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Educause Identifies Top IT Issues for an Uncertain Future

Each year Educause releases a report examining what its members consider the top 10 issues in IT for the coming year. This year, however, members — IT leaders and professionals in higher education — faced a quandary: Nobody knows what 2021 will look like because COVID-19 is holding all of us hostage for the foreseeable future. So the organization took a new approach. As Susan Grajek, vice president of communities and research, explained in an Educause conference session this week, the research project laid out three possible scenarios for how colleges and universities "might emerge" from the pandemic next year:

  • Restored, meaning the school would focus on survival, how to get back to where it was prior to the pandemic;
  • Evolved, meaning it would focus on "adapting to the new normal"; and
  • Transformed, meaning it would take "an active role" in innovating its approach to higher education.

Those scenarios generated three lists of top IT issues instead of one; but each list was limited to five issues instead of 10. The report is scheduled to be released on Nov. 2 and made available on the Educause website.

Some things didn't change. As usual, a roster of expert panelists, both IT and non-IT, identified the top IT issues for the coming year. That part of the process was no different from previous years, when the panelists pick out 15 to 20 issues for members to vote on. But this year, the experts created three versions of each issue list, one for each scenario. Then Educause surveyed members on those three lists to come up with the top five issues for each.

The research project also worked under three assumptions:

  • Assumption 1: that vaccines would become available and the pandemic would start "to resolve" during 2021;
  • Assumption 2: the scenarios would be "high-level" and "very general," to accommodate school variation in culture, vision and business model; and
  • Assumption 3: one outcome probably wouldn't wholly fit any single institution; a school's financial health might follow one scenario while its academic work might follow another.
Educause's 2021 "Top IT Issues"

Educause's 2021 "Top IT Issues" fell into three scenarios: Restore, Evolve and Transform. Source: "Top IT Issues 2021: Emerging from the Pandemic," an Educause conference session presented by Susan Grajek.

Many of the issues overlap from one scenario to another. As Grajek pointed out, the "Restore" and "Evolve" outcomes share four issues in common. But the details are different. For example, while information security showed up on both Restore and Evolve lists, for Restore, the issue of security "is qualified by the need to be budget conscious," she noted, and more tactically-minded. The concerns in the Evolve list are focused on developing a more strategic approach to cybersecurity and expands the scope to encompass off-campus security protection too.

Likewise, while online learning appeared as an issue on both lists, in survival mode (Restore), the emphasis is on dealing with the emergency of "remote teaching" and follows a more structural approach that focuses on "supports, processes and policies." In the adaptation mode (Evolve), the quality of online learning takes on more importance.

The Transform issues, on the other hand, were more unique to that scenario, with one exception: "Cost Management" appeared in both the Restore and the Transform lists. But while the Restore version of cost management emphasized the reduction of institutional costs and doing more with less, under Transform, cost management was focused on digital transformation, "to increase agility and reduce redundancy," as Grajek stated.

Educause used correlation analysis to uncover the connections among members' choices within and across issues in the scenarios. As Grajek explained, those who rated the Restore version of the cost management issue especially high (or low) for their institutions were far more likely also to rate the Evolve version of equitable access to education high or low. The same was true between Restore's online learning and Evolve's student success.

interconnections among the top IT issues across the three scenarios

Educause identified interconnections among the top IT issues across the three scenarios. Source: "Top IT Issues 2021: Emerging from the Pandemic," an Educause conference session presented by Susan Grajek.

Grajek commented on two issues "that came up again and again in the panels." The first was diversity, equity and inclusion, a set of concerns that "hint at IT affordability and digital equity in the Restore scenario and equitable access to education in the Evolve scenario." According to the experts, diversity, equity and inclusion were so important, they "[transcend] all the themes" and take multiple forms: "ensuring equity of access and outcomes for higher education, having a workforce that's diverse in many, many ways and that can reflect the diversity of our students and faculty and foster inclusion so no one feels marginalized or maltreated." As Grajek noted, "We need to keep these basic human rights in mind and in deed, as we lead and manage technology professionals and as we work with and support students, staff, faculty and the communities that we work in."

The second issue that may not have appeared in the roster but still permeates everything IT does right now, said Grajek, is burnout. "We all feel it, and there's no time that things will slow or ease up."

In a short video clip David Seidl, vice president for IT and CIO at Ohio's Miami University, referred to the problem of burnout as an "existential struggle." "A lot of institutions are going to be fighting an existential struggle before they fight a making-things-better struggle, and we're seeing it already across our state," he said. Even though he reminds his staff to treat the current job as a "marathon," it's hard for them to remember that, because "we keep running into things that we need to sprint for."

While there's no easy antidote to either of those broad challenges, Grajek reminded the audience, what schools need to remember is that the pandemic has brought opportunity too. "COVID has vaulted us several years ahead in digital transformation, the adoption of online learning, the need to replace business models, public scrutiny of the cost and value of higher education and agility in decision-making," she said. And while there's nothing new about "racial injustice, our current political polarization and the unfair and uneven impact of the pandemic on people of different ethnicities and means," the current crisis has shined "a harsh light on our challenges." In 2021, she concluded, colleges and universities need to "align with a new clarity of purpose and sense of urgency ... answer the difficult questions and start moving forward to emerge from this pandemic, by restoring, evolving and transforming."

An Educause Review article on the full report will be released on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020 on the Educause website. Additional material, including graphics and video, will be made available later in the month.

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