I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

What IT leaders are worried about now.

The last time Educause held its annual conference in person, in October 2019 in Chicago, I described it as “loud, bustling, and flashy.” This year, with many people apparently still feeling cautious about big in-person events despite Covid-safety protocols, the crowds were sparser and the exhibit hall a heck of a lot roomier. On the bright side, without the usual din, I had no headache after two days of Educause immersion, and it was literally easier to hear what was on the minds of some of the 3,000 college IT leaders and vendors who did venture to Philadelphia (another 1,000 or so took part virtually).

In some ways, the experience was a bit of a time warp for me, a reminder of the less-frenetic CAUSE and Educom conferences I used to cover in the pre-Internet era, before those two organizations merged to become Educause, and well before my first ed-tech boom and bust. (You may find yourself in your own time warp — or history lesson — when you clickthis link about “education dot-coms.”)

But while the calmer Educause may have felt like a throwback, today’s context feels higher stakes. The latest multibillion-dollar boom in the ed-tech sector shows no sign of slowing down, and college tech leaders are just coming up for air after helping to manage the most challenging 19 months in higher-ed history. They are now juggling several priorities, like new modes of flexible teaching, new models for flexible work forces, concerns about digital equity. And, oh yeah, security is still high on just about everyone’s list — maybe even more so with the rise of ransomware attacks. Here’s a sampling of what some IT leaders shared with me last week.

Harper Johnson, assistant vice chancellor for information technology, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs: Now that officials have realized they’re capable of offering many courses online, said Harper, “sustaining that transition to a hybrid institution” poses the next test. “We know we need to be as flexible as possible,” he said. “I don’t think everyone’s settled on what that mix is” yet, or what’s best for the institution and its students.

Celeste Schwartz, vice president for information technology and institutional effectiveness, Montgomery County Community College, in Pennsylvania: The return to face-to-face instruction poses a new set of decisions, she said, notably: “What’s going to stay” from the days of remote teaching and classes that offered both distance and in-person options simultaneously?

Kate Miffitt, director for innovation, California State University system: Building on Cal State’s pandemic leadership, with its early announcement to go online last academic year, the system is now focused on “retaining the flexibility” that students came to appreciate when classes and services were offered remotely. Related is a big push for “digital equity.” A key piece of that is a new program that provides free iPads and tools to all first-year and transfer students at eight campuses.

Peter Angelos, chief information officer, Fond du Lac Tribal & Community College, in Minnesota: The disparities of the digital divide were immediately apparent when this rural institution was forced to shift its courses online. Despite efforts to provide students with laptops and hotspots, they aren’t much use “when you don’t have a cell tower within 30 miles of your home on a reservation,” Angelos said. Now he’s hopeful that policy leaders will take this “generational opportunity for making change,” not only with big-ticket projects like the billions for broadband in federal infrastructure proposals, but also in last-mile strategies to extend broadband in ways that respect tribal governance and rural communities’ needs.

Matt Riley, associate vice chancellor for innovation and chief information officer, University of Illinois at Chicago: The work-from-home culture of the pandemic created new opportunities for many professionals, enabling them to take jobs at organizations based far from where they live, but “the big competition for talent” has its downsides, Riley said, for employers that might not be able to pay as well as those in the private sector. “It’s a challenge when you’re in a public institution” trying to retain IT talent — and suddenly competing not only with Silicon Valley, but even wealthier colleges nearby that might have flexible policies. “Now the University of Chicago or Northwestern can offer remote work, too,” he said.

Kris Helge, director of knowledge and resource management, Tarrant County College, in Texas: Managing and securing data was a priority for the college even before the pandemic, but with the onset of remote work and teaching — with professors “emailing student documents” around and administrators casually storing contracts on their Google Drives (as probably happens at many institutions) — the task grew even more important. The problem “kind of exploded,” Helge said. And the threats of ransomware attacks have only raised the urgency of this work. At least two community colleges in Texas, Helge told me, have already been hit.

This sample was random, but I’m sure these leaders aren’t alone in their thoughts. Defining and refining “hybrid,” improving equity, managing personnel and data differently — all are issues coming down the pike for many other institutions, too. And I’m glad I was able to be in person myself (vaxxed and masked) to take it all in. That was especially true for my talk with Helge: We chatted while waiting for cheesesteaks at the Reading Terminal Market, right across the street from the Educause venue. After all, when in Philadelphia ...

Recommended reading.

Here are some education-related stories from other outlets that recently caught my eye. Did I miss a good one? Let me know.

  • Financial strains along with “acute” gaps in social supports are the top reasons students from low-income high schools did not enroll in college during the pandemic, a Strada Education Network survey found. To reconnect with students “who all too often get mislabeled as ‘disengaged,’” two education researchers in this Hechinger Reportop-ed urge schools and colleges to help students find the relationships and resources that will keep their educational dreams from being permanently deferred.
  • Could the shortage of primary-care physicians be rectified if the United States developed a different way of financing medical residencies? This piece in theNational Review argues that the current system “has frozen in place significant funding disparities across teaching institutions” that perpetuate the problem.
  • In this essay inThe Conversation highlighting problems with the college-cost calculators many institutions offer on their websites, the authors propose “three simple changes” to make the tools more reliable for students and their families.

Other news of note.

Last call for contestants in our Chronicle Festival “shark tank.”

As part of this month’s Chronicle Festival, on Day 2 (November 17), we’re inviting you to put your student-success ideas to the test in a special Shark Tank-style panel.

This will be a variation on the Shark Tank: Edu Edition we’ve traditionally hosted at SXSW EDU. Have an idea — proven or theoretical — for a better way for colleges to support students to graduation? Ready to showcase it before our panel of “sharks”? Send a short email proposal to ci@chronicle.com to be considered.

    Correction (November 3, 2021, 8:06 a.m.): This article originally misidentified the location of one of the colleges that received the Seal of Excelencia designation. It was Illinois, not Ohio. The article has been updated.

    Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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