Future of IT in Higher Education

By Bill Balint, CIO, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Bill Balint, CIO, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Technology Challenges Barring the IT Disruption

There are incredible Information Technology (IT) challenges in higher education. Budgets and staff sizes are shrinking at many higher ed. IT organizations, but the level of demand being placed onto those same organizations is often exploding. We must spend a vast amount of our resources on technologies that did not exist in our environment five years ago without reducing the attention we pay to our critical traditional services.

There are numerous examples of this explosion. Many administrators and educators are looking to data analytics and predictive modeling as key tools in helping attract more and better-qualified students and then retaining those students once they arrive. Formal Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems are being deployed at many institutions for the first time and some institutions have multiple CRM-type tools to address recruitment, student retention and/or fundraising needs. There are also rapidly-growing demands for teaching and learning tools like adaptive learning, mobile, collaborative tools, online, streaming video and specialized software.

But perhaps the most glaring impact is in the area of cyber security and compliance. Protecting sensitive data is very challenging in a highly complex computing landscape where ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD) is an absolute requirement. Since most users are students, the user community churns continuously, making the lack of safe computing practices by users a constant concern. Moreover, the expectation is that IT systems must enable instruction, academic research, scholarly activity and academic exploration. However, these pursuits must thrive in an environment where significant sensitive personal, academic, financial and even health information needs to be accessible in a highly secured manner.

“Students expect access to information at anytime from anywhere and to be able to perform almost every instructional, administrative or social function from a mobile device”

All of these challenges do present opportunities for new technologies that can improve both effectiveness and efficiency. One potential area is tools that can better integrate the many disparate information systems that permeate higher ed. institutions. Student information, instruction, CRM, ERP, alumni, housing, health, dining, athletics, co-curricular activities and others still tend to live in silos— some local and some in the cloud. But holistic data analysis requires meaningful integration of information housed in various sources.

Changing Facet of IT

The prominent change I see is our customers are increasingly engraining technology into most every facet of their lives. That change is blurring the lines between the business and the personal when it comes to providing IT support and services. For example, mobile computing barely existed at our university10 years ago, but many students now meld aspects of their social, academic and work lives into a single experience and user interface. Students expect access to information at anytime from anywhere and to be able to perform almost every instructional, administrative or social function from a mobile device. Although many external applications must typically be integrated in order meet this expectation, local IT staff is often charged with making sure it all works together.

Higher ed. faculty, staff and administrators are being hit with demands to ‘do more with less’ thanks to rising economic challenges and expectations for student performance. In such an environment, the CIO is typically brought into the conversation when not enough ‘people, time and money’ exist to confront that challenge.
Locally, this has resulted in requirements to implement and/or integrate more collaborative software, electronic forms, adaptive learning tools, two-way, real-time streaming video, cloud services and business intelligence solutions among many others. The rate at which these requests are coming at us and the diverse skill sets needed to implement them are at an all-time high.

As the CIO, lasting success depends knowing the business just as much as it means knowing the technology. Computing is more reliable than ever, but it still only has value to the extent it assists the institution meet its mission in a better, more timely and more cost-effective manner. The CIO must be a bridge between institutional leadership and the IT organization to ensure we do not offer solutions in search of problems.

Elevating business with IT

A key early step for decision makers is to bring IT in on the ground floor in situations where technology holds the potential to provide a portion of the solution to an important challenge. In our case, advice, opinions and expertise are valued because we work very hard to never ‘overpromise and under deliver’. But we also know that a mistake along these lines can damage the trust being placed upon us.

We drive transformation by deploying modern, yet mainstream, practical technology and communicating the relevant limitations and implications. Our IT organization successfully used this approach recently in deploying an electronic forms and routing system, wiki technology, a web portal, a mobile app and business intelligence solutions.

Role of CIO for Ensuring IT Security

The answer is dependent upon the industry, the size of the enterprise and the nature of the sensitive data or information that needs to be protected. In the case of a typical higher ed. institution like ours, it does not make sense to separate the CIO and the CISO organizationally, as we must all remain part of the IT team due to limited resources.

However, we have a clear separation of duties so the CISO can function with a level of independence and authority, like creating security procedures, guidelines and best practices. But the CIO here creates formal security policies, oversees security employee performance and controls security budget and staffing levels. We work together on legal-related tasks.

A Direction for CIOs in High Ed

A successful CIO must know the business of higher education and be trusted by their own institution’s leadership with helping to solve big problems. There are very few purely IT projects anymore, but there are many business projects in which IT is a crucial part of the solution. Therefore, the CIO needs to be a trusted, valued institutional leader and not just the leader of IT.

Knowing this reality, my advice would be to consider organizing IT where the CIO focuses on policy, strategy and becoming the public face of IT. The top priority then is to find a great IT leader to operate the organization on a daily basis. With this partner in place, the rest of the leadership team can be developed over time with the focus of continuously enhancing the organization’s performance. The key is to get your organization in order, quickly raising your level of credibility and trust in the organization.  This can open the door for IT to add value to the fullest extent.

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