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Three Ways Educational Institutions Can Better Plan for Continuous Learning

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If we’ve learned anything from the past few years, it’s the routines we used to consider normal—like being able to walk onto a college campus and attend class in-person each day—can change in an instant. That said, there are plenty of silver linings coming out of the pandemic, including the fact “IT administrators’ quick thinking helped directors, staff, and students leverage IT solutions and quickly transition to cyberspace learning—many for the first time,” Brandon Shopp, VP of product at SolarWinds told Todays Modern Educator in a recent article. Whether we’re dealing with another pandemic or some other catastrophic event, Shopp shares his guidance for higher education to prepare for the unpredictable. Plan for the Unexpected The past few years brought about a daily change to protocols for educators, institutions, parents, teachers, and students. We quickly learned higher education institutions must plan for the unexpected and be prepared for an environment promoting continuous learning, no matter the scenario. Shopp says, “As an example, schools may need to transition to full remote learning in the face of an unprecedented disaster. With little notice, students and educators will need immediate access to instructions and support to help them get started with the technology required for distance learning, document sharing, and other critical functions to keep things going.” Planning for the unexpected means close collaboration between IT, administration, faculty, and staff. Perhaps a post-COVID campus will require a task force dedicated to creating actionable disaster-preparation plans designed to make the most of pandemic-related IT investments. We’ve learned faculty needs appropriate training and professional development to understand what must be done when things shift and the educational model once used changes without notice. Shopp adds, “There may be late nights when teachers need to grade assignments and early mornings when students need to put the finishing touches on assignments. Can they get in touch with a technology specialist outside of business hours if they need immediate assistance? Institutions should make resources such as chatbots, ‘how-to’ videos and articles, and FAQs readily available to avoid interrupted learning.” Plan for an Equitable IT Environment for All              One of the biggest issues for schools trying to implement distance learning through the pandemic was the lack of internet at home, especially for those in rural areas where one-quarter of the population lacks access to high-speed internet. Shopp says, “To bridge the digital divide, each institution must be creative and innovative. For instance, some schools now provide students with free Wi-Fi hotspots so they can participate in virtual learning. Another option is to expand the school’s Wi-Fi signal to parking lots so students can drive by and download materials. Institutions could also form partnerships with internet service providers to provide unlimited cellular data to school-issued tablets and laptops, emulating an initiative K-12 school districts adopted during the pandemic.” Still, more must be done to create an equitable IT environment for all students. Hot spots don’t provide the same level of connectivity as broadband, and many feel they’re a “Band-Aid” approach to this problem. Many states across the country have received federal grants, offering those without internet a free or reduced-cost connection. With solutions like these in place, we can be more confident distance learning will be a success for everyone involved. Cybersecurity Must Be Top of Mind Cybersecurity within higher education is perhaps more important than ever before. With such a drastic shift in education—going from a traditional model to a virtual environment without little notice—we’ve also seen an uptick in cybercrime. This is why processes, controls, and training ensuring continuity of access to the infrastructure are critical. Without them, the ability of an institution to function could come to a grinding halt. Shopp says, “Deploying the appropriate tools—such as endpoint protection and real-time monitoring—can help, but technology is only part of the solution. Cybersecurity is also a people problem. According to the 2020 SolarWinds® Public Sector Cybersecurity Survey, careless and untrained insiders are the top threat to schools and colleges. For this reason, higher education institutions must build their security culture and ensure students, staff, and faculty are cybersecurity aware. Knowing how to identify and report a phishing email and practicing password hygiene can make a significant difference in the security posture of any institution as it quickly shifts to asynchronous learning.” Preparing for an Asynchronous Future We don’t know what will happen tomorrow, but we’ve now seen and experienced what distance learning looks like for schools at all levels. We’ve learned what works and what doesn’t and should implement best practices where they make sense. This may include the addition of peer support groups in the online learning environment for students to help each other build online learning skills and a sense of community. Faculty can give students choices with the asynchronous learning model, like making synchronous class events optional and providing recordings for those who may have scheduling conflicts. One thing is clear: there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach when it comes to the right asynchronous model for your school. Shopp adds, “For some, online learning brings opportunities; for others, it creates challenges. But one thing is sure: higher education IT pros must prepare to support a new asynchronous learning environment that’s accessible, convenient, secure, and inclusive of all—no matter what Mother Nature throws at us next.”
Omar Rafik
Omar has 36 years of professional experience in the areas of data communications to include X.25, TCP/IP and Satellite communications with 10 years as a…
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