Why universities must put their best foot forward with digital infrastructure

digital infrastructure
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Andrew Proctor, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Digital), Staffordshire University, discusses the need for universities to focus on improving digital infrastructure and giving students the support they need to study remotely

COVID-19 is presenting unprecedented challenges for industries and societies worldwide; seven months into living with the virus and the future is still very uncertain. Whilst hopes of a vaccine seem a long way off and social distancing measures are here to stay for the foreseeable future, we need to adapt to new systems of operating and new ways of life.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, what we have seen, is that the shift to remote working has shown the vital importance of strong digital infrastructure. Even before COVID-19, we were facing an increasingly digital world and the pandemic has only served to accelerate that transition.

This has been especially evident for universities. When lockdown hit in March, universities had to move to online learning practically overnight and with local lockdowns continuing, the prospect of another nationwide lockdown and the importance of ensuring the safety of staff and students, we need to continue to be agile and responsive in this ever-changing landscape.

We also need to have a focus on ensuring staff have the skills and confidence to make use of digital infrastructure. A digital mindset that is prepared to experiment and fail-fast is likely to bring about significant advances. As was once said, “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate”.

As with all change, in order to ensure that it is adopted effectively we need to have a long-term approach. As we move further into this academic year, it will be vital for universities to have two things in place – the overarching digital infrastructure to support online operations and the specific digital support for students and staff alike.

Implementing long-term infrastructure

Universities across the UK should focus on making sure they have scalable and secure systems in place to allow for flexibility in shifting to online and remote work.

At Staffordshire University, we pride ourselves on a number of digital firsts – we were the first university in Europe to migrate to the cloud, the first in Europe to launch an AI-driven coach for students and the first in the world to launch a dedicated undergraduate Esports degree.

This digital outlook helped prepare us for the shift to more online work and we have learnt the importance of having a Connected University, with an overarching digital vision and plan. It’s important to have a senior leadership team that has knowledge of, and advocates for, digital. Further to that, there needs to be constant communication across all departments to make sure everyone is aware of the systems in place and they are all operating on the same page, rather than in silos.

Within any digital plan, there needs to be a particular focus on security. The NCSC recently issued a warning to the education sector about the risk of cyber-attacks and we have seen how remote working brings new risk threats through a wider digital footprint. Raising awareness and educating staff and students about cyber security is absolutely vital to ensure the significant threat is reduced.

Ensuring the necessary digital support

Good digital infrastructure means also having the support in place for students and staff to continue to work no matter what their circumstances.

The lack of digital support available to students has been brought into sharp relief this year as many were unable to work remotely. A recent survey from the Office for Students (OfS) showed that during the coronavirus lockdown, 52% of students said their learning was impacted by slow or unreliable internet connection and 18% were impacted by lack of access to a computer, laptop or tablet.

This means universities need to focus not just on powering the infrastructure across their buildings and campuses but ensuring they are able to support students and staff with the technology they need to complete their work from home. This might come in the form of hardware like laptops or dongles to boost Wi-Fi connection or digital skills training for those who are not familiar with the technology they are required to use. At Staffordshire, we made use of data and analytics when we transitioned to remote delivery to identify students who might be disengaging from their studies so we could reach out to them and provide the right support.

With 71% of students reporting a lack of access to a quiet study space, it’s also important for universities to be understanding and make allowances for the wider issues of remote work. By not being able to work on campus, or attend face-to-face classes, students need to have the support of their university to ensure they can complete their studies no matter where they are.

It is difficult to overhaul systems overnight and it is true that any major developments in digital infrastructure must be carefully thought through. However, as we prepare to live with COVID-19 for the foreseeable future, digital infrastructure must be a key priority for universities everywhere to enable operations to continue safely and effectively.

Whilst COVID-19 has presented universities with many challenges it has also shined a light on the importance of a forward-thinking digital mindset. If universities can ensure they have solid digital infrastructure in place alongside a healthy digital culture; prepared to experiment and innovate, then the sector will not only be able to withstand this current crisis but be better prepared for the ever-changing world beyond.

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