Known for its technology innovation and community leadership, Drexel University has found a way to help other institutions tackle ambitious technology implementations--while creating a "win-win" scenario with vendor partners. Campus Technology explores the application service provider model at Drexel.
CT: What are some of the ways Drexel is acting as an application service provider to other higher education institutions?
BIROS: We are providing access to Internet2 to the 14 state-supported higher education institutions in Pennsylvania, and Blackboard Vista service and support to several schools. We also provide IT leadership, IT staffing, and ERP services--we're hosting administrative systems and providing single sign-on portals and integrated administrative and learning management systems.
CT: Are these services just for regional schools? Is there any reason to keep the services you offer within your region?
BIROS: No, not at all. One of the schools that we work with is in Buffalo, New York; one is in Nashville, Tennessee. And there are a couple that are close by… The proximity isn't a determining factor.
CT: When did Drexel start doing this, and what was the basic motivation at that time?
BIROS: Back in 1998, the Allegheny Health Education and Research Foundation (AHERF) went bankrupt, and that organization consisted of a college of medicine and I think eight hospitals . As part of that bankruptcy, the Tenant Healthcare Corp. purchased the hospitals, but did not want the college of medicine. The bankruptcy court did not want the sale to go through without something done to take care of the medical school. So Drexel was contracted to manage the medical school.
We had just gone to Banner, a new ERP system for Drexel. The medical school had woefully outdated systems that weren't integrated and were costing a million dollars a month for us to run offsite so, we converted the medical school to our systems within eight months. In retrospect, we had become an ASP.
CT: How did this expand to include other schools? Who at Drexel initiates these partnerships?
BIROS: In time, we were contacted by other schools that had some IT difficulties and asked us to help them. … All of these projects and partnerships stemmed from relationships our president or CIO had--and it snowballed.
CT: Is there something about the culture at Drexel or within the IT organization that fosters these kinds of partnerships?
BIROS: I think that the culture at Drexel is very entrepreneurial in general. We have a very forward-thinking and entrepreneurial president, who is very innovative and creative in the directions that he's taken the entire university. And I think our IT department has benefited from that, because we've been able to take advantage of the opportunities that have presented themselves to create relationships with schools that are really effective for both partners.
CT: What are some of the other benefits--tangible or otherwise--to the schools that partner with you?
BIROS: There are definitely economies of scale and effective resource allocation, because we are leveraging both professional resources and hardware resources. But there are also cultural and business practice changes that schools undergo when they get involved with a mentor school. So there are many unanticipated benefits--it really becomes much more than just the implementation of technology.
And what are some of the unanticipated or intangible benefits for your institution?
BIROS: It's provided lots of positive opportunities for us: We've done a lot of papers, we've had press coverage, we've distinguished ourselves as unique--as a technology leader in higher education--and it helps us to provide new opportunities for our staff to assume different roles in different cultures.
CT: Are there mutual benefits in relationships with your vendors as well? Do vendors find this a positive thing?
BIROS: I think many of them do because it provides them access to a market without having any feet on the street. For instance, we've been able to extend some of our licensing costs and our equipment purchasing costs to the smaller schools. And the vendors have been happy to do that. Those schools then get a discount that they would not otherwise get based on volume, and the vendor gets additional purchases. So those vendors who understand what's happening do appreciate the opportunity. Even some of the application vendors--the learning management systems and the ERP systems--recognize that they would never be able to sell directly to some of these smaller schools.
CT: What is the potential for other institutions to act as ASPs?
BIROS: I think that any school that has a substantial infrastructure and staff could engage in these kinds of partnerships. And we will see more of this, out of need: As technology becomes increasingly complex, and changes so rapidly, small schools in particular may not be able to manage on their own, and it just makes sense to partner with another institution.
Is there any specific type of leadership, along with the technology assets that an institution would need to become an ASP?
BIROS: I think that there absolutely has to be leadership that is supporting it, willing to let it evolve, and flexible enough to accommodate it. The institution also has to have the resources internally, the expertise, the infrastructure, as well as the forward-thinking and innovative culture that would be attractive for others to partner with. There has to be willingness to take a risk and the institution has to be fairly agile. We definitely have relationships with these schools; this is not just a vendor-client situation at all. We're committed to helping them in whatever way, to be successful with the technology that we provide them. It's a big commitment.
Jan Biros associate VP for instructional technology support and campus outreach at Drexel University.
[Editor's note: Jan Biros will present a session with Drexel VP for Information Resources & Technology John Bielec on the application services provider model at Campus Technology 2007, July 30 to Aug. 2 in Washington, DC.]