Proactive IT and the flexible future of higher education 

IT teams
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Matt Hall, Assistant Director of IT at Bournemouth University, explores the challenges that university IT teams are facing as they support an increase in remote learning

Higher education is one of the many sectors facing the prospect of profound reorientation in the post-COVID-19 world. Following the government’s re-evaluation of approach, which saw students awarded predicted grades at A-level, many university leaders are concerned that taking on the extra, successful students would mean a stretch to resources – especially with social distancing and remote learning requirements needed to manage the spread of the virus.

At Bournemouth University we’ve always placed a significant emphasis on the campus premium experience we offer to students, appreciative of the significant cultural, social, and educational benefits that derive from a lively campus community.

And despite the pressure on the higher education sector, we hope to be able to continue to offer all of these benefits to students in the years to come. But there’s no denying that, in the medium term at least, university education is set to become a much more flexible, blended experience for students and educators alike.

University IT teams

This is only going to work properly with the proactive involvement of university IT teams, who will by and large have to transition from providing a very focused, on-premise service, to something far more fluid.

Most campus IT teams will have enjoyed a baptism of fire to this ‘new normal’ at the outset of lockdown. One thing we’re grateful for at Bournemouth University was that we were already talking to Nexthink about plans to provide a better experience to our users, and quickly accelerated the engagement in order to enable and manage an overnight shift to a remote work environment.

The first thing we had to do was accelerate our staff’s already ongoing transition from PCs to laptops. The new digital experience software enabled us to instigate greater investigative access to these new devices, by giving us full visibility of end-user experience across our entire estate.

Internet connectivity

A main challenge around this concerned internet connectivity. On-site it was a controlled environment, and suddenly there was this new piece of infrastructure between IT and our users – knowing what the weak link might be was vital when it came to diagnosing issues impeding productivity; there’s no point investigating issues on a laptop, for instance, when the cause is an internet connectivity problem.

When a user called with an issue, we were also now able to find their device and see a graphical timeline of their issues. This helped us get to the bottom of any number of crashes, high CPU usage issues, disk space problems, and connectivity difficulties.

Another useful benefit came from a single view of all our machines, and a score designating their performance. This allowed us to be proactive, solving problems before they impacted users, or before they needed to notify us of them.

Using these tools allowed us to make steep changes pretty much overnight in our support capability. I can’t quite imagine what it would have been like if we hadn’t implemented it as quickly as we did. We would’ve managed, I’m sure, but we wouldn’t have been able to respond as quickly and with as high a quality of service.

Blended learning experience

How teaching will be provided in the future will change over time. For next year, however, we’re anticipating and preparing for a more blended learning experience for students. Our increased capacity to better measure and facilitate employee engagement and wellness is going to be a big part of that.

We’ve certainly noticed that our services have come to the fore in 2020: our response to the crisis has really established a much greater partnership between IT and the university’s broader strategy. IT already underpinned most modern organisations of course, and universities were no different. It’s a bit like electricity – few notice when it’s working, but when it goes wrong it’s very impactful. That’s even more true when your users are working, or learning, remotely, or flexibly. For students to continue to have great educational and communal experiences in the years to come, proactive IT is going to be crucial.

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