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Taking the temperature: Technology’s turning point

  • 25 June 2020
  • By Lucy Haire & Eileen Smith

This blog was kindly contributed by Lucy Haire and Eileen Smith from Oracle. Today’s blog is the third this week we have posted on edtech, the first was on the student experience and the second was on e-assessment.

One bright spot within the pandemic is that it has pushed information technology into the limelight on university and college campuses. Within a week, days and sometimes even hours, IT was able to utilise technology for transformative ends – going to all on-line learning, procuring tablets for students, purchasing hot spots for remote access – simultaneously keeping the campus infrastructure up and running. Savvy IT leaders have grasped this moment to secure a seat at the executive table, where they are illustrating technology’s dynamic role in institutional change. In a recent Educause quick poll:

Over 90% of respondents indicated that their institutions are implementing or intending to implement (47%) or are considering (45%) digital transformation as a way of reducing institutional costs.

They continue that:

Early indicators of potential changes to institutional IT budgets suggest that some institutions intend to use the pandemic to vault ahead and accelerate transformation.

University and college professionals are seeing their services front and centre in executive planning – the need to model delivery for a range of possible student numbers, levels of revenue and modes of delivery. James Smith, Director of IT at Birkbeck, University of London comments:

It is true that like never before university IT departments are being sought out to contribute to institutional leadership because unlike at any other time, we are now providing the fundamental enabling infrastructure to allow our institutions to continue to operate.

In specific offices, this trend is seen as well. When asked about the impact she sees, Helen Scott, Executive Director of UHR (UK), commented on the need for ‘accessibility and security’ in terms of IT provision, which cannot be taken as a given for all staff at all times. Scott alluded also to the need for IT training for staff, and wider cultural matters such as employee engagement and experience in light of all, or almost all, work being facilitated by a remote workforce using technology. Scott continued,

We may see an end of presenteeism, and also the use of technology not just for transactional work, but also for things like pulse surveys to see how employees are feeling and also asking colleagues what they need today.

While it has been a trend for some time for academic and professional service executives to work hand in glove, the current crisis, where the stakes are very high in terms of health, staff and student futures, let alone the impact on regional economies, has accelerated that process.

Coincidentally, in a recent interview with Oracle, HEPI Director Nick Hillman spoke about the crisis showing the value of higher education in terms of its central role in developing higher level skills, stating that ‘education is an insurance policy against unemployment’. Just as universities are undergoing rapid digitalisation, so the workplace is as well, with analysts predicting the decline of middle-skill jobs which can be automated. Hillman also reminds us of:

the importance of university research, for example in the development of vaccines. It’s proving that university research isn’t just blue-skies, high-falutin nice-to-haves, it’s absolutely the bread and butter of people’s lives. It’s helping to save people’s lives and to make the world a safer place.

Higher education technology departments are more centre-stage than ever. Everyone is learning, and no one doubts the scale of the effort, the need for careful planning and the inherent high stakes. The effort has never been more worthwhile. The raison d’être of universities and colleges to undertake teaching, learning and research has never been in more demand for such important gains as global health in all its manifestations.

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