Leadership, Security, Communication: The Three COVID Coping Strategies For Education

Schools around the world adapting to the new realities that have resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. Uncertainty is widespread as officials from K-12 through higher education work hard to keep students, educators, and staff safe, while providing the best possible learning environments.

There’s a lot of flux around how and where education will take place this fall and beyond. However,  one constant is that technology will play a central role in any and all eventual scenarios.

We reached out to technology influencers and experts to explore some of the challenges, options, and strategies under consideration for education IT decision-makers. With a focus on decisions around critical infrastructure components like data management, networking and security, we asked:

  • What are some strategies and tactics IT leaders in education should take to cope with this uncertainty?

A Time for Leadership

Our experts offered a diverse menu of ideas, but one theme stands out: the IT community needs to lead this effort.

“IT leaders need to build strategies around resilience, reliability, speed and flexibility to enable non disrupted learning experience,” says Helen Yu, Founder and CEO of Tigon Advisory Corp. “First, build a more resilient and reliable infrastructure. This encompasses a mission-critical operation support plan, authorized personnel to monitor and automate daily route tasks and performance monitoring.

Second, establish a scalable architecture. Complement public cloud with multi-cloud solutions, which could protect against on-premises workload capacity shortage.

Third, create a workforce resilience community. This allows IT leaders to provide guidelines and offers a platform to share best practices.”

Adds technology writer Will Kelly, “It’s up to school IT leaders to get in front of COVID-19 uncertainties  by being proactive and cognizant of their technology and budget options and uncertainties. COVID-19 is also a time to review their institution’s service provider relationships. It’s also time to review  their outsourced platforms and infrastructure.”

Audrey DeSisto, CEO, Founder of Digital Marketing Stream, offers a pro-active idea.   I feel one way to tackle this would be to set up an CIO/CISO school advisory board,” she says. “Most professionals in the industry would be happy to assist the schools. These leaders would understand how to assess the current state of infrastructure and produce a risk management plan quickly. The board could get to work on the plan, and management could assign qualified people to research grants and budget.The response early on to the pandemic offers valuable experience, says Anna Frazzetto, CDTO & President, Technology Solutions. “Lessons learned from the rush to remote learning earlier this year need to be applied to education’s IT strategy this fall,” she says. 

Security at the forefront

Information Security and data privacy have consistently remained among the paramount concerns of education and IT leaders.[1]  Openness and collaboration have guided network design and strategy. The new normal is stressing these systems, challenging IT leaders to find a secure equilibrium.

“At the top of any IT leader’s strategy should be security, says Jones Baraza, Director of SwiftIntellect and CyberSwiftIntellect.

Christopher Wessells, a Senior Higher Education Strategist at Dell Technologies and former university CIO, states: “For higher education institutions built on a culture of open networks that encourage collaboration and transparency, the challenge of addressing cybersecurity is intensifying. It’s a delicate balance between access and protection. The diversity of devices, complexity of networks, expanding amount of data and information stored on-premise, in “home devices,” and in multiple cloud solutions only makes securing that data even more challenging.”

With the pandemic, threats have become more sophisticated, which magnifies the challenge for educational IT teams to protect personal information, ensure privacy exists, and safeguard sensitive institutional data and assets.

Security has consistently been a leading priority for IT leaders in education. But in the months since COVID-19 hit, security attacks have escalated. In IDG’s CSO-COVID study (March 2020) 61% of security pros expressed greater concern about attacks targeting folks at home.

Tricia A. Howard, Marketing Manager at HolistiCyber, points out that education is a special use case. “Since education has a unique challenge of needing to foster a more open environment than a typical enterprise, security can get become an afterthought – which can actually end up being more expensive in the long run. This can open you up to vulnerabilities that you didn’t have previously. Bring in a third party to assess your new additions or modifications to the environment: one who makes pragmatic, prioritized security suggestions. The ROI of security goes beyond mitigating the cost of a breach: it can save a lot of valuable time for your already full plates.”

Says Frazzetto, “From a networking perspective, all parties need to be provided remote access that has the proper security and firewalls in place. IT leaders in education should approach data management the same way they would if they were a business: only certain people have access to certain materials. This allows teachers to share information with each other and gives the principal the access to supervise the process.”

Says Wessells, “A modern Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) solution has become even more important with the shift to remote work, teaching and learning. Consider new threats like fileless attacks that rely on trusted and installed software, which circumvent firewalls and traditional AV solutions.”

Over-Communicate

Clarity and quality of communication has always been an important part of the CIO’s role at universities and in school districts.  In today’s dynamic environment, communication is critical. For Mark Thiele, CEO & Founder at Edgevana Inc., communication is a crucial part of any COVID-19 coping plan.

“Clear and well distributed communication plans are a minimum. Whether it’s administrators working with teachers or teachers maintaining consistency with students and parents, communication plans are vital,” he says.

Tech leaders mid-pandemic “need to make sure their focus stays proactive and not reactive,” says Paige Francis, VP of IT/CIO at University of Tulsa. She adds that purchases must be deployable, long-term and sustainable, and urges tech leaders to “stick to a roadmap ensuring you’re deploying solutions in a highly intentional, prioritized fashion.”

Above all, Francis says “Consistent and trusted communication remains at an all-time high — we don’t know what’s coming, we anticipate much continuing to be different, the only thing we can guarantee is that no matter what the world throws at us, we will be present and support through it.”

The Technology Angle

As for specific technologies that will play key roles, influencers cited cloud, emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and virtual reality, and automation. First of all, “Infrastructure needs to be agile and integrative, future-proof and scalable,” said University of Tulsa’s Francis.  

Jonathan Reichental, CEO, professor, and author, points to the cloud. Rapidly move as many services as possible to the cloud,” he says.  “Embrace XaaS (everything-as-a-service). Implement robust cloud cybersecurity.”

“Enable technology solution strategies that make the business of educating and learning as easy as using Google to search or eBay to buy,” says Mark Thiele. Also, “automate and simplify IT solution management so that people aren’t the gating factor to delivering and supporting solutions.”

Wessells highlights the need to think strategically about cloud strategy.  “Modern applications and services that support the business and academic aspects of institutions still depend on an agile and robust infrastructure that typically run in a hybrid or multi-cloud operating model. Our team at Dell Technologies is focused on providing our customers with flexibility and control with a consistent cloud experience, regardless of whether you are leveraging a public or private cloud environment.” 

A Position of Power

We can be certain that the disruption from COVID-19 to education is far from over. Seventy-three percent of information security professionals reported “that the impact of this pandemic will alter the way their businesses evaluate risk for at least the next five years,” according to IDG’s Security COVID study.

If any good is to come out of this, it’s perhaps summed up by Peter B. Nichol, Head of IT Portfolio Management for R&D at Regeneron Pharmaceutical.

“COVID-19 has introduced challenges that educational leaders never had to face,” he says. “It required new leadership, different tactics, greater empathy, and a renewed awareness of when to invest or divest initiatives that only weeks earlier were critical. IT educational leaders are in a powerful place to balance people, planet and profit while driving their educational mission.”

The impact of these technology changes today to manage the COVID response will have an impact for years to come. New infrastructure will be in place and will act as a catalyst for change and how students experience education and engage in learning well into the future. 

Indeed, with the pandemic of 2020, the landscape of education has changed, and these changes will have an impact on how students engage with learning for years to come. It has resulted in an elevation in the IT leadership role, necessitated clear and proactive communication, and amplified the requirement for agile and robust technology infrastructure solutions in a cloud-native world that support modern applications and services for academic communities.

[1] EDUCAUSE Top 10 Issues List (2017 through 2020)

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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