If there is a silver lining attached to COVID-19 it’s that the pandemic struck now rather than five years ago. The digital transformation that has already rippled through much of the higher education sector has left many universities in a much better position to cope with the crisis than they would have been previously.
Michael Grant, Director of IT Services and Deputy Chief Operating Officer at Murdoch University pulls no punches; “Five years ago it would have been extremely challenging to teach online on a mass scale, due to the legacy technology environment. In addition, the ability of our staff to work from home effectively would have been severely compromised.”
“For many universities that would have been more than a challenge. It would have been catastrophic.”
That does not change the fact that COVID-19 has delivered unprecedented challenges associated with the necessary pivot to remote learning, to adjust so that university staff can work from home, and the immense problem of overseas students not being able to return to Australia.
Murdoch University is well advanced with its digital transformation, using Microsoft Azure Cloud Services, including Office 365 with SharePoint, Teams and OneDrive to promote greater collaboration between students and academics supported by Azure ADP Identity Platform and the Azure Integration Platform. The use of these platforms has shifted into overdrive now with administrative personnel also using the cloud solutions from home and Teams to connect and collaborate.
Faced with the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 Murdoch’s IT team needed to support their University colleagues in five key areas: deliver a way for students to continue their studies; allow staff to work remotely; quickly facilitate the delivery of student aid packages; assess the impact of COVID-19 on current and future projects; and, continue to deliver effective service desk and support functions.
Alex Tegg, Associate Director of Planning and Governance, explains;
It also had to ensure the capacity of Moodle and other key online learning platforms to support the wholesale shift to remote learning.
Murdoch rolled out Windows Virtual Desktop in just four days to support remote access to its computer labs. While the solution was deployed in response to the COVID crisis it could have enduring impact says Tegg.
As he notes; “All universities have first-in-family students, working parents … people who have real life considerations alongside their programme of study.” He says that the access provided to cope with COVID-19 could have long term benefits if it means a student can tackle something from home at; “9:00 PM on a Tuesday because I’m working, I’ve got kids or whatever it may be instead of having to come onto campus to work in the computer lab.”
An additional challenge that Murdoch has faced is the need to support students who may not have home access to the internet or even their own computer.
Murdoch has rolled out a series of financial support initiatives including the Student Assistance Fund, Technology Bursaries and Laptop Loans to help students who might not have access to their own computers or home internet. In the past those students have come onto campus to use Murdoch’s computer labs – which is not an option whilst the campus is in lockdown.
The university has also offered additional assistance – including food vouchers – to students in real need. Instead of the time-consuming manual applications of the past, the IT team has spun up online systems to streamline the process.
In 2019 Murdoch University became the first Australian user of Microsoft Azure Active Directory Premium. The cloud based digital identity management system handles access to systems for Murdoch’s 23,000 students and 1,700 staff across its campuses in Perth, Dubai, Myanmar and Singapore.
The combination of cloud-based platforms and digital identity management meant that Murdoch University was able to pivot to remote studying and working in a matter of weeks. It has also allowed the university to rapidly roll out its support programmes for students.
Tegg notes that Murdoch has, compared to many other universities, a higher proportion of students who may need to rely on these support programs.
To support the students most in need Murdoch has implemented a series of assistance options that students can apply for. The solution managing the Student Assistance Fund was developed on Office 365 in less than a week, with the digital identity management system and integration platforms providing an effective filter to determine up front who may or may not be eligible for support.
Behind the scenes Murdoch University’s IT team has been pulling out all the stops to develop and deploy systems that can help reduce the impact of COVID-19, working closely with the business to understand what needs to be achieved and the priorities required.
Its migration to the cloud has accelerated its ability to transform with Tegg noting that Office 365, Azure integration and Azure identity have been three key components to its success along with Sitefinity from the content management side.
“I think what this has done and probably for every university, it’s accelerated what people have been talking about and been working on for many years, around online learning,” says Tegg – particularly the development of online pedagogy and having academics embrace the approach.
Grant agrees that adoption is accelerating; “Teams is a great example. We‘ve had Teams out for a couple of years and, yes it gets used at the university. And we did all the training, change management, everything you could think of, marketing in-house. But only in the last three months have we seen it go from just another collaborative technology, to something that’s essential for all of us to communicate externally, but more importantly internally.”
Teams is now being used across the Murdoch community, including for weekly meetings of the university leadership group led by the Vice Chancellor.
Grant predicts that after COVID-19 abates there will be enduring demand for more online learning, flexible and remote work practices, online communications and collaboration.
Tegg agrees; “I highly doubt that when this is all back to normal and we’re all back on campus that we’re going to get people saying, ‘Oh, well we’ve just turned all that off now. Can’t we go back to the way we used to do it?’ It’s just not going to happen. The genie’s kind of out of the bottle and I think we will see some long–term positive effects of this driven innovation.”
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