Regularly adopting new technologies is pretty standard for today’s higher education institutions. Many schools have embraced advances as they’ve worked to build state-of-the-art campuses. But as COVID-19 forced schools to adopt fully remote instruction, it quickly became apparent that those physical facilities provide far less value when everyone is offsite.
While colleges as a whole should really be commended for how quickly they were able to shift in-person classes online, the transition has also resulted in a fair number of challenges. Schools inevitably have less control when students and faculty are all logging into courses from different locations, possibly at different times.
It’s worth exploring some specific technology issues many schools are facing to find out what you can do to minimize negative impacts at your institution. You may even recognize some potential problems before they become concerning.
7 Higher education technology problems schools are facing during COVID-19
While it’s common to struggle with more than one of these issues, some colleges and universities have uncovered solutions that could prove useful for other institutions.
1. Spotty internet connections or lack of access
While colleges occasionally experience network outages, students can typically connect to Wi-Fi nearly anywhere on campus. They may not have that same assurance at home. Many students are sharing a connection with multiple roommates or family members, which can result in bandwidth issues. You also have to consider that some students may not be able to afford Wi-Fi in their own homes at all.
The internet access issue is larger than you might expect. In fact, one EDUCAUSE poll shows that 36 percent of students who responded say they’re experiencing moderate or extreme difficulty connecting to reliable Wi-Fi to support their academic needs.
Addressing accessibility is quite a task for higher education institutions, but some have risen to the challenge. One tactic is to supply hotspots to students who need them. And some schools have been able to boost their existing Wi-Fi to extend to parking lots, which allows students to connect from a safe distance. Even internet providers are also stepping up to offer solutions for students in need.
2. Students who lack the proper equipment
Having access to the right tools is just as important as being able to connect to the internet. That’s proving problematic for students. Some simply lack the basic tools they need. Even learners who do own the right equipment can run into issues if those tools are outdated or not working properly.
How prevalent is this issue? The EDUCAUSE poll indicates that more than half of students have at least some difficulty accessing the equipment they need
Bear in mind that a standard laptop may not be sufficient for every student depending on what type of work they’re completing. Students might need audio recording devices, printers, scientific calculators or computers with advanced multimedia capabilities. One survey shows that 42 percent of polled community college students ranked the ability to borrow equipment for use outside of class as extremely valuable, and that was before COVID-19 shook things up.
Institutions are working fast to find solutions. For instance, some colleges are setting up rental services to help students gain access to laptops and other vital equipment. That can be a tall order for schools, particularly those under significant financial strain, but some have found success by reaching out to local businesses for support.
3. Managing security risks
While students may not realize it, there are inherently more online security threats when everyone is working outside the school’s usual IT systems. This is actually truer during a global crisis like COVID-19, because cybercriminals are able to take advantage of heightened emotions. That means students, faculty and staff are all more prone to falling for things like phishing scams.
One of the most effective ways to minimize threats from malicious parties is to establish and ask that everyone use a virtual private network (VPN), which connects all devices to a secure server. But this isn’t a catchall solution. There are other tactics schools should leverage. Institutions should also consider implementing two-factor authentication for logins and encourage IT departments to provide education on how to minimize risk.
4. Inability to deliver in-person labs remotely
For some learners, the transition to online education has been pretty seamless. Researching, writing papers, collaborating with peers and even completing remote assessments are all fairly straightforward in a virtual setting. But students who are enrolled in lab-based courses, such as the biological sciences and engineering, face unique challenges due to COVID-19. Many of those experiences rely on handling specimens in-person or physically building prototypes.
This issue has actually sparked some of the greatest innovation we’ve seen yet. In some cases, schools are able to send lab kits to students. Some professors have also responded by recording themselves as they conduct experiments. One particularly ambitious engineering faculty team is even planning to 3D print portions of medical devices students are creating for their final project.
5. Software license restrictions
As residential classes moved online, videoconferencing technology became a necessity. But even if schools already had licenses for these services, most of them were restricted to a set number of users. Now that potentially hundreds of students are logging into any given lecture, most of those contracts are no longer sufficient.
Also consider that many desktop applications installed on devices throughout campus are licensed. That’s a problem for students who are now completing all coursework from home. A design student who regularly leverages sophisticated software to edit images or videos may not have those same tools installed on their home devices.
Some schools swiftly increased their number of licenses. But certain businesses have also recognized the need for better access to their tools, and have granted free use for schools affected by COVID-19.
6. Faculty who are unfamiliar with online teaching
Many instructors are as new to the online classroom as students are. While they’re all doing their best to adjust to remote teaching, some have concerns about the transition. A BestColleges survey indicates that 14 percent of instructors worry about their ability to adapt their teaching style — and 33 percent are concerned about their ability to develop a learning community.
Some institutions had the foresight to host faculty trainings to ensure instructors were as prepared as possible. But remember that it’s never too late to provide access to training and other resources. There are a lot of tactics instructors can use to foster an interactive online classroom and effectively educate students.
7. Strained IT departments
Colleges and universities have IT departments that are used to addressing issues related to technology. But never before have they needed to juggle regular troubleshooting with students, faculty and staff while simultaneously ramping up their efforts to enable effective online education and adjusting to their own remote work environment. Most IT staff redefined what it means to go above and beyond when schools switched to fully online operations.
But these vital employees can’t be expected to keep up the herculean efforts they’ve already demonstrated. Juggling so many competing priorities is a huge undertaking for the small IT departments found at most colleges. An EDUCAUSE poll shows only 42 percent of surveyed institutions had an IT business continuity plan in place prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Understandably, support staff are stretched thin.
The universities that did have contingency plans in place have obviously made a smoother transition. While you can’t go back in time to create an IT continuity plan, you can learn from some of the other actions taken at schools that have managed to successfully maintain IT department operations. These include creating an IT task force and hosting workshops to cut down on repeated requests.
Start tackling technology issues
It’s safe to say the transition to a fully remote environment was rocky for most colleges. The good news is schools are already finding ways to address substantial technology-related challenges, and that can pave the way for other institutions to identify solutions that may work for them.
While you can address many issues after the fact, it’s always preferable to avoid them in the first place. One of the best preventive measures higher education institutions can take is to build a solid technology ecosystem that meets the needs of students, faculty and staff.
Find out what it takes to create that environment by reading our article, “The Learning Technology Ecosystem Required to Support Moving Residential Courses Online.”