Doing more with less: How three colleges turned to tech to navigate the mayhem of COVID-19

by Emma

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Higher education institutions are at an inflection point. For years, the industry has faced pressure to deliver results amid financial aid reform, diminished funding, and changing expectations from students and prospects around the campus experience and the technologies that enable it.

Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic severely exacerbated these challenges, while also introducing a host of new ones. Institutions scrambled to adjust to remote learning and working structures, as well as rapidly changing health and safety protocols. Many colleges saw a sharp drop in enrollment numbers as both returning and prospective students questioned the value of pursuing higher education online. Simultaneously, auxiliary revenue from sources such as residential life, summer programs, and sports evaporated, precipitating higher education’s largest workforce reduction in a generation.

In light of all this, one thing has become clear: a modern IT landscape better equips institutions to do more with less and navigate prolonged uncertainty successfully. Institutions that have been reluctant to migrate their on-premises technology assets to the cloud have found it particularly difficult to cope with the rapidly shifting reality and ambiguity brought on by COVID-19. On the other hand, those who had a head start on their digital transformations prior to the onset of the global pandemic have fared much better.

Here are three examples of leading institutions who are using technology to do more with less:

Northern Illinois University enrolls the cloud

Northern Illinois University (NIU) made the decision to embark upon its digital transformation journey in 2018 based on several key factors, including: reducing costs by eliminating the need to replace costly hardware every few years; streamlining IT operations by moving key administrative systems to the cloud; and improving performance, availability, and protection from DDoS (distributed denial-of-service) attacks.

The cloud migration concluded successfully in May 2020, even as COVID-19 made standard operations and processes nearly impossible. Careful planning by the team to build out the architecture and develop accurate cost estimates for running their workloads in the cloud was the primary driver of NIU’s success. As a result, the university is on track to save 13% on infrastructure-related costs over a three-year period. Adopting a set of cloud best practices has positioned the NIU to better manage its environment moving forward.

Spring Arbor University improves agility

Spring Arbor University also sought to improve its operational efficiency and reduce costs in service of its mission to foster a spiritual, intellectual, whole-person transformation for students, staff and faculty. In order to do so, it needed a complete digital transformation.

One of the key areas that leaders at Spring Arbor University wanted to improve upon was the university’s agility to pivot quickly to unforeseen situations, such as the pandemic. The migration to the cloud opened the doors to the use of more agile applications to meet changing student needs. These ranged from solutions to help process financial and operational information with increased accuracy and efficiency, to applications that power a more personalized user experience and better engage students, staff and faculty with fast and flexible communications across channels.

Additionally, the cloud will enable Spring Arbor University to eliminate infrastructure capital costs, reduce IT support spending, and empower the IT team to shift its focus from general maintenance activities to strategic, student-centered initiatives, driving an increased focus on innovation.

Despite the challenges of COVID-19, Spring Arbor showed fortitude in moving its digital transformation forward in support of its mission.

University of Connecticut keeps project on track

The University of Connecticut (UCONN) has a stringent review-approvals process for construction projects that use to require a blizzard of paper to be printed, scanned and uploaded. In December 2019, UCONN saw an opportunity to streamline this process by implementing electronic signatures and replacing manual tasks with cloud systems. This foresight proved timely as the need for electronic signatures grew exponentially in the face of the pandemic, and the university smartly identified a chance to further streamline its operations in this area to support employees now working from home.

In March 2020, UCONN quickly expanded the valuable electronic signature capability to the director level to support their team working from home and facilitate construction document management. Documents that normally were sent to executives to print, sign, scan, and upload were instead completed with just a few clicks. By automating the workflows, the university has saved an average of one week per cycle—a 25-30% improvement. Cloud technologies allowed things to keep moving along while creating new operational efficiencies in a hybrid environment, driving further efficiency, visibility and control despite the abrupt shift to remote work.

In all three examples, technology also helped each institution:

Consolidate IT for improved operations

A common goal for all of the institutions above was to streamline processes. For many colleges and universities seeking the benefits of digital transformation, this often involves consolidating disparate, legacy systems which often deliver a sub-optimal end-user experience and require costly resources to maintain. While a leap to the cloud may be initially daunting, the benefits of digitizing operations are well worth it. Migrating to the cloud enables institutions to have increased visibility and more unified management capabilities all while reducing operating costs.

Unburdened by manual and time-consuming processes, faculty and staff are freed to spend their time promoting student success, financial sustainability, and institutional excellence.

Curate a new campus experience

The cost savings and flexibility that the cloud provides allows institutions to devote increased focus and resources to innovation, and many are turning that focus to improving the campus and student experience. Today’s students expect just-time-communications across multiple channels, easy to use interfaces, and a flexible learning environment, particularly in this era of remote and hybrid learning.

Colleges and universities are meeting that demand with innovative applications, personalized dashboards and mobile-first tools that leverage artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to help students get answers to questions, track their progress, meet critical deadlines and stay motivated as they move from education to occupation. Such innovations would not be possible without greater level of interoperability and automation that the cloud provides.

Tightened budgets and remote (or at least hybrid) learning are going to be the reality for higher education for the foreseeable future. Navigating these challenges successfully will require colleges and universities to transform their operations to align with this digital age. Migrating to the cloud is the first important step to ensuring business continuity and enabling the innovations that will ensure successful student and business outcomes.

To learn more about how these and other higher education institutions are looking to the cloud to improve operations, visit: https://www.oracle.com/industries/higher-education/.

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