IT Directions

What Students Want

Will the next generation of want students come to campus with a mountain of devices, expecting ubiquitous technology access? If predicting students’ tech needs seems as difficult as catering to them, read on.

Kelly Burke, age 20, New York University junior, is a digital native. A history and journalism major, Burke is a member of the Gen Y/Gen Next/Gen Text generation, which spends $6.5 billion on technology annually, according to the latest College Explorer survey (an online poll of 1,521 18- to 34-year-old American college students) from market research firm Alloy Media & Marketing. The only time in her entire life she is without access to a computer is when her Ultimate Frisbee team travels out of state for a tournament and she doesn’t haul her laptop.

Institutions already cater to the technology needs of students like Burke. According to the 2008 Campus Computing survey, 60 percent of colleges and universities offer pervasive or near-pervasive wireless; computers are as ubiquitous as water bottles; course management systems have become one-stop shops for class content; few classrooms lack projectors; and many programs are trying podcasts, lecture capture, and Second Life.

The pervasiveness of this technology on campuses today comes with a high price tag that must be paid by the IT organization, the school, or the student—and frequently all three. So, in order to survive the desert of diminishing budgets, it’s essential to have a plan for catering to the computing expectations of current and incoming students. Knowing what matters to students can help IT prioritize potential investments and, likewise, eliminate those futile initiatives in search of users.

Attempts have been made to elicit from students what they expect. For the second year in a row, CDW-G has surveyed college students about their tech use and their expectations, and the company found that increasing numbers of students are stressing the value of certain campus technology resources. In 2009, for example, 76 percent of students surveyed said that it was “extremely important” for their campuses to offer wireless networks, compared to 50 percent in 2008 (for more on the study, see “Expectations Rising,” p. 50).

When asked an open-ended question, however, students aren’t always the most articulate about their technology needs, hopes, and dreams, beyond what they already have. For example, NYU student Burke calls her university “pretty run of the mill” in terms of its technology offerings. Yet, these “standard” offerings include near-pervasive wireless connectivity (her corner dorm room happens not to have it), some form of course management system (Blackboard in the case of NYU), computer labs, and student e-mail accounts. “I think those are some technology standards that we’ve come to associate with colleges,” she explains. “But outside of those standards, anything else is just an accessory.”

In fact, none of them—standards or accessories—played into her decision to attend NYU. “They’re vital to what we do here,” she acknowledges. “But if I found that one university had WiFi and another didn’t, that wouldn’t affect my decision to attend either university. I would figure out a way to get what I needed.”

This casual, do-it-myself attitude is shared by Burke’s sister Meagan, a freshman physiology major at the University of Wyoming. This Burke has even fewer expectations of her institution. “Internet access is basically the only thing,” she flatly states. This, in spite of the fact that the main campus, in Laramie, opened a 80,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art computing facility and student computing lab in mid-2009.

The Burke sisters’ seemingly lackadaisical attitudes about technology might serve as a friendly warning to campus IT designers: What you think students want may not, in fact, be at all what they want. So here’s the milliondollar question for IT directors: As you build your IT growth strategy, how do you figure out what students expect from campus technology resources and services? CT asked this question of several higher ed IT experts and, not surprisingly, found that there is no one way to accurately assess the tech expectations of current and future students.

Indirect Intelligence Gathering
One might think that the best way to learn about student expectations is to ask students directly, through surveys or focus groups. But that’s not how Carol Smith, CIO at DePauw University in Greencastle, IN, gains her insight into student needs. She prefers the indirect approach; through her information sources, she is in a position to observe needs that students don’t always overtly express.

For example, one of Smith’s information sources is, in fact, a survey, but it’s not to poll students about what they want in their campus technology. Rather, it’s an annual survey done among the school’s 2,300 students to evaluate an ongoing, mandatory laptop/tablet PC program. “Its intention is to gather information about what students’ experiences have been,” Smith says. “Whether they’re using these machines in their classes; whether their instructors are making assignments to use them.”

The information the survey gathers about student behavior helps Smith and her IT team predict future student expectations. For example, she says, “We’re getting insights about traffic patterns: Where do you study—in the library, your room, at the coffee shop downtown?” That kind of information helps Smith decide where and how she needs to focus future technology resources.

Smith’s second source of student insight comes via DePauw’s Information Technology Associates Program (ITAP). This four-year honors program provides internships for students to gain experience on campus doing IT-related activities, such as creating labs or editing videos. “We keep in touch with them,” Smith says, and like roving reporters, “they tell us what’s going on.”

Through these sources, IT has identified two clear emerging needs. The first is for event calendaring: Smith and her colleagues have sensed “a lot of push from the students” to set in place an easier way for them to manage their schedules. It’s not about people wanting to be first to schedule an event, she explains, but rather wanting to prevent scheduling conflicts.

The university already has an eventmanagement system developed internally, but, Smith points out, it’s time for the next iteration. The fact that students were asking, “Why can’t we have Google calendars?” told Smith that “they want ownership over [their calendaring]. Students want to be able to have more control and more flexibility.” And, she adds, they want mobility. “Mobility is key. Students want to look at their handheld device and have it push out a text message that reminds them of something they’re interested in. Or they want to go in [to a program] and say, ‘Show me the events I’m interested in.’ They want tags on events.”

The second need Smith and her group identified is for collaboration support, an expectation that students never directly expressed to Smith. “Students aren’t asking me [for help in collaborating]. They [just] do it on their own.” But, from observing their behavior, she has recognized the need all the same. “We know they meet with each other if they’re doing a group project, whether assigned from class or just as an extracurricular group they belong to. If they need to do a group project, how are they connecting with each other?” Her immediate goal is to sort out the infrastructure requirements behind collaboration, in order to allow students to work on and share documents with each other. She also wants to make sure faculty members are more aware of what collaboration tools can be used in the classroom, and to encourage students to use these tools.

To address these technology expectations, Smith has been working with DePauw’s Academic Technology Advisory Committee, which recently approved her recommendation that the university move its e-mail and calendaring systems from Novell GroupWise to Google Apps for Education. “It’s not anything new. Lots of colleges are doing this at this point. We’re not bleeding edge,” she makes clear. “But we’ll have branded e-mail. We’ll have a good, solid, secure system. At the same time, by using tools like this, we can leverage all those thousands of people who work at Google, who are imagining the cool, new things a system like that can do to enable people to collaborate and communicate with each other. We need to learn to balance what’s important to keep the infrastructure solid and secure, with how much we let people do what they need to do in order to create and learn.”

Don’t Assume You Have to React
If anybody believes that getting direct input from students is only so useful when it comes to making campus IT decisions, it’s Wayne Brown. The founder of the Center for Higher Education Chief Information Officer Studies and VP for IT at Excelsior College (online), Brown believes that, while student expectations may have an impact on prioritization of technology projects, those expectations can’t drive decision-making for IT leaders. After all, while students may know how to use digital devices, that doesn’t make them IT experts, he says.

“My youngest son is 21,” he offers as an example. “He has all the ‘toys,’ but he has no interest in IT—networking, security, the tools that make his life easier through interaction with technology.”

Nonetheless, Brown believes it’s important to solicit students’ viewpoints (“buy them a pizza, invite them to a meeting room, and get their feedback,” he suggests). However you do it, he cautions, don’t assume you have to react to what you hear in those sessions. “It’s not as simple as, ‘I’ve got students from a high school that gives everybody an iPod with all their classes loaded on it, and we need to do the same.’”

He points out that a college population is drawn from a variety of users. Students will come from K-12 schools that are technologically advanced, and others may never have touched a mouse before. “Not touching a mouse may be an extreme, but they’re not all going to be kids with an iPod, an iPod Touch, and two computers at home.”

Because Excelsior is a completely online institution with a student body that’s older than the average, Brown doesn’t face some of the same demands of a residential college, such as feeding the seemingly insatiable bandwidth needs of IP-based entertainment or the necessity to keep massive computer labs refreshed.

On the other hand, to get input about what students want, he also can’t just “go to a student union and grab a student.” So he garners pointers about what’s important to them from members of the college’s technology governance committees, particularly people from the functional areas of marketing and student advising.

“Our technology governance committees consist of representatives from throughout the college, and some of those committee members gather feedback directly from students,” Brown explains. For example, the marketing department might hold a student focus group, and that feedback may make it into IT projects that are requested by that department. He adds, “IT projects are also discussed and prioritized by our overarching technology governance committee.”

Currently, Excelsior student expectations fall into the category of what Brown calls the self-service portal. “Almost all of our students are working,” he explains, “and they get that kind of [self-service] access from their employer. They may get their paycheck through a portal. They may sign up for benefits through a portal. They want to have some of that interaction with us in the same way.”

Brown notes that expectations for institutions to offer self-service portals may come not so much from students but from parents. He points to K-12 schools that allow parents to log in through a portal to see what assignments are due, what assignments have been turned in, and what the grades were. “You can keep close tabs on your kids through those portals,” he says. Parents are going to expect that same access to this kind of information when their students go to college, he believes—yet “with most higher education portals now, all you’re going to get is when a student passed or failed.”

The Direct Pipeline Approach
While others may not opt for the direct ask, Lev Gonick embraces it. The VP for IT services and CIO at Case Western Reserve University (OH) uses university- sponsored student blogs, chock-full of public demands for the newest tech thing, as his bellwether. And he is finding that expectations are exceedingly high. “I think a reliable, robust, available set of services is a necessary but not sufficient condition for meeting those expectations,” says Gonick. “What we used to think of as our main job is the minimum baseline to [students].”

In addition to blog monitoring, each year his organization does a survey of freshmen about a month after the semester has started. Reliability of the technology infrastructure shows up on that as the minimum criterion. Other expectations have changed over the last five years. “We used to ask, ‘Did you have any experience using wireless before you came to the university?’” Gonick says. “Wireless used to be our big hotshot deal. At this point I’m about to drop that survey item. Everybody has come here with wireless experience.” The same goes for mobile applications: “That’s just something they’ve come to expect,” insists Gonick.

Now, he says, students can’t understand why they can’t get all of their Case Western applications on their iPhones; why the university isn’t doing mashups “like everybody else is doing”; why it doesn’t have the latest and greatest wireless services. “Our challenge really is remaining relevant and current with student expectations,” he asserts.

Expectations go beyond demand for personal-use resources. Recently, the university hosted a start-up competition in which nearly a dozen studentdesigned software company projects were presented. “That’s something we want to celebrate and support, but it presents a serious set of challenges for the university’s IT organization, which is responsible for security and availability,” he observes. “Students are asking for support for servers for their start-up companies. They’re asking, ‘Why can’t the IT guy [give] me the chance to write applications for the mobile phone?’”

That last item is not an unreasonable question, Gonick notes. “Rather than have our three software engineers work at it, why don’t we have our 3,000 students work at it?”

To make sure IT keeps up, Case Western has put together an emerging technology group, led by the senior IT architect. Likewise, to avoid having to add a new IT position to accommodate every new technology being tried out, the organization invests in staff, “to make sure we don’t have built-in obsolescence in job descriptions.”

What new student expectations does Gonick see on the horizon? He cites two areas for IT leaders to watch. The first is what he refers to as “YouTube meets the classroom,” using video to allow students to create more personalized learning. That could involve, for example, the student use of Flip Video cameras to record the conversations that take place when a large class breaks into small groups to discuss a concept. Those could be uploaded and shared, as well as reviewed by the professor to evaluate the quality of the discussion.

The second emerging area addresses the broader challenge of helping to organize “the tsunami of educational resources available to students.” Gonick sees students being overwhelmed with the huge amount of information made available through the typical online search. The solution might take a form, he suggests, of providing “essentially editorial oversight, to create a filtered view of the stuff that’s really about learning, as opposed to getting lost in pages and pages of detail.”

Student expectations are changing the paradigm under which IT operates, Gonick believes. “The idea is to figure out how to shift from being the team that keeps the huge freighter afloat, to being the leader in the boat on a whitewaterrapids ride,” he says.

In the course of addressing those future expectations, Gonick views that whitewater-rapids ride as the ability to relinquish control “with honor.” The IT leader still will need to take responsibility for security, reliability, and availability, he says, but today’s IT infrastructure requires transparency and commitment to collaboration. “What control was back in the day,” he concludes, “has become obsolete.”

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