Insights

Solve for the Now Socially Distant Digital Education

Chuck Leddy

June 01, 2020

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While remote learning has impacted education for years, COVID-19 has turbo-charged the trend into what’s now the new normal for how education gets delivered at a time of social distancing, when educators and students alike are operating from home.

The “emergency deployment” of remote education in March 2020, when nearly all U.S. states and educational institutions rapidly shut down, placed unprecedented strain on IT departments that support educational institutions (in higher ed and elsewhere), not to mention on the educators and students they support. Hardware such as laptops, webcams, headsets, and more needed to be purchased, distributed, stood up and supported almost overnight.

Due to the surge in demand for remote learning, IT teams and their support capabilities were forced to ramp up as quickly as possible, with decidedly mixed results. But the crisis of March has turned into a fact of educational life that promises to remain until at least the next academic year (and possibly until a vaccine for COVID-19 gets developed and fully deployed). Thus, the need to provide remote support will remain essential for the foreseeable future.

What the “new normal” looks like re: remote support

IT teams that support remote learning must consider the needs of today and tomorrow, especially as COVID-driven social distancing makes “getting back to normal” (i.e., on-campus, classroom learning) problematic at best. What should IT teams be preparing for? Uncertainty, and the ongoing need for remote learning or (at best) “blended learning” that includes components of remote and classroom learning. IT teams must maintain agility in order to answer one big question: how can our systems and infrastructure scale into platforms and devices that go beyond the traditional idea of on-campus, classroom education and sufficiently support scaled-up remote learning?

Educational institutions may need to develop their own applications to deliver scalable remote education, but a large problem remains -- providing the necessary help desk support integrated into the design and use of these apps. No educational institution or IT team can afford to engage in wishful thinking, imagining that somehow remote support won’t be needed. As Mike O’Leary, Manager of Client Services at Southern New Hampshire University (a pioneer in higher ed “blended learning”), puts it: “we serve people with many years of experience with technology, but we also serve people with only weeks of experience.” You need to support all users, period, in order to scale and empower remote learning.

Forcing your remote learning “tech newbies” to sink-or-swim without sufficient support won’t just frustrate and disempower your educators, but will also disrupt the students your “tech newbie” educators are serving. Will a lack of support for remote learning impact your overall educational mission, and by extension your student engagement numbers and your educator engagement numbers? Yes, yes, and yes. A global health crisis that has catalyzed remote learning for everyone is not the time to fail in your mission to support your educators and learners.

Remote support success story from North Carolina State

Like so many universities, N.C. State had to purchase, distribute and set up thousands of pieces of hardware for the at-home faculty and staff it had to support, placing tremendous strain on its IT team. If hardware issues weren’t bad enough, NCSU also had to work through access and security issues related to its software and systems. “A lot of the [3,000+] folks we support simply weren’t used to using these tools at home,” explains Chadwick Seagraves, Managed Desktop Services Manager at NCSU, “and we initially had issues with security on our VPN [virtual private network].”

To add to the IT complexity, many NCSU faculty and staff were using personal devices (laptops, tablets, mobile phones and desktops) to access the NCSU remote learning platform and systems from home. How did NCSU scale up support in this context of unprecedented complexity? It leveraged a help desk and remote support platform, “which was so valuable to us then and now moving forward,” says Seagraves. “We’re going to have to remain flexible,” he says, “because rapid change is here to stay. We simply may not be able to return to business-as-usual,” and thus will need to maintain flexibility and scale at a time of ongoing uncertainty.

Remote support enables flexibility, scale and IT success

What matters to IT teams in education, especially as they support ramped up remote learning? Typical priorities include: (1) information security; (2) educational outcomes for educators and students; (3) cost and the efficient utilization of resources (money and IT staff); (4) the ability to use data and reporting to optimize/improve outcomes; and (5) supporting the institutional mission through the present COVID-19 crisis.

When IT teams can scale up and flexibly provide support for remote learning, leaving it in the hands of experienced experts, they’re also liberated to perform other essential functions like strategic planning, coordinating with the institution’s leadership team, planning system upgrades, and generally moving the institution forward in the realm of remote learning. In contrast, when IT teams get lost in the day-to-day drain of putting out constant, support-related fires, they have zero time left over to manage the bigger picture, the highly-uncertain landscape in which education is being transformed by accelerating change.

As Chad Seagraves put it, there may not be any “back-to-normal” for educational institutions and IT teams, so remaining flexible at scale is essential for success. When you provide remote support, you not only free up scarce in-house IT resources for higher-level, strategic needs, but also remove barriers to the day-to-day educational success of faculty and students who will be inhabiting remote learning environments for the foreseeable future.

Want to learn more about enabling remote support in order to meet your IT team’s strategic goals and your institution’s educational mission? Reach out to us here.

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