are asking—how long should we expect to facilitate an online instruction model? How will the shift online impact more traditional instruction and campus operations moving forward? While many of these questions are unlikely to be answerable now, they are worth revisiting across the coming months.

What are my lessons learned? What would we change in future?

Lastly, CIOs are beginning to reflect on the initial response to the pandemic—what did we do well? What might we change next time? These types of reflective exercises will be incredibly valuable for the next massive campus disruption and should be part of a formal IT review process.

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If the COVID-19 crisis ends with this semester, that will be enough, and IT can take its well-deserved curtain call. But we may well need a longer-term response. Institutions needn’t think just yet about what the post-pandemic “new normal” will be, but they do need to shore up current improvisations for potentially extended use.

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