5 questions IT leaders must consider amidst coronavirus response

Expert Insight

5 questions IT leaders must consider amidst coronavirus response

As the coronavirus spreads across globe, higher education leaders face unprecedented challenges in responding. In the short term, they must grapple with policy updates and decisions about whether to close campus or enact business continuity plans. However, the impact of the coronavirus goes beyond immediate considerations. This post captures both the short-term and longer-term questions higher education IT leaders must consider during the coronavirus crisis.

1. What tools can I use to quickly transition to distance learning?

With campuses across the country temporarily shutting down to slow the coronavirus, IT leaders are working closely with partners across the institution to quickly move face-to-face instruction online. While faculty, staff, and students may expect a relatively seamless transition, the IT organization must answer a critical question as the first order of business—what platforms should we use to facilitate virtual instruction and events?

By and large, IT leaders are using the tools that they already have at their disposal: LMS, lecture capture and delivery, and general-purpose conferencing tools (e.g., Zoom, Jabber, etc.). Where possible, institutions should standardize the platforms employed across campus to limit confusion among students and to ensure continued access to instructional material.

More specific considerations include:

What platforms do we currently have in our technology portfolio to facilitate online learning? Which of these platforms is most scalable across the institution?

Which programs/courses may require separate platforms or tools for online learning (e.g., lab courses, field learning, etc.)?

How can we ensure access to resources in computer labs where students no longer have physical access (e.g., virtual desktops, virtual private networks, etc.)?

2. Are my faculty ready for remote teaching and will they comply with the provided tools?

Even during calmer times, getting faculty both willing and prepared to teach online is one of the greatest challenges institutions face in facilitating virtual instruction. With the move to online learning now mandated on campuses across the country, IT leaders must ensure that faculty and staff effectively transition to a virtual environment—including using the provided, appropriate tools. Without sufficient guidance, those faculty and staff members may turn to suboptimal platforms and solutions, further complicating the transition for students and IT leaders.

In response, several IT organizations have developed instructional continuity plans, which clearly lead faculty and staff through the transition process and include an outline of the appropriate technologies to employ (e.g., Stanford’s Teach Anywhere, NYU’s Remote Instruction Support, Virginia Tech’s Continuity of Instruction).

More specific considerations include:

Have we identified an optimal platform to facilitate online learning?

Have we developed and published an instructional continuity plan?

Are we staffed appropriately to offer training for faculty and staff to help them employ the technologies that we have provided?

3. How can we bridge the digital divide and ensure online access for all students?


of U.S. college students have difficulty maintaining access to technology
of U.S. college students have difficulty maintaining access to technology

Across the past week, students of all backgrounds have packed up and returned home to resume studies away from campus. For some, this may simply be an inconvenience; for others, however, the shutting down of campus may seriously endanger their learning environment. A 2018 study found that around 20% of U.S. college students “had difficulty maintaining access to technology” due to broken hardware, connectivity problems, data limits, and more.

To prioritize, some IT organizations have surveyed students to better identify and understand those with greatest need for computer and/or internet access required for distance learning. They have then sent loaner devices to the students who require them, either from a stock of loaners or new, short-term purchases. 

Additionally, a variety of institutions and third-party vendors and agencies have stepped in to assist students and families lacking internet. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has mandated that service providers waive late fees, don’t cutoff service for lack of payment, and open hot-spots. For example, Comcast is offering free WiFi for two months to low-income families and all Xfinity hotspots are free to the public during this time.

More specific considerations include:

Have we identified which students on campus are in need of laptops/other devices and internet?

Can we provide devices to students either through current stock or purchasing? Do we have a way to prioritize these requests?

Do we have guidance for students regarding how to avail of third-party internet offers or take advantage of internet access closer to their homes?

4. How do I efficiently scale my partnerships with vendors (if necessary), and will their software effectively support online learning with the heightened workload?

As IT organizations have shifted operating models from on-prem to the cloud, institutions generally have become more susceptible to vendors adjusting prices for the IT services that they supply. The coronavirus pandemic has brought this dynamic uncomfortably to the fore—with IT leaders concerned that vendors providing mission-critical services (e.g., online instruction) may seize the opportunity to hike prices at a moment of vulnerability.

Moreover, IT leaders may hold reservations that these vendors will continue to operate effectively given the heightened demand for their services. While vendors such as Microsoft and Slack have been quick to assure partners that their platforms can accommodate the additional traffic, IT leaders should be more proactive than ever in reaching out to third-party providers to discuss their contracts and services.

More specific considerations include:

Have we reviewed our existing contracts and spoken to all vendors about our needs and potential pricing changes?

Have we identified vendors that we consider business critical and those that are non-business critical?

In the event of service discontinuity, have we assessed viable options to ensure the continuity of our operations?

5. Given this massive disruption to our operations, where else might my organization be vulnerable?

As IT leaders turn their attention to ensuring the continuity of mission-critical operations, it’s imperative that they keep their foot on the accelerator of cybersecurity vigilance. Scammers are doing all that they can to take advantage of the fear and uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus. The Federal Trade Commission has warned consumers against websites selling fake products, and fraudulent emails, texts, and social media posts designed to steal money and personal information.

In a world where higher education institutions are already frequent targets for cyber-attacks, the current environment is likely to entice hackers further. IT leaders must ask: are we still doing all that we can to protect our systems?

More specific considerations include:

Are your staff using the proper VPN and RDP systems when accessing department systems?

Can you move forward 2020 cybersecurity training and/or configure it for a remote environment?

Have you trained your staff on physical cybersecurity concerns that increase when working remotely (e.g., importance of a privacy screen, limited public WiFi use, and securing physical computing assets)?

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