Behind the mask: The new face of higher education in a post-Covid world

Higher-ed was already experimenting heavily in hybrid and completely online learning before Covid-19, with extensive investment in edtech leading development both in terms of curriculum and technology. Online and flexible learning options were already key to universities’ long-term growth strategies. 

For universities and educational institutions, sustainability and long-term usability and cost optimization are watchwords. At the same time, students entering universities now are digital natives who expect their experience to encompass flexibility in learning and a technology and innovation-driven journey from admission to graduation. 

 

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Flexible higher-ed in a post-Covid world

A number of universities and educational institutions have understandably decided to sit on the fence and take a “wait-and-see” approach to making permanent investment in their IT infrastructure. Despite not knowing for sure what a post-Covid world will require to support hybrid and distance learning, most universities and consultancies are investing in the bigger picture: building a sustainable learning infrastructure. This means adopting technologies to support virtual/remote learning as well as having the pieces in place to ensure smooth IT functions in normal times and the ability to kick performance and resilience into high gear, for example, in situations like Covid, when completely online learning suddenly became the norm. 

 

Moving forward with higher-ed: No way back to the old ways

While many universities already offered hybrid or completely online learning options, and have been able to be more global in their teaching/learning modalities, Covid necessitated an acceleration of these changes. And now that Covid may be at a plateau, it isn’t time to go back to the old way of doing things. Universities like Columbia University in the United States, cite this peri-Covid time as critical for advancing new ideas of what university education can be, how accessible it can be, and how technology will fuel these irreversible moves forward. 

Technology will enable and help to equalize some of the problems that have surfaced as a result of Covid. For example, “new restrictions of international mobility, increased prejudice and nationalism, pressure from governments and governmental institutions to restrict academic freedoms, and economic downturns that impact regional job prospects are all going to be factors in these students’ lives, and therefore are going to shape the educational landscape”. 

The Institute for International Education predicts that universities will be living with hybrid learning environments and concomitant technologies for a long time to come.

Powering the IT structure of education’s future

For IT infrastructure, most universities using Varnish have adopted Varnish because of its future-proof versatility and flexibility. While a university may have adopted Varnish in order to speed up content delivery and implement access controls across different academic departments, they may then discover that Varnish can also be used for security, to reduce the number of servers needed, to scale up without downtime, and for video-on-demand and live streaming. 

Whether ensuring uptime and secure access for course materials or student records, or streaming live and on-demand lectures, or scaling up collaboration tools to meet demand, comprehensive online learning and the remote-dominant learning and instruction paradigm has created a need for permanent solutions for: 

  • Security and privacy: Even when education is primarily on-campus, university networks are notoriously challenging to secure. Going all online, these challenges are amplified.
  • Access control: Academic institutions’ sites and access to them are a bit like the infamous Russian doll - controlling access to all these layers is key.
  • Performance at scale: The speed and resilience of your content delivery at scale will determine how engaged students are and how successful your online education offerings are.
  • Integrating online and e-learning-specific tools: Ensure access to dedicated e-learning platforms, which are often out-of-the-box solutions that have nothing to do with the school/university or are homegrown departmentally and can create technical and content delivery challenges.
  • Scalability and reach: Academia has gone global, and your infrastructure has to seamlessly scale up to meet demand and be accessible wherever your students are.
  • Flexibility: Being able to customize solutions and add on more functionality as demands change helps avoid lock-in and one-size-fits-all models that don’t fit dynamic IT environments. 
  • Cost control: Protect budgets, potentially reduce costs and tap into the efficiency that existing resources can offer.

This moment - and universities’ response to it - may determine how the face of education looks for years to come. The greater the agility and responsiveness, the more sustainable the result. 

 

Real-world, real-time implementations

The University of Wuppertal in Germany was already using Varnish for caching, and in light of the new remote-learning challenges, enlisted an expanded Varnish feature set for streaming video content. 

“While e-learning and blended learning had been available for some time, it had been treated as a “nice-to-have” option for most departments, meaning that the video streaming infrastructure existed and functioned, but it had never been put to the test in any meaningful way. Once the entire university moved operations online, concerns arose about how the video-on-demand platforms would cope with sudden and heavy loads. How would the existing solutions behave when hundreds of people uploaded videos into the encoding queue and the system delivered the videos to potentially thousands of people? How could the IT department ensure uptime and availability? Again, having had experience with Varnish, the university’s IT team knew there was a solution. Within one week, the Varnish team had delivered a solution for the VoD platform based on the university’s specifications, and within another week of testing and internal management, the streaming solution was ready for action.”

 

What can Varnish do to help your educational institution be ready for anytime, everywhere education?

 

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Topics: Varnish for Academia, e-learning, web security, high performance, IT infrastructure, higher-ed

4/30/21 9:09 AM by Alexandra Lehner

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