Technology Initiatives for the Educational Environment

By Paige Francis, Associate CIO, Shared Services & Academic Technology, University of Arkansas

Paige Francis, Associate CIO, Shared Services & Academic Technology, University of Arkansas

The University of Arkansas Fayetteville (UAF) seemingly has it all: an energetic and infectious "students first" mentality, a near-idyllic setting in the picturesque Northwest Arkansas region of our state, and now eight new guiding priorities for moving our university forward as defined by a highly collaborative, cross-campus initiative. Am I partial? Perhaps. As a 1997 undergraduate of UAF, I'm connected to this campus and region in a variety of tangible and intangible ways. This is why, when given the opportunity less than a year ago to relocate my career and family from Connecticut to 'back home', I jumped at the chance. Part of the reason for my move directly involved the aforementioned strategic priorities alongside the documented vision by a fairly new-to-UAF CIO at the institution, Chris McCoy. The concept of an 'Office of the CIO' as opposed to generic IT team was appealing as well. With my counterpart and Deputy CIO David Bruce, we truly function as a team of three ready to take on the world. Personally, I'm driven by strategic change, innovation, and building deeply effective and reciprocated relationships in order to execute significant improvement. The current vibe here reflects this—welcome to the University of Arkansas.

The challenges at UAF are consistently overshadowed by the opportunities for excellence–and we choose to focus from that angle. Let's have an impact in a great way in bolstering student success, expanding research tools and support while deepening our investment in faculty. Let's see how from an IT perspective we can play a role in building a culture of enthusiasm while transforming the landscape to be one that embraces innovation and that 'fail fast' mentality we all want to exude.

To best do this, it's key to ensure technology initiatives in any environment align with the vision of the business. In this case, our business is education and we've made some measurable headway recently.

"Gone are the days where the communication trickling out of our IT arena wholly consists of outages and maintenance windows."

Communication–Nailed It

Never underestimate the power of communication. Gone are the days where the communication trickling out of our IT arena wholly consists of outages and maintenance windows. Our communication team within IT has always been strong. Under new leadership and with a gearshift refocus, many of our news articles now make it above the fold and brag on accomplishments that impact the university in new and exciting ways. Basic operational communications now reside on an IT Status Monitor webpage and push out via a newly created Tech Alerts Twitter handle. Of course, we do maintenance. All IT shops do maintenance. But we don't want anyone to mistake our focus. Our eye on the prize remains in accomplishments, not simply operational maintenance.

Meeting our Students Where They Are–Virtually and In Person

We took advantage of the students' spring break this semester and rolled out a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) within three of our most widely used campus labs. Yes, it makes lab management easier, more reliable, and more consistent. Yes, allowing a more personalized environment is handy for our students. Yes, it creates substantial energy savings and extends the lifecycle of our equipment. Yes to all of that. But what is our primary driver? A VDI environment in the labs is our baby step into true, immersive mobility for our students. Mobility, meaning at some point in the future not only will our students log in to their accounts and it pull up exactly what they need based on past use and current program enrollment, it will also allow them to access this information from wherever they are on whatever device they happen to be using at the time. VDI is cool from any angle, but when we focus on student success coupled with our role as a flagship intuition tasked with 'leading the way', we have students of need that go home over the holidays and due to limited-to-poor internet connectivity have problems accessing their university coursework. By implementing VDI, this puts the heavy-lifting on our campus in the server room, not on the student’s choice of device or ability to connect, leveling the playing field for our students wherever they reside, within whatever budget they can accommodate.

From an on-campus perspective, we've not only upgraded our labs using VDI, over the summer, we plan to relocate our IT Help Desk to the student union. This will represent the first time in the history of the University of Arkansas Fayetteville that our help desk, operators and all, will have a physical presence in the hub of campus activity. Currently, the help desk is on a remote corner of campus. We've found our users needing help actively avoid help because of the location. This summer we are repurposing currently underutilized space to accommodate a support center including a walk-up counter, a lounge area with charging capabilities, several personal assistance spaces for one-on-one guidance and new signage and branding ensuring you can't miss our presence. Can't wait? That's ok. As an interim solution, we've just rolled out a new help desk feature allowing our students to get help via their second preferred method – online chat. It's live and it's fantastic.

The Beginnings of a Bleeding-edge Business Model

With so much focus on collaboration, consolidation and elimination of duplicative systems, we continue to find financial savings allowing us to immerse ourselves in this concept of living maker spaces. What's coming? What's next? We never know. But we do know that as we continue to use technology in the best possible way, it's likely we will be able to fund some truly eye-catching small projects allowing faculty and staff alike to experience new innovations simply using reallocated assets. It's an exciting time!

As you can see, it's been a busy year at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, for campus technology. In addition to the projects mentioned, we are on the final phase of our comprehensive wireless overhaul, we are embracing the cloud and moving many of our highly-used system favorites into a more secure, more self-service environment, and coming soon forms, ERP, eSports conversations! So much to do, so little time, but this is the reason for our season–providing services, developing strategy for the technology vision and supporting our business in a truly transformative way. 



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