When the pandemic hit, it disrupted industries around the world. One of the most impacted was higher education and, within that sector, community colleges may have been the most affected of all. But, at least one leader saw this disproportionate impact as an opportunity.
It’s not hard to understand why the pandemic hit community colleges so hard. Almost overnight, they had to transition to remote learning, often in communities that lacked the technical infrastructure (in the form of home computers and high-speed internet) to do so.
At the same time, while these colleges were often community bedrocks, they lacked the significant resources of their university brethren. Many community colleges responded admirably, doing their best to meet the needs of their students and communities. But, a few, such as the College of Southern Nevada (CSN), took it as an opportunity to innovate and transform.
“The now ubiquitous COVID-19 pandemic has changed things in an incredibly fundamental way,” explained CSN’s Chief Digital Experience Officer Mugunth Vaithylingam. “But, [it] has simultaneously made us take a fresh look at everything.”
Along with the college’s administration team and faculty, he realized they needed to meet the needs of the campus community and ensure that no one would be left behind. To do so, they knew they would have to engage with their business partners and employ a healthy dose of creativity – and it would start with a little refocusing.
Refocusing on the Experience
Like many higher education IT organizations, CSN’s Office of Technology Services (OTS) was focused on doing what its name stated: delivering technology services.
However, as the pandemic hit, Vaithylingam realized there was an opportunity for technology to play a different role.
“We’ve entered an age where we can leverage efficiency in our tech that makes things better while costing less,” he shared with faculty and staff during the college’s convocation week in August.
He went on to explain that technology played a crucial role in delivering an outstanding student experience: “The easier and more inviting the process, the more we provide a compelling answer to the question, ‘Why CSN?’”
Moreover, as the crisis hit full force, he and others in the administration seized the opportunity to take a leap forward.
“In the time since we first started preparing to move operations off campus, we’ve all been in a constant drive together to move forward and innovate in the name of providing the entire CSN family with the tools and skills necessary to thrive in the ‘new normal,’” Vaithylingam told the college.
For its part, the team played an important role by helping with things like acquiring and loaning laptops and hotspots to bridge the gap for students not fully prepared to learn remotely; expanding the use of Microsoft Teams to create a fully collaborative and integrated experience; and finding other opportunities to expand the student experience through technology like virtual labs and proctored testing services.
But, they also seized on the unique challenges of the pandemic as an opportunity to reinvent themselves. A vital element of the reinvention process was recognizing there were some things that they needed to stop doing.
As a result, the college entered into an agreement with Open Systems in the pandemic’s earliest days. It recognized that it needed to “get out of the business” of security monitoring and threat protection and, therefore, partnered with an expert in the field that could provide better, more up-to-date services.
Doing so, Vaithylingam claims, enabled CSN to both save money and deliver “richer experiences with our technology.” Most importantly, he believes it helped him refocus his team on providing the digitally powered experiences that would make the difference to students.
Getting Out of the Security Business
The idea of handing off security to an external organization is not that common, particularly for higher educational institutions. After all, it would seem that security is too critical for an organization to give up control, and it wouldn't seem to directly impact the student experience, if that was Vaithylingam's aim.
He sees it differently, though.
“I strongly believe that, in higher education, we should be moving away from managing our security operations and data centers. That is why CSN became the first [community college] in the country to roll out security-as-a-service operations,” he explained. “It is difficult to keep up efficiently and cost-effectively with all the new threats that are coming our way. By contracting our security operations with a recognized expert, we’ve saved thousands of dollars, and I’m able to sleep better at night knowing that all of our data is protected by an industry leader.”
As Vaithylingam explained it, the reality is that in their quest to embrace true online learning, they dramatically increased their threat surface and, as such, exponentially increased the risk of getting security wrong. While security might have historically been behind the scenes, it was now a front-and-center issue when it came to the student experience — especially if it prevented them from delivering that experience seamlessly and efficiently.
In a nutshell, security had become so critical — and so challenging to manage in-house — that it made better sense for them to get out of the security business and employ an organization dedicated to security operations. It was the only way they could “provide the necessary stability and security for the college so that… [their technology] solutions…remain reliable and available” — and shift their primary in-house focus to delivering an exceptional student experience.
The Courage to Lead for Tomorrow
The pandemic has resulted in countless tales of devastation, Herculean efforts, and continuing trials. But, it has also left us with stories of organizations that have transformed these challenges into opportunities for rebirth.
In the midst of what could have been an existential crisis, Vaithylingam’s response shows that he recognized two things that would create the opportunity for transformation.
First, he realized that the experience is now the critical, differentiating factor. Students, customers, employees, constituents — all of us, really — now look to our experience when making choices about almost everything.
Vaithylingam believes this so much that he went as far as changing the name of his organization from OTS to Digital Experience Services (DxS), signifying the transition from delivering technology to a new focus on the students’ digital experience. This reinvention allowed them to expand their mission to include communications, marketing, events, and technology training “to deliver, teach, and use technology to enable our CSN family to do and be their best.”
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, he acknowledged that it is incumbent upon him — and he believes on all leaders — to do more than just deal with the challenges of today. He believes that he must look forward and have the courage to take actions that will address future challenges.
He has demonstrated this commitment by shifting his organization’s name and mission, and by partnering with others to handle critical services so that he could redouble his team’s focus on meeting the experiential needs of students and faculty.
During a commencement speech for Victor Valley College, Vaithylingam challenged the graduating students: “As leaders, we are not just required to manage today, but also tomorrow. As we juggle between the myriad of priorities and goals we are presented with, we are being asked to do so with an eye on humanity.”
It would seem that he is leading by example, and it’s an example that community leaders around the world should strive to follow.
About the author: Charles Araujo is an industry analyst, internationally recognized authority on the Digital Enterprise and author of The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT is About to Change. He is Principal Analyst with Intellyx, the first and only industry analyst firm focused on agile digital transformation. He has authored three books and published over 100 articles. He is a regular contributor to CIO.com and has been quoted or published in magazines, blogs and websites including Time, InformationWeek, CIO Insight, NetworkWorld, CIO & Leader, IT Business Edge, TechRepublic, Computerworld, USA Today, and Forbes.
Charles is founder of The Institute for Digital Transformation and a sought after keynote speaker having addressed over 10,000 business and IT leaders in 10 countries over the last several years. He is passionate about the power of technology to deliver competitive and transformational advantage to organizations and in the critical need to develop next generation “digital leaders” that can transform their organizations into Digital Enterprises. He is presently at work on a new book entitled, Thinking Digital: How to Thrive and Win in the Digital Era, which will explore this topic in detail.
Prior to joining Intellyx, Charles served as an advisor and consultant for nearly twenty years, leading numerous large scale transformation programs for Fortune 1000 organizations and government institutions involving as many as 10,000 program participants. In his early career, he spent many years working in and with IT organizations in the healthcare, financial services and aerospace industries, directly leading teams of more than 100 members.
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