In recent days, three major universities — the University of North Carolina, Notre Dame, and Michigan State — sent students home and moved all classes to online formats after COVID outbreaks created health and safety scares. It is likely that more will follow a similar course of action as millions of students arrive on college campuses in the coming weeks.
Even with the best conditions and preparation, schools will be faced with mass groups of students congregating on campus, in social gatherings, and in the streets of the local town or city. In short, it’s a recipe for an outbreak and it will force schools to be swift in their efforts to adapt.
Colleges facing the reality of opening in the fall
University IT leaders spent the spring and summer creating strategies and backup plans for the coming year. All different types of scenarios were taken into account and failover plans were created. But as these plans were being developed, the coronavirus continued to spread, and with it was more uncertainty.
Now that the new school year has arrived, the reality is that keeping 18-22-year-olds compliant with social distancing and mask-wearing is likely much harder than anyone had accounted for. What we’re facing is what will likely be a domino effect of schools that need to reverse course and go 100% virtual learning after they’ve opened their doors.
Some are calling for all universities to keep their doors closed until there is a sustained flattening of the curve. In a blog by NYU business professor, Scott Galloway, that tied the current situation with colleges’ ability to operate, he said, "Right now half of colleges and universities plan to offer in-person classes, something resembling a normal college experience, this fall. This cannot happen. In-person classes should be minimal, ideally none.”
Immediate action needed by IT teams
So, what happens when your plans have to change in a matter of days? Are you prepared to adjust your systems to keep school running smoothly and give students the kind of college experience they seek? Those schools that have effective workflows and processes in place will be the ones who will minimize disruption. Their IT teams will be tasked with carrying the burden of communication and delivering a complete but effective digital experience for students and faculty.
Consider just some of the changes that schools will need to employ:
- Housing arrangements: students being asked to leave dorms will need systems for transporting their personal belongings or keeping them in place for safe-keeping by the university. Schools bear a heavy responsibility for young people who are away from home, who need to make major decisions in a short period of time.
- Academic delivery: just like we experienced last school year, schools that go 100% online will need to support faculty who need to adapt their material to a virtual format. Some professors simply won’t be proficient with technology to make the change. Others may have special needs for the type of instruction they perform.
- Safety: in the cases of the schools that have recently gone all online, students were given only a short period of time to leave campus. The school needs to provide communication and online resources for students to operate in an orderly, safe way.
- Refunds: there will no doubt be an increase in students opting out for the semester. They will want refunds for tuition, housing, and other fees.
The key will be to rely on the IT infrastructure to deliver everything through digital channels, and do it quickly. The most important factor will be communication: the school needs to get information about changes, course structure, fees, and a host of other issues, and they can’t afford to miss a beat. So schools will need to use application integrations to pull data out of existing sources and deliver them through social media, the college website, phone calls, and any other manner that will guide students through a smooth transition.
Using data to meet digital transition needs
The origin of effective solutions is data — access to it, ability to transact with it, and responsiveness to it. University and student data are stored in a wide variety of applications. They range from the basic (spreadsheets and graphics) to complex (some data analytics solutions and massive ERP systems). While all of that data serves a purpose, it’s no good if it can’t be accessed and put to use to solve problems.
When school IT teams need to adapt entire systems in a matter of days, access to data is critical. Using information is important, but using it in context with other data is where schools stand to be most effective. To do this requires being able to build software apps quickly and for specific purposes.
Because speed is critical, creating solutions means reducing development time. To meet this challenge, low-code development can be employed as an efficient way to build integrations and applications fast. It is a methodology and approach that uses reusable, pre-built components of code and applies them in a drag-and-drop fashion. It simplifies the coding effort and accelerates the pace at which applications can be delivered and put to use.
No school operates with a single system of record they can rely on for all necessary data. Rather, colleges use a variety of different student information management systems and other types of enterprise planning apps. The key becomes, then, the ability to integrate data from those sources into custom-built apps to serve their changing needs. Speed will be critical to developing these new apps. Schools will not have time for traditional software development cycles, which means non-developers will have to be included in the process of scoping and building apps.
The right mix of planning and having a workflow-based approach to application development will enable universities to adapt with limited disruption to the campus environment. And as the school year progresses, there will likely be even more change, so making the investment to build the right foundation will put schools in good shape for what promises to be an unusual school year.