Back in May, the University of Cambridge and the University of Manchester became the first UK higher education institutions to announce a full transition to online learning as a response to the Covid-19 outbreak.
However, Cambridge and Manchester were exceptions among UK universities: an overwhelming majority decided to maintain on-campus teaching in 2020. This was despite the University and College Union’s (UCU) recommendation to offer online-only teaching until Christmas to prevent a surge of coronavirus cases.
Enabling virtual learning for university students can seem a daunting task for academic staff and students alike. It can also present important challenges for those institutions that lack technical capabilities.
Tech Monitor spoke to three IT executives about how universities are enabling online courses for students – and why higher education institutions need to be on guard against cyber threats now more than ever.
How an early cloud migration paid off for Staffordshire University
Luckily for Staffordshire University, the advent of the pandemic did not cause panic among its hallways. Andrew Proctor, pro-vice-chancellor (digital) at Stafford University, explains that the West Midlands academic institution was well-prepared for a full transition to virtual learning in the wake of Covid-19 restrictions.
“We have been running all our services via the cloud and have been using tools like MS Teams to offer virtual learning for a few years now,” says Proctor.
Under Proctor’s leadership, Staffordshire was the first UK university to migrate all of its systems to the cloud – a step that has helped the organisation move swiftly to online learning and remote working in the coronavirus outbreak aftermath.
Staffordshire University plans for virtual teaching were developed alongside the emerging advice and guidance from the British government on Covid-19. However, Proctor says, the university had already begun shifting to a hybrid virtual and physical model to provide more choice and flexibility for its students as part of its existing 2030 strategy.
This hybrid or “blended model”, where students can participate in some Covid-secure classes on-campus while also engaging in virtual teaching, is what the university is currently operating.
“We envisage this will continue into 2021, but we will closely monitor the situation,” says Proctor.
Among the initiatives implemented by Proctor and his team during lockdown is the streaming of high-powered computing desktops – such as the ones used for games development courses – through the cloud to students with low-powered PCs.
“This enables our students to access specialist resources and applications to continue their studies from home,” explains Proctor.
According to Proctor, the biggest challenge was ensuring students had access to technology and resources at home to be able to engage fully with virtual learning. To overcome this, Proctor and his team used analytics to identify students whose engagement levels were dropping following the transition to virtual learning.
“This allowed teaching staff to reach out to these students to understand and remove any barriers in their way; for example, by posting out a laptop to a student without access to one,” he says.
How a digital platform empowers co-operation between universities
To help universities in their mission to migrate teaching to the digital realm, biweekly magazine Times Higher Education (THE) will be launching THE Campus – a virtual platform which connects worldwide institutions and their staff to share best practices in online teaching and learning.
“Universities have to exploit the use of digital technologies much more than before,” says Freddie Quek, chief technology officer at THE. “One of the ways to achieve this is by greater learning and collaboration across universities to learn best practices from each other, even more broadly than ever before beyond their own national and regional boundaries.”
Among the resources available in THE Campus preview ahead of its official launch is a video with top tips for selecting and implementing new technologies by the pro-vice-chancellor (operations) and deputy chief executive at the University of London.
In another video tutorial, Yau-Yuen Yeung and Mandy Tsang from the Education University of Hong Kong explain the differences between remote and virtual laboratories.
“The Covid-19 challenge can now become a great opportunity for universities to be creative and strive to continue providing a quality education albeit in different ways,” adds Quek.
In building this online platform, THE Campus has partnered with Arizona State University, Microsoft and independent public benefit corporation Cintana Education.
As an open “knowledge sharing community”, THE Campus aims to keep expanding its resources and evidence-based research to become a global community that can support academic staff in a post-pandemic digital world.
What are the cybersecurity challenges for universities?
The proliferation of teaching online models has not gone unnoticed by cybercriminals, who quickly started exploiting the transition to digital education. The Covid-19 outbreak meant an alarming increase in cyber threats, data breaches and ransomware among universities.
In addition to this, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has witnessed a spike in ransomware attacks targeting UK educations institutions since August. Those affected have seen their operational capacities greatly impaired as in some cases it can take months to return to normality.
“From a university perspective, cybercriminals have always targeted the low hanging fruit, but the landscape has shifted existentially towards nation-states and their proxies infiltrating university networks and gaining ongoing persistence once inside – as well as many other threat actors of course,” Mick Jenkins, chief information security officer at Brunel University London, tells Tech Monitor.
For Jenkins, preparing for these threats requires future-proofing with investment and solid leadership. It also involves creating safe data havens based on Zero Trust methodology.
The Zero Trust security model requires verification from all users, eliminating any access by default, even for those already inside the network perimeter. According to Jenkins, this model relies on a new collective mission and a new mindset from all digital practitioners, and its strength shows it is the best form of defence to conduct simulated attack exercises.
The findings of these simulated attack exercises offer useful intelligence on how today’s cybercriminals attack university environments.
“This is a journey that spans digital transformation and information assurance strategies to deliver tangible business benefits for both competitive edge and securing high-value intellectual property and personal data,” he adds.
Although on-campus life will keep playing an essential role for students, there is little doubt that online learning will remain a strong option, particularly for those students who might be unable to attend classes or who need to combine work with their studies. It’s time now for CIOs and CISOs to work together to offer students the best and safest online education experience.