5 Priorities for Higher Ed Heading into Fall 2023

The summer of 2023 is quickly ending, concluding with the autumnal equinox on Sept. 23. This marks the first day of fall, when the Earth aligns with the sun, providing equal lengths of day and night. This reminds me of the challenges that higher education and IT will face in keeping a sense of balance with so many competing priorities heading into the new academic year.Many aspects of higher education have changed since the beginning of the pandemic. Some believe the impact of COVID-19 continues to wane. Other experts believe COVID-19 is likely to re-emerge in the fall, as classes are back in session. Whatever the reality, there may be a multitude of challenges in store for teaching and learning, coupled with the associated IT needs. Institutions may now need to carefully analyze and re-balance technology expectations, services, support and potential risks. Here are five key areas to watch for as colleges and universities prepare for the fall term.ONLINE LEARNINGThroughout the pandemic there was a much greater reliance upon online learning, resulting in large investments in technologies and remote services. After three years of pandemic-induced online learning, institutions are now considering what the future environment might look like. One emerging trend in higher education identified in a 2023 Educause report is an increased focus on the improvement of hybrid and online learning. The report says, “Now out of ‘emergency remote teaching’ mode, many higher-education institutions are focusing on developing sustainable and evidence-based models of hybrid online teaching and learning to support students’ online preferences.”To have an effective online presence, schools will need to provide new ways to ensure continued improvement of courses and how they are delivered. Faculty and staff, as well as students, may require training in innovative technologies and systems. It will be important to look for ways to increase student engagement and monitor their successes and failures while charting their individual performance. There are a variety of learning and teaching technologies available to do this, along with real-time data tracking of student progress. Institutions will also need to focus on a student’s social and emotional well-being. Dr. Christina Counts, vice president of education at the school furniture company MiEN Company, wrote in an op-ed in January, “In 2023, we will see schools working to improve mental health programs, provide new academic support systems and resources for students, and implement technologies and programs focused on social-emotional learning and student well-being.”ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCEThroughout the world of higher education, AI is seen as a disruptive technology in many different areas. Writing in March about how AI is shaping the future of higher education, M’hammed Abdous, assistant vice president of teaching and learning at Old Dominion University, singled out five main support areas including administrative, teaching, learning and research. In many cases, these transformative changes are both dramatic and unprecedented. Faculty and students already working with these technologies will need to quickly adapt and ensure these AI tools are utilized appropriately. AI-powered systems can analyze vast amounts of data and personalize a student’s learning experience, but the disadvantage of that is their potential for unethical use and privacy issues. Institutions will need to have technologies which can monitor how and when these tools are utilized and protect the vast amount of data they compile, analyze and disseminate. Universities and colleges will need to have protocols and processes to ensure data safety, as well as the necessary administrative and IT staff to understand the advantages and risks of AI.CYBERSECURITYIn an 1817 speech given in the British Parliament, William Lamb, a Whig politician, proclaimed during debate over the suspension of habeas corpus, “the possession of great power necessarily implies great responsibility.” This was paraphrased by Stan Lee in a now-famous 1962 comic book, Amazing Fantasy #15, as, “with great power comes great responsibility.” This same message can also be attributed to AI. With its immense potential reach, institutions have a great responsibility to implement powerful and effective cybersecurity tools and protocols. With the massive amount of data AI can generate, it will be imperative to ensure who should or should not have access to the institution’s data. Buck Bell, heading the Global Security Strategy Office for the technology company CDW, wrote in June: “My preference would be for higher education institutions — and the rest of the world vulnerable to cyber attacks — to fully embrace a zero-trust model of defense. A strong opening on the road to zero trust is enabling endpoint detection and response.”AI cybersecurity tools can provide real-time analytics to identify and quickly shut down cyber attacks. Unfortunately, at the same time, bad actors are also using AI to avoid detection. In February, tech journalist Louis Columbus wrote in VentureBeat, “Cyber-criminal gangs and sophisticated advanced persistent threat (APT) groups actively recruit AI and ML specialists who design malware that can evade current-generation threat-detection systems. What attackers lack in size and scale, they more than make up for in ingenuity, speed and stealth.”IT STAFFINGIT staffing in higher education will continue to be a major issue in the coming year. As a story in Inside Higher Ed pointed out in June, “Over the next decade, vast numbers of college and university employees will be walking out the door. They will leave with years of accrued knowledge and know-how locked in their brains. As colleges are reluctant to hire, too little is being done to train the next generation of higher-education workers.” During the pandemic, many higher-education employees either retired or looked for more lucrative remote jobs in the corporate sector. Attracting seasoned IT staff back to higher ed may become more difficult. Colleges and universities may need to look within their current staff and provide more training and other work benefits to retain them.DIVERSITYHigher education has historically worked toward encouraging diversity in faculty, staff and students. In 2023, the Supreme Court struck down affirmative-action programs in college admissions. Proponents of student diversity point out this decision will severely affect the pipeline of potential students to colleges and future careers. Others speculate diversity-related programs will see more scrutiny, both in higher ed and corporate sectors. Speaking to USA Today in June, Andrew Turnbull, a labor and employment partner at the San Francisco law firm Morrison & Foerster, predicted the Supreme Court decision would invite greater scrutiny of company strategies for increasing diversity. An environment moving towards reduced diversity may not only affect college student populations but challenge the development of future talent, and hiring qualified, diverse IT staff.Each of these five factors will have an impact on higher education. The challenge for colleges and universities is to be cognizant of them and have plans to address them. With the fall semester right around the corner, higher-ed leaders need to quickly make prudent decisions to ensure effective, efficient and safe teaching and learning environments.

Jim Jorstad is Senior Fellow for the Center for Digital Education and the Center for Digital Government. He is a retired emeritus interim CIO and Cyber Security Designee for the Chancellor’s Office at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He served in leadership roles as director of IT client services, academic technologies and media services, providing services to over 1,500 staff and 10,000 students. Jim has experience in IT operations, teaching and learning, and social media strategy. His work has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Forbes and NPR, and he is a recipient of the 2013 CNN iReport Spirit Award. Jim is an EDUCAUSE Leading Change Fellow and was chosen as one of the Top 30 Media Producers in the U.S.

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