The Covid-19 pandemic has placed extraordinary demands on IT leaders in all sectors, but the higher education sector more than most.
Faced with huge demands from two user bases – staff and students – IT leaders at universities have had to quickly flip from the norm.
Alongside 60 IT staff, Juliette Atkinson, head of IT at Bradford University, has had to cater for the IT demands of 10,000 students and 900 staff during an unprecedented period of disruption.
In fact, at least 12 of her 18 months in the role have been dominated by the pandemic and the disruption it has caused.
Ensuring back-office staff can work from home is challenging enough, but universities are faced with providing the IT equipment and training required for lecturers to teach and students to learn remotely.
Atkinson was at a conference in February last year when she realised that an IT change programme already under way at Bradford University would have to be speeded up. “During general conversations over lunch, people were talking about Covid and it mirrored what I had been discussing at the university about business continuity,” she said.
Atkinson and her team had been working on a project to support remote working because she had already identified it as a future requirement. “We traditionally would move from one building to another if we had an issue, but we had a limited capability for people to be able to move off-site and work remotely,” she said.
The project had primarily been designed to be used by technical people, but what Atkinson heard at the conference made her realise that the university had to be able to move work off-site.
“It struck me that if we had a situation where it became a pandemic, we could have major business continuity issues,” she said. “That sparked conversations with senior leadership and we realised we didn’t have the capability to get all staff working remotely, never mind students.”
They agreed to build the capability regardless, “even if it didn’t become a pandemic”, and started work a few weeks before the first lockdown. “By the time of the lockdown notification, we had taken steps to ensure we could continue to work,” said Atkinson.
The team built three platforms to enable staff and students to connect remotely. Two of these were assembled using VMware’s Horizon technology and a third using older VMware technology. One platform was for staff and two, because of the high user numbers, were for students. “What this allowed us to do was to connect into high-powered workstations back on campus,” she said.
This took just 10 days from design to deployment, said Atkinson. “This was a massive achievement because it normally takes two years to design an infrastructure like that,” she added.
Atkinson said the biggest challenge was not knowing what technology students and staff had at home. This made it difficult to understand what the requirement would be for home working. “There is only so much we could do,” she said. “For example, we could give someone access to a network and a laptop, but we can’t change people’s home broadband so that devices can support everything they need to do.”
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There were also challenges in ensuring that people had the right devices to connect to the new networks.
About 400 laptops had to be sourced for staff and then installed with the right software, but that was only the start, with student demand for devices to connect very high. “We have a very high proportion who are in a low socio-economic situation, so we provide a lot of off-campus devices for students to use,” said Atkinson.
The IT department was able to immediately give out 80 laptops that it already had, but realised this was not nearly enough as things got tough for students without the right hardware. “We were hearing stories that some students were trying to do their dissertations and attend lectures on mobile phones,” said Atkinson.
“We had to put something else in place pretty quickly and it was a key project for us to go to the university board of directors and ask for money to be allocated to supporting students who couldn’t connect. They were very supportive and granted half a million pounds.”
The pandemic’s sheer magnitude was throwing up challenges at every turn. When, for example, the university put in a large order for laptops for students, it soon encountered a problem because of the disruption the pandemic was causing to the global supply chain.
Atkinson spoke directly to the senior management at supplier Lenovo and explained that not only were more than half of the university’s students from low-income backgrounds, but also there were a number of students each year who were leaving care, with potentially no devices. As a result, the university was prioritised by Lenovo.
However, it still took a couple of months because of a shortage of parts in China and huge demand, including massive orders from the UK government.
Atkinson reflected on the challenges so far and said universities have faced some unfair criticism about their handling of the pandemic response. “There has been a lot of negative publicity for universities about levels of care for students, but I don’t see that here,” she said.
But one thing she is sure of – the pandemic will change how universities operate in the future. “The whole working environment at universities will change,” she said. “We have had to pivot completely to a flexible approach to working.
“We were moving in that direction, but Covid meant we had to do it quickly and I don’t think we will ever go back to working five days in the office.”
Atkinson said she is currently writing a five-year strategy and part of that is how the university goes forward with a flexible working environment. “The university strategy will never move away from face-to-face lectures and one-on-one time with lecturers and this will always form a large part of education,” she added.