Like many businesses, innovators in higher education have been transforming themselves for the digital age for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic nearly overnight accelerated the need for flexible new learning models.
As a result, colleges and universities must rapidly redefine and implement a new and dynamic balance between in-person and remote interactions. This new normal amounts to more than a repaving of centuries-old, in-class traditions of higher education with a digital wrapper. It requires re-invention — and perhaps new ways of redefining — of the very act of learning itself.
The next BriefingsDirect panel discussion explores how such innovation today in remote learning may also hold lessons for how businesses and governments interact with and enlighten their workers, customers, and ultimately citizens.
Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Read a full transcript or download a copy.
Here to share recent experiences in finding new ways to learn and work during a global pandemic are Chris Foward, Head of Services for IT Services at The University of Northampton in the UK; Tim Minahan, Executive Vice President of Business Strategy and Chief Marketing Officer at Citrix, and Dr. Scott Ralls, President of Wake Tech Community Collegein Raleigh, North Carolina. The discussion is moderated by Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solution.
Here are some excerpts:
Gardner: Scott, tell us about Wake Tech Community College and why you’ve been able to accelerate your path to broader remote learning?
Ralls: Wake Tech is the largest college in North Carolina, one of the largest community colleges in the United States. We have 75,000 total students across all of our different program areas spread over six different campuses.
In mid-March, we took an early step in moving completely online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But if we had just started our planning at that point, I think we would have been in trouble; it would have been a big challenge for us, as it has been for much of higher education.
The journey really began six years earlier with a plan to move to a more online-supported, virtual-blended world. For us, the last six months have been about sprinting. We are on a journey that hasn’t been so much about changing our direction or changing our efficacy, but really sprinting the last one-fourth of the race. And that’s been difficult and challenging.
But it’s not been as challenging as if you were trying to figure out the directions from the very beginning. I’ve been very proud of our team, and I think things are going remarkably well here despite a very challenging situation.
Education sprints online
Gardner: Chris, please tell us about The University of Northampton and how the pandemic has accelerated change for you.
Foward: The University of Northampton has invested very heavily in its campus. A number of years ago and we built a new one called Waterside campus. The Waterside campus was designed to work with active blended learning (ABL) as an approach to delivering all course works, and — similar to Wake Tech — we’ve faced challenges around how we deliver online teaching.
We were in a fortunate position because during the building of our new campus we implemented all-new technology from the ground up — from our plant-based systems right through to our backend infrastructure. We aimed at taking on new technologies that were either cloud-based or that allowed us to deliver teaching in a remote manner. That was done predominantly to support our ABL approach to delivery of education. But certainly the COVID-19 pandemic has sped up the uptake of those services.
Gardner: Chris, what was the impetus to the pre-pandemic blended learning? Why were you doing it? How did technology help support it?
Foward: The University of Northampton since 2014 has been moving toward its current institutional approach to learning and teaching. We never perceived of this as a large-scale online learning or a distance learning solution. But ABL does rely on fluent and thoughtful use of technologies for learning.
Our teachers found that the work they’ve done since 2014 really did stand us in good stead as we were able to very quickly change from an on-campus-taught environment to a digital experience for our students.
And this has stood the university in good stead in terms of how we actually deliver to our students. What our lecturers and teachers found is that the work they’ve done since 2014 really did stand us in a good stead as we were able to very quickly change from an on-campus-taught environment to a digital experience for our students.
Gardner: Scott, has technology enabled you to seek remote learning, or was remote learning the goal and then you had to go find the technology? What’s the relationship between remote learning and technology?
Ralls: For us, particularly in community colleges, it was more the second in that remote learning is an important priority for us because a majority of our students work. So the issues of just having the convenience of remote learning started community colleges in the United States down the path of remote learning much more quickly than for other forms of higher education. And so that helped us years ago to start thinking about what technologies are required.
Our college has been very thoughtful about the equity issues in remote learning. Some students succeed in more remote learning platforms, while others struggle with what those solutions may be. It was much more about the need for remote learning to allow working students with the capacities and conveniences, and then looking at what the technologies are and the best practices to achieve those goals.
Businesses learn from schools’ success
Gardner: Tim, when you hear Chris and Scott describing what they are doing in higher education, does it strike you that they are leaders and innovators compared generally to businesses? Should businesses pay attention to what’s going on in higher education these days, particularly around remote, balanced, and blended interactions?
Minahan: Yes, I certainly think they are leading, Dana. That leadership comes from having been prepared for this in advance. If there’s any silver lining to this global crisis we are all living through, it’s that it’s caused organizations and participants in all industries to rethink how they work, school, and live.
Employers, having seen that work can now actually happen outside of an office, are catching up similarly. They’re rethinking their long-term workforce strategies and work models. They’re embracing more flexible and hybrid work approaches for the long-term.
And lower costs and improved productivity and engagement are giving them access to new pools of talent that were previously inaccessible to them in the traditional work-hub model, where you build a big office or call center and then you hire folks to fill them. Now, they can remotely reach talent in any location, including retirees or stay-at-home parents, and caretakers. They can be reactivated into the workforce.
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Similarly to the diversity of the student body you’re seeing at Wake Tech, to do this they need a foundation, a digital workspace platform, that allows them to deliver consistent and secure access to the resources that employees or staff — or in this case, students — need to do their very best work across any channel or location. That can be in the classroom, on the road, or as we’ve seen recently in the home.
I think going forward, you’re going to see not just higher education, which we are hearing about here, but all industries begin to embrace this blended model for some very real benefits, both to their employees and their constituents, but to their own organizations as well.
Gardner: Chris, because Northampton put an emphasis on technology to accomplish blended learning, was the technology typical a few years back — traditional, stack-based enterprise IT — a hindrance? Did you need to rethink technology as you were trying to accomplish your education goals?
Tech learning advances agility
Foward: Yes, we did. When we built our new campus, we looked at what new technologies were coming onto the market. We then moved toward a couple of key suppliers to ensure that we received best-in-class services as well as easy-to-use products. We chose partners like Microsoft for our software programs, like Office, and those sorts of productivity products.
We chose Cisco for networking and servers, and we also pulled in Citrix for delivery of our virtual applications and desktops from any location, anywhere, anytime. It allows flexibility for our students to access the systems from a smartphone and see a specific CAB-type models if we join those through solutions we have. It allows our factor of business and law to be able to present some of this bespoke software that they use. We can tailor the solutions that they see within these environments to meet the educational needs and courses that they are attending.
Gardner: Scott, at Wake Tech, as president of the university, you’re probably not necessarily a technologist. But how do you not be a technologist nowadays when you’re delivering everything as remote learning? How has your relationship with technology evolved? Have you had to learn a lot more tech?
Ralls: Oh, absolutely, yes. And even my own use of technology has evolved quite a bit. I was always aware and had broad goals. But, as I mentioned, we started sprinting very quickly, and when you are sprinting you want to know what’s happening.
We are very fortunate to have a great IT team that is both thoughtful in its direction and very urgent in their movement. So those two things gave me a lot of confidence. It’s also allowed us to sprint to places that we wouldn’t have been able to had these circumstances not come along.
We are very fortunate to have a great IT team that is both thoughtful in its direction and very urgent in their movement. Those two things gave me a lot of confidence. It also allowed us to sprint to places that we wouldn’t have been able to.
I will use an example. We have six campuses. I would do face-to-face forums with faculty, staff, and students, so three meetings on every campus but once a semester. Now, I do those kinds of forums most days with students, faculty, or staff using the technology. Many of us have found that with the directions we were going that there are greater efficiencies to be achieved in many ways that we would not have tried had it not been for the [pandemic] circumstances.
And I think after we get past the issues we are facing with the pandemic; our world will be completely changed because this has accelerated our movement in this direction and accelerated our utility of the usage as well.
Gardner: Tim, we have seen over the years that the intersection between business and technology is not always the easiest relationship. Is what we’re seeing now as a result of the pandemic helping organizations attain the agility that they perhaps struggled to find before?
Minahan: Yes, indeed, Dana. As you just heard, another thing the pandemic has taught us is that agility is key. Fixed infrastructure — whether it’s real estate, the work-hub-centric models, data centers with loads of servers, and on-premise applications — has proven to be an anchor during the pandemic. Organizations that rely heavily on such fixed infrastructure have had a much more difficult time shifting to a remote work or remote learning model to keep their employees and students safe and productive.
In fact, by an anecdote, we had one financial services customer, a CIO, recently say, “Hey, we can’t add servers and capacity fast enough.” And so, similar to Scott and Chris, we’re seeing an increasing number of our customers moving to adopt more variable operating models in everything they do. They are rethinking the real estate, staffing, and their IT infrastructure. As a result, we’re seeing customers take their measured plans for a one- to three-year transition to the cloud and accelerated that to three months, or even a few weeks.
They’re also increasing adoption of digital workspaces so that they can provide a consistent and secure work or learning experience for employees or students across any channel or location. It really boils down to organizations building agility into their operations so they can scale up quickly in the face of the next inevitable, unplanned crisis — or opportunity.
Gardner: We’ve been talking about this through the lens of the higher education institute and the technology provider. But what’s been the experience over the past several months for the user? How are your students at Northampton adjusting to this, Chris? Is this rapid shift a burden or is there a silver lining to more blended and remote learning?
Easy-to-use options for student adoption
Foward: I’ll be honest, I think our students have yet to adopt it fully.
There are always challenges with new technology when it comes in. The uptake will be mainly driven in October when we see our mainstream student cohorts come onboard. I do think the types of technologies we have chosen are key, because making technology simple to use and easy to access will drive further adoption of those products.
What we have seen is that our staff’s uptake on our Citrix environment was phenomenal. And if there’s one positive to take from the COVID-19 situation it is the adoption of technology. Our staff has taken to it like ducks to water. Our IT team has delivered something exceptional, and I think our students will also see a massive benefit from these products, and especially the ease of use of these products.
So, yes, the key thing is making the products easily accessible and easy to use. If we overcomplicate it, you won’t get adoption and you won’t get an experience that customers need when they come to our education institutions.
Gardner: Dr. Ralls, have the students adjusted to these changes in a way that gives them agility as they absorb education?
Ralls: They have. All of us — whether we work, teach, or are students at Wake Tech — have gained more confidence in these environments than we had before. I have regular conversations with these students. There was a lot of uncertainty, just like for many of us working remotely. How would that all work?
And we’ve now seen that we can do it. Things will still change around the notions of making the adjustments we need to. And for many of our students, it isn’t just how things will it change in the class, but in all of the things that they need around that class. For example, we have tutoring centers in our libraries. How do we make those work remotely and by appointment? We all wondered how that would work. And now we’ve seen that it can work, and it does work; and there’s an ease of doing that.
In a Remote World
Because we are a community college, we’re an open-admissions college. Many of our students haven’t had the level of academic preparation or opportunity that others have had. And so for some of our students who have a sense of uncertainty or anxiety, we have found that there is a challenge for them to move to remote learning and to have confidence initially.
Sometimes we can see that in withdrawals, but we’ve also found that we can rally around our students using different tools. We have found the value of different types of remote learning that are effective. For example, we’re doing a lot of the HyFlex model now, which is a combination of hybrid and remote, online-based education.
Over time we have seen in many of our classes that where classes started as hybrid, students then shifted to more fully remote and online. So you see the confidence grow over time.
Gardner: Scott, another benefit of doing more online is that you gain a data trail. When it comes to retention, and seeing how your programs are working, you have a better sense of participation — and many other metrics. Does the data that comes along with remote learning help you identify students at risk, and are there other benefits?
Remote learning delivers data
Ralls: We’re a very data-focused college. For instance, even before we moved to more remote learning, every one of our courses had an online shell. We had already moved to where every course was available online. So we knew when our students were interacting.
One of the shifts we’ve seen at Wake Tech with more remote services is the expansion of those hours, as well as the ability to access counseling — and all of our services remotely — and through answer centers and other things.
But that means we had to change our way of thinking. Before, we knew when students took our courses, because they took them when you scheduled the courses. Now, as they are working remotely, we can also tell when they are working. And we know from many of our students that they are more likely to be online and engaged in our coursework between the hours of 5 pm and 10 pm, as opposed to 8 am and noon. Most of when we had been operating, from just having physical sites, was 8 am to 5 pm. Consequently, we have had to move the hours, and I think that’s something that will always be different about us and so that does give us that indication.
We had to change our way of thinking. Before, we knew when students took our courses because they took them when you scheduled the courses. Now, remotely we can also tell when they are working. We have had to move the hours to when they are actually operating.
One other thing about us that has been unique is because of who we are, because we do so much technical education — that’s why we are called Wake Tech — and much of that is hands-on. You can’t do it fully remotely. But every one of our programs has found out the value of remote-based access through the support.
For example, we have a remarkable baking and pastry program. They have figured out how help the students get all of their hands-on resources at home in their own kitchens. They no longer have to come into the labs for what they do. Every program has found that value, the best aspects of their program being remote, even if their full program cannot be remote because of the hands-on matrix.
Gardner: Chris, is the capability to use the data that you get along the way at Northampton a benefit to you, and how?
Foward: Data is key for us in IT Services. We like to try and understand how people are using our systems and which applications they are using. It allows us to then fix the delivery of our applications more effectively. Our courses are also very data-driven. In our games art courses, for example, data allows us to design the materials more effectively for our students.
Gardner: Tim, when you are providing more value back through your technology, the data seems to be key as well. It’s about optimization and even reducing costs with better business and education outcomes. How does the data equation benefit Citrix’s customers, and how do you expect to improve on that?
Data enhances experiences
Minahan: Dana, data plays a major role in every aspect of what we do. When you think about the need to deliver digital workspaces by providing consistent and secure access to the resources — whether it’s employees or students — they need to be able to perform at their best wherever that work needs to get done. The data that we are gathering is applied in a number of different ways.
Number one is around the security model. I use the analogy of not just having security access in — the bouncer at the front door to make sure you have authenticated and are on the list to be access the resources you need — but also having the bodyguard that follows you around the club, if you will, to constantly monitor your behavior and apply additional security policies.
The data is valuable for that because we understand the behavior of the individual user, whether they are typically accessing from a particular device or location or via the types of information or applications they access.
The second area is around performance. If we move to a much more distributed model, or a flexible or a blended model, vital to that is ensuring that those employees or students have reliable access to the applications and information they need to perform at their best. Being able to constantly monitor that environment allows for increasing bandwidth, or moving to a different channel as needed, so they get the best experience.
And then the last one gets very exciting. It is literally about productivity. Being able to push the right information or the right tasks, or even automate a particular task or remove it from their work stream in real time is vital to ensuring that we are not drowning in this cacophony of different apps and alerts — and all the noise that gets in the way of us actually doing our best work or learning. And so data is actually vital to our overall digital workspace strategy at Citrix.
Gardner: Chris, to attain an improved posture around ABL, that can mean helping students pick up wherever they left off — whether in a classroom, their workplace, at a bakery or in a kitchen at home. It requires a seamless transition regardless of their network and end device. How important is it to allow students to not have to start from scratch or find themselves lost in this collaboration environment? How is Citrix an important part of that?
Foward: With our ABL approach, we have small collaborative groups that work together to deliver or gain their learning.
We also ensure that the students have face-to-face contact with tutors, other distance learning, or while on campus. And with the technology, we store all of the academic materials in one location, called our mail site, which allows students to be able to access and learn as and when they need to.
Citrix plays a key part in that because we can deliver applications into that state quickly and seamlessly. It allows students to always be able to understand and see the applications they need for their specific courses. It allows them to experiment, discuss ideas, and get more feedback from our lecturers because they understand what materials are being stored and how to access them.
Gardner: Dr. Ralls, how do you at Wake Tech prevent learning gaps from occurring? How does the technology help students move seamlessly throughout their education process, regardless of the location or device?
Seamless tracking lets students thrive
Ralls: There are different types of gaps. In terms of courses, one of the things we found recently is our students are looking for different types of access. Many of our students are looking for additional types of access — perhaps replicating our seated courses to gain the value of synchronous experiences. We have had to make sure that all of our courses have that capacity, and that it works well.
Then, because many of our students are also in a work environment, they want an asynchronous capability. And so we are now working on making sure students know the difference and how to match those expectations.
Also, because we are an open access college — and as I like to say, we take the top 100 percent of our applicant students — for many of our students, gaps come not just within a course, but between courses or toward their goals. For many of our students who are first-generation students, higher education is new. They may have also been away from education for a period of time.
We have to be much more intrusive and to help students and monitor to make sure our students are making it from one place to the next. We need to make sure that learning makes sense to them.
So we have to be much more intrusive and to help students and monitor to make sure our students are making it from one place to the next. We need to make sure that learning makes sense to them and that they are making it to whatever their ultimate goals are.
We use technology to track that and to know when our students are getting close to leaving. We call that being like rumble strips on the side of the road. There are gaps that we are looking at, not just within courses, but between courses, on the way to our students’ academic goals.
Gardner: Tim, when I hear Chris and Scott describe these challenges in education, I think how impactful this can be for other businesses in general as they increasingly have blended workforces. They are going to face similar gaps too. What, from Citrix’s point of view, should businesses be learning from the experiences at University of Northampton and Wake Tech?
Minahan: I think Winston Churchill summed it up best: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Smart organizations are using the current crisis — not just to survive, but to thrive. They are using the opportunity to accelerate their digital transformation and rethink long-held work and operating models in ways they probably hadn’t before.
So as demonstrated both at Wake Tech and Northampton, and as Scott and Chris both said, for both school and work the future is definitely going to be blended.
We have, for example, another higher education customer, the University of Sydney that was able to get 20,000 students and faculty transition to an online learning environment last March, literally within a week. But that’s not the real story, it’s where they are going next with this.
As they entered the new school year in Sydney, they now have 100 core and software as a service (SaaS) applications that students can access through the digital workspace regardless of the type of device or their location. And they can ensure they have that consistent and secure and reliable experience with those apps. They say the student experience is as good, and sometimes even better, than what a student would have when using a locally installed app on a physical computer.
And now the university, most importantly, has used this remote learning model as an opportunity to reach new students — and even new faculty — in locations that they couldn’t have supported before due to geographic limitations of largely classroom-based models.
These are the types of things that businesses also hav
e to think through. And as we hear from Wake Tech and Northampton, businesses can take a page from the courseware from many forward-thinking higher education organizations that are already in a blended learning model and see how that applies to their own business.
Gardner: Dr. Ralls, when you look to the future, what comes next? What would you like to see happen around remote learning, and what can the technologists like Citrix do to help?
Blended learning without walls
Ralls: Right now, there is so much greater efficiency than we had before. I think there is a way to bring that greater efficiency even more into our classrooms. For years we have talked about a flipped classroom, which really means those things that are better accomplished outside in a lab or in a shop, to do those outside of the classroom.
We have to all get to a place where the learning process just doesn’t happen within the walls of the classrooms. So the ability for students to go back and review work, to pick up on work, to use multiple different tools to add and supplement what they are getting through a classroom-based experience, a shop-based experience — I think that’s what we are moving to.
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For Wake Tech, this really hit us about March 15, 2020 when we went fully remote. We don’t want to go back to the way we were in April. We don’t want to be a fully remote, online college. But we also don’t want to be where we were in February.
This pandemic crisis has presented to us a greater acceleration of where we want to be, of where we can be. It’s what we aspire to be in terms of better education — not just more convenient access of education — but better educational opportunities through the multiple different opportunities that are brought to us by technology to supplement the core work that we have always done through our seat-based environment.
Gardner: Chris, at Northampton, what’s the next step for the technology enabling these higher goals that Dr. Ralls just described? Where would you like to see the technology take Northampton students next?
Foward: The technology is definitely key to what we are trying to do as education providers, to provide the right skill sets wherein students move from higher education into business. Certainly, with the likes of Citrix, with what was originally a commercial-focused application, and bringing it into our institution, we have allowed our students to gain access and understand how the system works — and understand how to use it.
And that’s similar with most of our technologies that we have brought in. It gives students more of a commercial feel for how operations should be running, how systems should be accessed, and the ways to use those systems.
Gardner: Tim, graduates from Wake Tech and from University of Northampton a year or two from now, they are going to be well-versed in these technologies, and this level of collaboration and seamless transitions between blended approaches. How are the companies they go to going to anticipate these new mindsets? What should businesses be doing to take full advantage of what these students have already been doing in these universities?
Students become empowered employees
Minahan: That’s a great point, and it is certainly something that business is grappling with now as we move beyond hiring Millennials to the next generation of highly educated, grown-up-on-the-Internet students with high expectations who are coming out of universities today.
For the next few years, it all boils down to the need to deliver a superior employee experience, to empower employees to perform at their best, and to do the jobs they were hired to do. We should not burden them, as we have in a lot of corporate America, with a host of different distractions, apps, and rules and regulations that keep them away from doing their core jobs.
We need to deliver a superior employee experience. We should not burden them with a host of different distractions, apps, and rules that keep them from doing their core jobs.
And key to that, not surprisingly, is going to require a digital workspace environment that empowers and provides unified access to all of the resources and information that the employee needs to perform at their best across any work channel or location. They need a behind-the-scenes security model that ensures the security of the corporate assets, applications, and information — as well as the privacy of individuals — without getting in the way of work.
And then, at a higher level, as we talked about earlier, we need an intelligence model with more analytics built into that environment. It will then not just offer up a launch pad to access the resources you need, but will actually guide you through your day, presenting the right tasks and insights as you need them, and allowing you to get the noise out of your day so you can really create, innovate, and do your best work. And that will be whether work is in an office, on the road, or work as we have seen recently, in the home.
Gardner: I wouldn’t be surprised if the students coming out of these innovative institutes of higher learning are going to be the instigators of change and innovation in their employment environments. So a point on the arrow from education into the business realm.
Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Read a full transcript or download a copy. Sponsor: Citrix.
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