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

by Joseph K. Clark

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 and rapidly changing health and safety protocols. Many colleges saw a sharp drop in enrollment numbers as returning and prospective students questioned the value of pursuing higher education online. Simultaneously, additional revenue from residential life, summer programs, and sports evaporated, precipitating higher education’s most considerable 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 before the onset of the global pandemic have fared much better.


Here are three examples of leading institutions that 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 critical factors, including reducing costs by eliminating the need to replace costly hardware every few years, streamlining IT operations by moving critical 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 the architecture and develop accurate cost estimates for running their workloads in the cloud was the primary driver of NIU’s success. Adopting a set of cloud best practices has positioned the NIU to better manage its environment moving forward. As a result, the university is on track to save 13% on infrastructure-related costs over three years.

Spring Arbor University improves agility.

Spring Arbor University also sought to improve its operational efficiency and reduce costs to foster a spiritual, intellectual, whole-person transformation for students, staff, and faculty. 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 using 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.

The University of Connecticut keeps the project on track.

The University of Connecticut (UCONN) has an astringent review-approvals process for construction projects that used 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. The university smartly identified a chance to streamline its operations in this area further to support employees now working from home.

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 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 generally were sent to executives to print, sign, scan, and then upload were instead completed with a few clicks. By automating the workflows, the university has saved an average of one week per cycle—a 25-30% improvement.

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. Many colleges and universities seeking the benefits of digital transformation often involve consolidating disparate, legacy systems that usually 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 gives institutions increased visibility and more unified management capabilities while reducing operating costs. Unburdened by manual and time-consuming processes, faculty and staff can 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 allow 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 remote and hybrid learning era.

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 a greater level of interoperability and automation that the cloud provides.

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