What's It Like to Work for an Online Campus?
- By Dian Schaffhauser
If you've thought about moving to the online adjunct of your institution,
or one of the big-name virtuals, here's what you'll need to consider.
THE UNIVERSITY OF PHOENIX makes little secret of the fact that it offers higher IT
salaries than most state institutions. According to Joe
Mildenhall, CIO of Phoenix parent company Apollo Group, there's also the potential for staffers
to earn stock options as they move into management
ranks. Then too, because the IT organization supports
about 330,000 students worldwide, the hardware and
software in use tend to be high-quality and cutting-edge.
"We invest heavily in our technology because we have to
for our scale and for what we're maintaining from a reliability
and security standpoint," says Mildenhall.
And Karen Tan, the tech support and operations manager
for UMassOnline, points
out her favorite advantage of working for the online
side of her school: "You're not
fighting with students for
a place to park."
Sure, there are
plusses to the "virtual"
side of IT ops in
higher ed. Yet negatives
Expertise on a
When Mildenhall meets
with CIOs from other
schools, "They talk about
the resident populations
of their students; the challenges providing bandwidth and
dealing with downloads, filtering, and more. We don't really
have that," he says, pointing to Phoenix's core challenge:
supporting hundreds of thousands of students.
"The amount of design and attention to supporting scale
is something most colleges don't have to worry about. We
don't have many off-the-shelf options; we've had to build
a lot of our own stuff."
In fact, that scale requires an IT organization of about
1,300, including a call center with a staff of 400 to support
students and faculty; 200 to 250 desktop support staffers
to support the 17,000 employees; an infrastructure group
to manage the operations of
servers, storage, and the networks;
plus three software
one focused on back-office
applications, and a
third for developing inhouse
apps to support
staff. With the exception
of desktop support to provide
help in 170-plus physical
locations, IT operations are centralized
in the Phoenix, AZ, area.
While the sheer size of the IT organization provides
opportunity for promotion from within, Mildenhall admits
that some employees feel boxed in. "There's a world
of difference between an infrastructure where 50 people
interact with servers, versus a shop where three
people do," he says. Yet, "An advantage is that people
are able to develop deep expertise that they may not be
able to if they're generalists; expertise in intrusion detection
technology, virtualization, or database administration,
On the flip side, some people see that as limiting, he
concedes. "One person is racking up hardware, another is
doing the base system install, and another is doing the
application install on that particular server."
Still, for individuals accustomed to working in a public
institution environment where there's "one of everything,"
Phoenix can mandate a certain level of uniformity; it maintains
a menu of features that any individual college may opt to use or not. "We have a lot more central control.
There isn't ‘This department wants to do it this way with
these tools, and that department wants to do it that way
with another set of tools,'" explains Mildenhall.
Interestingly, he hasn't witnessed many IT professionals
moving to traditional universities from the for-profit space.
"State institutions can't compete salary-wise," he observes,
adding. "People are in those [traditional] jobs for reasons
other than pay."
The biggest U of Phoenix hiring challenge right now, says
Mildenhall, is on the software engineering side: finding
people who can do Java and web-based programming for
high-volume, high-availability websites. Where the skills
exist internally, the company promotes from within. Phoenix
also hires through federal visa and green card programs.
Working on the digital side of higher ed is high-profile.
The value of the services being offered by the UMassOnline
IT organization has placed it in a leadership role.
UMassOnline: Virtual Touch and Patience
The nine-person IT staff of which Karen Tan is part (and
which hosts all of the online platforms for the five-campus
UMass system as well as for nearly a dozen state and local
community colleges) is stationed off-campus in Shrewsbury,
where University Information Technology Systems
also is housed.
Tan came out of the UMass-Lowell campus's continuing/
distance ed department, where she was moving Lowell's
online courses over to the UMassOnline platform, which
launched in 2001. Gone are the days of working out of an
old, drafty university building, she notes. The current environment
has a "more corporate look and feel." Her skills
have evolved too. Because UMassOnline has students all
over the world (33,900 at last count), the 17,000 annual
support requests are handled via e-mail, phone, and online
chat 365 days a year, 24/7.
Tan recalls her previous (9 to 5) job required serving walkin
students or faculty who were having trouble connecting
to an online course or couldn't upload a file. "They could
bring their laptops and get immediate gratification," she
says, and she admits she misses those aspects of the job.
"[Working for the online campus] means less face-to-face
interaction. I have to rely on technology to reach out to those
I work with."
In her job today, "You need to be very patient to walk
users through troubleshooting over the phone or via e-mail,
versus taking laptops from them and resolving the problems
yourself," Tan explains. For that reason, when she's
interviewing a new job candidate, she asks, "How do you
deal with the most unruly customers?" Fortunately, Tan
understands the virtual experience from both sides of the
chat window, since she received her BS in IT through
Today, Tan's team uses an external service provider, ConnectedLearning
to provide first-tier support. Her group handles escalation
and acts as liaison when problems come up with the Blackboard Vista LMS.
Should You Go Virtual?
The entrepreneurial spirit that infuses the digital side of the
house at virtual institutions won't appeal to everybody. Even
though it's state-overseen like any state school, UMass-
Online delivers financial reports that read like shareholder
filings from Silicon Valley companies. Yet, the potential
compensation gains, technology challenges, and perks
may present an alluring alternative for IT professionals
accustomed to staid academic environments, serious IT
budget constraints, and endless workaround solutions.
And there's an additional consideration: Working on the
digital side of higher ed is high-profile. The value of the services
being offered by the UMassOnline IT organization, for
instance, has placed it in a leadership role, giving it "the
opportunity to work with a variety of departments and divisions
within the system, other local colleges and, of course,
the higher education industry at large," says UMassOnline
spokesperson Jennifer Brady. What's more, double-digit
growth of the online programs has led to increased hiring
and bumped-up promotion of existing staff, meaning
greater opportunities for those inside the organization, or
looking to enter from outside. Plus, says Brady, "Our tech
team is constantly evaluating new tools and technologies to
implement within our offering. That provides opportunities
for [IT staffers] to have a deeper understanding of new
technologies and keep up with or ahead of advancements."
The end result: Work that constantly challenges the IT staff.
Tan says she has grown in a way that is "much different than
my position at the Lowell campus ever would have allowed."
Is a move to the virtual side one you should consider?
Maybe it's time to look at the possibilities.