Virtual vision will define the university of the future

With the transition from physical to virtual learning for the foreseeable future, it’ll be the quality, availability and delivery of online content that will set institutions apart from each other

Before COVID-19, students were drawn to universities for their vivid night life, iconic campuses, and small-town or city life. But this almost feels like a distant memory, what with current restrictions on where students can go and what they can do to help curb the spread of the virus.

The impact on universities has been profound, with one in five people willing to delay their undergraduate degree if universities are not able to operate as normal due to the pandemic. This presents a potential £760 million loss for universities in tuition fees and reinforces the fact that while the way we teach and learn has irrevocably changed, the need to entice students back to school is much harder than it was before.

Universities have gone to great lengths to minimise disruption to both staff and students, most noticeably the transition from physical to virtual learning. This fundamental change in how students learn is likely to set the new standard for university rankings, and it will be the quality, availability and the delivery of virtual content that sets them apart going forward.

With the price tag that comes with a university education, students have equally high expectations and to deliver on these, institutions must fully embed digital into every aspect of their processes. With this mind, here are three key areas we think universities must pay particular attention to in the coming year to keep pace.

Supporting students from the get-go

Alongside the clear challenges for digital learning, the difficulties for office and administration staff are equally challenging. Institutions now need to find new ways to maintain staff’s ability to deliver successfully to students, even when away from the main university infrastructure.

Perhaps the busiest time on any university calendar is the intake of thousands of students making the move from home to university. Ensuring all students have been correctly registered is critical, from setting out class schedules to accessing university facilities and helping them register for local healthcare – particularly relevant now with track and trace solutions becoming more prevalent. Winchester University is just one example of an institution making the move to digitally transform. They have recently implemented a home office solution that supports the intake of new students to guarantee that even staff who are working remotely can still deliver the best outcomes.

“This fundamental change in how students learn is likely to set the new standard for university rankings, and it will be the quality, availability and the delivery of virtual content that sets them apart going forward”

Pre COVID-19, the thought of running the intake of students remotely would have been unimaginable, however, through the expanded deployment of communication tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams to staff, this is now a reality and is already showing significant improvements. For example, the use of video makes for a much more personal and engaging experience which, for new students, is an incredibly important part of making them feel welcome.

If there is a silver lining in 2020, perhaps it is that COVID-19 has, through necessity, broken down many of the barriers and objections to changing the way things are done, enabling the wider deployment of new systems and practices to provide better outcomes for students and easier lives for students.

It isn’t all about academic learning 

As virtual learning becomes the norm, educational institutions must look at how they add value to students’ experience outside of just their academic needs, and this means upgrading their technology infrastructure to facilitate new ways of doing things. Bryanston Boarding School in Dorset, home to 680 pupils and 180 teaching staff, found ways to connect their staff and pupils from all corners of the world to maintain the school’s community spirit through the pandemic.

Off the back of sustained investment in its IT infrastructure, the school had a distinct advantage. Its existing network core and access provided a backbone for uninterrupted and scalable traffic which enabled seamless continuity for learners. They were able to connect students and staff, no matter their location, and from there allowed them to continue as many weekly activities as possible – hosting assemblies, cooking classes, quizzes, and remote concerts online.

These activities proved so popular that the school hopes to continue many of these practices even as things begin to return to normal. The result is a school community that remains connected, dynamic, and resilient enough to cope with the unexpected, and higher education institutions should look to follow this example.

Securing your remote network

As the pandemic progresses, the way universities work must continue to adapt. For instance, with the uptake of virtual learning, the use of university digital infrastructure by both staff and students will only continue to grow and as such, universities must make sure their network infrastructure receives the right investment to allow it to cope with increased usage.

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Additionally, network security must be routinely reviewed – while virtual learning has been a useful tool to help curb the spread of COVID-19, it has also increased the surface area for security risks to impact any given university network. Essentially, with more students and staff accessing internal resources from a wider variety of locations and potentially devices, there’s an increased opportunity for cyber threats to penetrate an educational institution’s network. Regular and thorough maintenance of the network’s security will be an absolute must to minimise these threats.

Following the pandemic, there will undoubtedly be a shift in how we work. Increasingly there are discussions of moving hybrid workplaces, where people will work between home, offices/campuses and even on the road. Not only must the design of workplaces change to accommodate this, but also our approach to technology and IT infrastructure. For example, on campus, AI-powered contact and location tracing will be an important part of maintaining social distancing; while contactless, digital interfaces are needed to reduce human-to-human contact. Yet, for those at home or on the road, institutions must ensure they have secure access to the systems they need as well as an enterprise-level experience across their devices.

By embracing technology and making investments into their network infrastructure, universities can continue to provide the necessary support to students while also laying the groundwork for them to adapt to the post-COVID world.

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