Dr John Miles, Founder and CEO of Inkpath, discusses the next steps for Higher Education after the ‘forced experiment’ in digital provision brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic
A willingness to analyse, modify and make continuous iterative changes to the university model is essential to their success. But identifying the right path forward when trying to look beyond such a disruptive, defining event as a global pandemic will prove difficult, says Dr John Miles.
Universities are sophisticated, complex organisations. Although part of their reason for being is to look to the future, effecting change within them quickly – or even at all – can be challenging. On the one hand, complicated internal ways of working, which are usually part and parcel of running a big institution, create an inertia effect. On the other, academics and professional services staff alike are often cautious of rapid change, suspecting that alterations may disrupt a delicately balanced status quo. However, in my experience, they also grapple with the realisation that remaining averse to change presents an equal risk to the institution and its people.
Working closely with universities in the UK and Australia, we have seen first-hand that university staff can be empowered to implement tools, systems and procedures that not only promote time and cost efficiencies but can also help to future-proof institutions against unexpected challenges. All while enhancing the culture of the institution rather than obtruding upon it with an ‘outside’ way of doing things. Ultimately, a willingness to analyse, modify and make continuous iterative changes to the university model is essential to a university’s success. But identifying the right path forward when trying to look beyond such a disruptive, defining event as a global pandemic will always be difficult.
The ‘forced experiment’
In the words of Plato, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. COVID disruption provided an opportunity for many working in universities to try something new and push beyond standard modes of operating. The old adage of ‘pilot and precedent’ suddenly lost the ‘precedent’ part of the expression, to be replaced with freedom of invention within the usual delimiting factors of time and resources. University professionals have been using the latest technologies, platforms, and services to deliver virtual lectures and workshops to students over the last year, providing them with digital solutions in the face of adversity. Updating student and staff communication platforms as well as content delivery and administration services to stay at the edge of digital practice has become pivotal in a way that it may not have been prior to the pandemic.
This accelerated shift to digital platforms and tools has been characterised as a widespread ‘forced experiment’. To an extent this is true: in the sudden switch to remote delivery, tools that may have had little traction in universities pre-COVID became cornerstones of provision. In some cases, this will be temporary and online-only tools will not fit our emerging new hybrid existence. But in others, a permanent shift has taken place. At the very least, it is difficult to imagine going back to a way of working in which a large proportion of communication does not take place synchronously online, via chat and video conferencing apps.
The Higher Education pivot to digital has also been characterised as happening in a sector that has been ‘ripe for disruption’ for a long time. Again, this is true to an extent: many institutions have found themselves suddenly hamstrung by outdated, clunky systems, and under more pressure than ever to deliver a ‘user experience’ that meets the demands and expectations of a generation of digital-native student ‘consumers’ (problematic as those labels may be).
This is not the whole story, of course, and reducing the advances of the last eighteen months to a ‘forced experiment’ in a sector ‘ripe for disruption’ risks discounting the decades of work done in digital advances and modernisation in universities by enterprising students and academic staff, supported by equally enterprising Technology Enhanced Learning professionals.
Faced with the need to introduce new tools and services quickly, it would be reasonable to expect universities to turn to their immensely capable internal IT Services teams to close technological gaps. But many of these teams have been feeling the pinch from the mass shift to online teaching and learning, with greatly increased user support requirements and recruitment freezes among a range of challenges precipitated by the pandemic.
So as well as feeling the freedom to pilot, institutions have felt the necessity to reach for external solutions, even in some cases moving to a managed service approach, but more often than not adopting a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solution. SaaS platforms incur a recurring financial cost to the institution, with the payoff being constant development and truly tailored support.
Universities have been – and may continue to be – suspicious of SaaS providers promising to revolutionise their digital existences, not least because working with an external partner might feel like relinquishing control to a commercial interest whose understanding of the context of the institution may be limited. But the pivot to online provision has provided the perfect conditions in which to try not only new tools but also new partnerships and to quickly scale up initiatives already in place.
My experience has fit this latter paradigm: the pandemic has catalysed change that was already taking place and has accelerated the adoption of our platform rather than instigating it in the first place. For example, with one large UK institution, we were already running a 400-researcher project when the call came to roll out our platform across their 12,000-strong research community in just two weeks.
Some of the digital platforms adopted rapidly during our grand ‘forced experiment’ will inevitably end up consigned to equally rapid obsolescence as we look towards a future hybrid model of face-to-face and online teaching and learning. The changes that will outlive the initial experiment will be those that will continue to be relevant however our ‘new normal’ comes to constitute itself. And many of these changes were on the way already, only hastened by the pandemic.
If due to the pandemic, universities are more ready to look outwards to external technology partners, and embrace new kinds of digital change, technology companies must step up, too. We have seen an unprecedented impetus for universities to establish trusting, long-term partnerships with technology partners who truly understand the Higher Education space and are working to effect positive change. More than ever, the time for that change is now.