In early 2020, no one could have predicted the size and intensity of the approaching storm. When COVID-19 made landfall in March of 2020, it passed directly over higher education, causing hundreds of millions in lost revenue and turning the industry virtually upside down. Some campuses were well-prepared with robust digital footholds gained through digital strategic planning and cultural change, while those without digital strategies were left completely exposed to the disruptive winds of change.
Higher education has never been quick to embrace the cutting edge, let alone the bleeding edge, of technology. Not unlike governmental bureaucracies, many higher education institutions are still defined by paper processes, red tape, and archaic systems. Schools that are technology leaders have done so by developing and implementing digital strategies that had transformative impacts on the cultures of their institutions. Not an easy feat. Cultural metamorphosis and digital transformation requires years of planning, commitment, and visionary leadership to execute effectively.
Institutions that are successfully weathering the COVID-19 storm have pre-established technology strategic plans that reflect a mindset of technology prioritization in everyday teaching and learning.
Institutions that have weathered the storm began with a digital strategy, strategic planning created a culture of technology leadership, and the culture enabled a digital transformation
They have infused technology as part of their cultural identity and enjoyed the spoils of faculty that lead with technology, classrooms presented through multiple modalities, extensive online offerings, digitization at every level of the campus experience, and students that are highly engaged in the learning process. Their plans were developed and received buy-in from every level of the organization, including the Board, students, faculty, staff, administration, and alumni. This continuum from technological dearth to technology strategic planning to cultural metamorphosis, and ultimately to digital transformation, is higher education’s equivalent to Maslow’s theory of self-actualization. It’s difficult to achieve but institutions that reached digital self-actualization were prepared when COVID-19 struck.
By Spring 2020, higher education was faced with fully online instruction as their only choice, a challenging execution of synchronous and asynchronous modalities many had never before attempted. While institutions that had previously achieved digital transformation were able to quickly pivot from majority in-person instruction, others without digital strategies went into critical survival mode. Absent a strategy, institutions with adequate resources redirected funds to IT budgets for hybrid classroom build outs and mobile computing technology for faculty that had previously only taught in a singular modality. Schools with limited resources erected patchwork hybrid classrooms with low-end audio/visual equipment, creating a subpar learning experience for displaced students. These organizations quickly realized the enormity of the digital divide as students and faculty grappled with at-home bandwidth, endpoint, and audio/video issues. At the same time, remote work, which had earlier been ad- hoc for these schools, went into a parallel crisis mode as they contended with outdated paper-based processes. The lack of a digital strategy left these higher education institutions completely exposed when the pandemic hit and, unfortunately, some collapsed under the force of the storm.
The greatest lesson COVID-19 has taught the higher education industry is that planning is key. But it is just a starting point. Institutions that have weathered the storm began with a digital strategy, strategic planning created a culture of technology leadership, and the culture enabled a digital transformation. The higher education community must learn from this pandemic and continue to build back better or suffer the consequences of more inevitable storms to come.