AWS Public Sector Blog

5 lessons for university leaders preparing for a return to campus and how the cloud can help

four students walking along a tree-lined path on a college campus

Higher education leaders agree the coronavirus pandemic forced many institutions to adapt and innovate as never before. Which strategies worked? Which tactics didn’t? What role did cloud technology play? The Amazon Web Services (AWS) education team recently convened a small group of university leaders for a roundtable discussion. The group’s goals were to learn about adaptations institutions have made to support learning, teaching, health and administrative processes, campus culture, and physical infrastructure.

Here are the top five takeaways:

1. Physical health and mental wellbeing are top priority: Support systems that scale are a must.

The primary concern of university leaders in attendance was the physical and mental wellbeing of their students, faculty, and staff. This was aligned with a recent American Council on Education Poll in which 68% of university presidents said the most pressing issue for their institution was student mental health, closely followed by mental health of faculty and staff at 60%.

University leaders should implement support systems to address the physical health and mental wellness needs of their campus community. Dr. Joanne Vogel, vice president of student services at Arizona State University (ASU) said it was important to provide tools to create a sustainable community of care. ASU created the ASU health check mobile app, which asks campus visitors to answer questions about their COVID-19 symptoms.

Higher education leaders are also aware of the mental toll this pandemic has on their campus community. Dr. Wayne Frederick, president of Howard University, noted “This pandemic with its break in social interaction revealed the essential interconnectedness of our humanity.” And in looking ahead to students returning to campus later this year he said, “Our students are going to come to us with a different mindset and we have to realize that and support it.”

2. Effective communication requires systems that are multi-modal, current, connected, and sustainable.

The pandemic escalated the need for timely communication from higher education leaders to their many constituents including students and families, faculty, staff, researchers, community members, alumni, and campus visitors. Participants found they needed multiple communication modes to reach their audiences.

Providing timely information tailored to each audience involved creativity, planning, and technology. Each institution developed their own communication approach with a mix of virtual town halls, informational websites, data dashboards, chatbots, mobile apps, emails, social media, and more.

Institutions also experienced increased inbound requests for information. Institution leaders used Amazon Connect, a multi-modal, cloud-based contact center, as well as voice and text services such as AWS QnAbot and AWS Chatbot. These solutions were used to answer questions via multiple channels—web chat, mobile chat, or even by answering calls through the cloud-based contact center.

3. Hybrid learning and work are here to stay.

Pivoting to remote teaching, learning, and research happened practically overnight for most educators. Being flexible is the key to a university’s sustainability and resilience. “Cal Poly already had a digital strategy, but we didn’t realize how quickly it would become critical to the success of the university until last year. The fact that our move to cloud and partnership with AWS were well underway by the time COVID hit allowed us to transition almost entirely to virtual learning within about two weeks,” Bill Britton, California Polytechnic State University’s vice president for information technology and chief information officer (CIO), noted after the event. Using Amazon AppStream 2.0, Cal Poly was able to provision virtual desktops and applications in the cloud so their students could keep learning from anywhere on any device.

Remote teaching, learning, and research have benefits for instructors, students, faculty, and staff. The investments made to teach hybrid and all-remote courses, and to have staff work remotely, gives the institution flexibility, additional capacity, and the opportunity to tap into new student populations, and explore new business models.

4. To “always be innovating” is the new normal.

Responding to the pandemic forced higher education leaders to be open to new ideas, challenge long-held assumptions and conventions, and embrace technology. For example, rethinking physical space and resource use on campus was important to all of the roundtable participants. Some university leaders are looking at moving administrative functions to less expensive off-campus space (or even remote) to free central campus real estate for student-centric and mission-driven activities. Institutions want to keep the innovations that worked and continue to raise the bar to better serve their campus community and institution’s mission. Moving to the cloud frees institutions from the heavy lift of patching servers and updating operating systems so higher education institutions can move quickly, innovate, and adapt as needed.

5. Collaborations are critical for agility, expertise, and scale.

Collaborations with communities, local governments, and corporations were deemed critical for pandemic response by participants. Seeking out organizations to collaborate with – ones that complement your institution’s strengths, give you access to knowledge and technology you don’t already have. “Town and gown” partnerships, especially with local public health departments, were universal for our participating institutions to enable coordination of COVID testing and tracing, and communication of and adherence to COVID protocols. Institutions with medical schools lent their resources to the mission by standing up COVID testing sites and coordinating with governments for mass vaccination sites and outreach.

One participating institution developed their own cheaper COVID test, and then shared that technology with their consortium peers. Multiple institutions tapped into existing partnerships with technology companies to accelerate development of COVID response. Other institutions worked closely with corporate partners to acquire and build out mobile testing labs to better serve people of color in communities where they live.

The adaptations and transformations made in the past year enabled by technology have been critical to keeping people safe, supported, and connected to one another. As one roundtable participant explained, “The need for technology has been magnified over time, and COVID has taken us 10 years ahead. Understanding the power of tech has been amazing, and we will be using it in ways we haven’t envisioned before.”

Stay engaged with AWS higher education to share and learn more about innovations happening at campuses across the country.

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Jan Day

Jan Day

Jan Day is a higher education alliance and community manager on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Education, State, and Local Government Executive Advisory Team. She represents AWS to higher education community membership organizations and leads the AWS Education Champions program. In this role Jan listens to the voice of the customer, connects customers to one another to share best practices, and identifies innovators using AWS to transform education and research. She is located in Washington, DC.

Melissa Ingber

Melissa Ingber

Melissa Ingber is a public sector innovation specialist at Amazon Web Services (AWS), and she launched the AWS Institute.