A sense of optimism usually permeates around university campuses at the start of a new academic year. Freshers are excited for new experiences and opportunities, while returning students hope to build on what they’ve already achieved and work towards the completion of their degree.
Life at Britain’s universities is proving to be quite different this year. The uncertainty that curtailed the previous term, cancelled exams, and postponed graduation ceremonies, has not evaporated entirely – and at least students are able to return to halls and in some cases into lecture theatres.
However, social distancing measures do require that facilities to operate with reduced physical capacities. Lockdown restrictions will also prevent some students from travelling and require others to self-isolate. The traditional model of group and one-on-one tuition is no longer applicable in this environment.
Most universities have adopted a combination of physical and digital study for the foreseeable future. But without the right technologies and processes in place, it will be difficult to maintain a satisfactory student experience – and this could have lasting consequences.
Meeting student demands
The increase in tuition fee caps at the start of the decade has inevitably been good for university finances – but it has also raised student expectations. British undergraduates pay £9,000 a year, and foreign students (which make up a fifth of the student population) can pay between three and four times that much.
For many students, a large part of higher education is the whole social experience – from freshers’ week through to the graduation ball. With social distancing measures restricting most social opportunities, universities have an even greater obligation to demonstrate to students that a degree is worth the time and money they invest in it. Existing students who are unsatisfied with their investment could withdraw, and potential candidates could apply elsewhere or even not even enter further education. The risk of a diminished student experience is long-term revenue decline.
The link between technology and satisfaction is clear. According to the National Union of Students (NUS), 84% of students plan to continue their studies this year, but are most concerned about a lack of classroom experience and the quality of online learning resources. Slightly more than half (55%) agree that the online resources are of a high standard, while others bemoan a lack of technology and insufficient contact with lecturers and tutors.
Suggestions to improve the situation include compulsory ‘live’ online lectures, fresh content that isn’t regurgitated from previous years, more interactive elements, and greater access to tutors. Indeed, a separate study shows that live lectures appear to be a key contributor to satisfaction as they are viewed far more positively by students that recorded sessions.
Meeting student demands with legacy systems and software is a challenge, but cloud-based architecture and applications, coupled with mobile and virtual technologies, can establish a foundation for seamless digital experiences and new ways of learning.
Universities have traditionally been ahead of most public organisations when it comes to cloud adoption but still lag behind the private sector. One survey found that a third of institutions store at least 10% of their data in the cloud but 72% still use on-premise data centres.
More workloads must be moved to the cloud so universities can deliver a consistent experience regardless of physical location. Digital collaboration and communication tools like Microsoft Teams enable live, interactive online lectures and tutorials as well as the personalised, targeted teaching that many students desire. Data stored on the cloud can move freely between applications, and course material stored on Microsoft Office 365 is accessible from any device.
Public cloud vendors, such as Microsoft, have dedicated cloud regions around the world – including China, which sends more students to the UK than any other country. This means foreign students can still access content and be confident in the quality of their course.
For more practical degrees, there are ways to work around social distancing. Medical students, for example, are currently unable to crowd around a patient’s bed in a university hospital or gather around an experiment in a science lab. A Mixed Reality headset allows the doctor or professor to livestream the session to students who can ask questions in real time.
This combination of technologies has other uses, too. Nottingham Trent University’s conducted virtual tours for prospective students who were unable to visit the UK or attend an open day.
Technology also minimises the impact of travel restrictions on course content. Imperial College London used Microsoft Teams to stage a simulated field trip to the Pyrenees for 35 students taking its Petroleum Geoscience Masters course.
If remote learning is to become the norm, then universities need to solve the issues of security and accessibility. The transition to the cloud means that more data is going to be collected, processed, and stored – making universities, students, and staff more attractive targets for cybercriminals.
The National Cyber Security Council (NCSC) has issued a warning to the academic sector following a surge in attacks – especially those involving ransomware – since students returned in September. A successful cyber-attack can cause significant disruption, damage trust in the institution, and potentially harm students if sensitive data is breached. The financial penalties for breaching GDPR can be significant.
The cloud is a secure platform by design, with vendors such as Microsoft spending £1 billion annually on protecting its cloud services. Updates are applied automatically, reducing the maintenance burden on IT departments. However, universities should not take security for granted. Policies to protect data should include requiring lecturers to use approved devices and applications, and to follow set guidelines.
Unauthorised video conferencing or file-sharing solutions that lack enterprise-grade protection can have disastrous consequences. So too, can the loss of a device that isn’t controlled by a Mobile Device Management (MDM) platform.
No student should be denied the university experience they desire because of poor technology. Investments in IT infrastructure might be of greater value than a fresh lick of paint for the science block corridor in the current environment – especially when you consider the revenues at stake.
A trusted partner can help universities migrate and deploy the technologies that can help them adapt to this new reality and turn challenge into opportunity. After all, the university with the greatest digital capability might be a popular choice when it’s application time.
Find out how Insight can help your institution adapt to the new normal. Call your Account Manager today: 0844 846 3333