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16 Mar 2021

From physical to virtual learning: The new test of quality for universities

From physical to virtual learning: The new test of quality for universities

aGoing to university has for the most part been looked at as an exciting new adventure. Yet like so many things it has become a point of anxiety for many due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Whereas before students may have been attracted to the iconic campuses, nightlife, and small-town university hubs, much of that now seems irrelevant due to the restrictions currently in place.

This has had a profound impact on universities. For example, the University and College Union (UCU) found that one in five people were willing to delay undertaking their undergraduate degree if universities were not able to operate as normal due to the pandemic. This presents a £760 million loss for universities in tuition fees.

While universities have taken strides to minimize disruption to staff and students, with the transition from physical to virtual learning for the foreseeable future, it’ll be the quality, availability and delivery of content that will set institutions apart. To deliver on expectations, they must fully embed digital into every aspect of their processes. With this in mind, here are three key areas we think universities must pay particular attention in the coming year to keep pace.

The home office is the new branch office to support students

Perhaps the busiest time on any university calendar is the intake of thousands of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed students making the move from home to university. Making sure all students have been correctly registered is critical, from setting out class schedules to accessing university facilities and also helping them register for local healthcare, particularly relevant now with track-and-trace solutions becoming more prevalent.

The way we teach and learn has completely changed, for some institutions learning is now totally virtual and even in cases where a hands-on approach is necessary, remote work is a reality. What is clear is that Universities need to find new ways to appeal to students – and this raises the critical question of how to maintain staff’s ability to deliver successfully to students, even when away from the main university infrastructure. To guarantee even those staff who are working remotely can still deliver the best outcomes they can, Aruba worked with Winchester University to assist with a home office solution to support the intake of new students.


Before COVID-19 it would have well been unimaginable to run the intake of a prestigious institution from a home office. However, through the expanded deployment of tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams to staff and to use cases not previously considered, this is now a reality and has shown significant benefits, for example the use of video making for a much more personal and engaging experience. Perhaps the silver lining is that COVID-19 has, through necessity, broken down a lot of barriers and objections to changing the way things are done – enabling the wider deployment of new systems and practices to provide better outcomes for students and easier lives for students.

Becoming technology enablers

As we become accustomed to virtual learning as the norm, it is also important that educational institutions leverage their network infrastructure to do more than just support academic needs and also look at how they add value to students’ experience outside of their academic needs. For example, Bryanston Boarding School faced major challenges amid the global pandemic. With some 680 pupils (many living outside the UK) and 180 teaching staff, the school had to find a new way to connect staff with pupils and maintain the school’s community spirit.

Bryanston, off the back of sustained investment in its IT infrastructure, had a distinct advantage and the already existing network core and access provided the backbone for uninterrupted and scalable traffic which enabled seamless continuity for their learners. They were able to connect students and staff, no matter their location, and from there allowed them to continue as many weekly activities as possible – hosting assemblies, cooking classes, quizzes, and remote concerts all online.

These activities proved so popular that the school hopes to continue many of these practices even as things begin to return to normal. The result is a school community that remains connected, dynamic, and resilient enough to cope with the unexpected and higher education institutions should look to follow this example.

COVID-19 and beyond

Looking beyond COVID-19 the way universities work will need to continue to adapt. For instance, with the uptake of virtual learning, the use of university digital infrastructure by staff and students will only grow more and as such, network security must be routinely reviewed.

Whilst virtual learning has been a useful tool to help curb the spread of COVID-19 in the education sector, it also means the potential increased risk of a networks surface area to cybersecurity risk. As more students and staff accessing internal resources at an increased level, educational institutions must account for this and enhance security.

Further to this, even as things settle in the post-pandemic world, the way we work has fundamentally changed and won’t be the same. Instead we’re moving towards a hybrid workplace – where people will work between home, offices/campuses and even on the road. The design of workplaces must change to accommodate this, especially our approach to technology and IT infrastructure. So, for example, in on campuses AI-powered contact and location tracing will be an important part of maintaining social distancing; while contactless, digital interfaces are needed to reduce human-to-human contact. However, those at home or on the road must have secure access to systems and an enterprise-level experience on their devices.

Go Deeper

Podcast: What Does the Return to School Mean for IT?

Podcast: Hybrid Education in Action

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