Instructional Technology | Viewpoint

6 Tips for Technology Implementations at Small Schools

Small universities have fewer resources and fewer employees, and they can't afford to spend as much money on technology as their larger counterparts. Brad Marcum, director of academic data services at the University of Pikeville – Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine, provides six tips to level the technology-implementation playing field for smaller schools.

For years, Staples, the office supply chain, used an advertising campaign featuring the "easy button." While we all wish this button actually existed, most know that implementing new technology processes isn't easy — especially for smaller educational programs. Small universities have fewer resources and fewer employees, and they can't afford to spend as much money on technology as their larger counterparts. With a smaller margin for error, small schools need to make the best decisions possible when selecting technologies that can help them better educate their students.

In the past year, the University of Pikeville — College of Osteopathic Medicine (KYCOM) began a process to purchase two software programs to help us better access our program.  One is in place and has been a huge success for our small program. The other is about to go live. In the past, we did not think that we could afford such programs. Now, we don't know what we would do without them. Here are some suggestions to level the technology-implementation playing field for smaller schools.

Do the Research
Administrators at colleges and universities need to stay focused on the overarching idea that every decision should be based on what will help better educate their students. When we chose ExamSoft, we investigated the history of the company and its technology, and we asked relevant questions: Was the platform going to require a huge investment of time from our IT department? Would it be easy for faculty to use and understand?

We also visited and spoke to administrators, technology personnel, and faculty members at schools where the software was being used. Doing some solid work on the ground helped us to identify the best technology for our smaller program. Some schools are hesitant to share information with a school they deem a rival.

Our situation was better since I started my research by contacting schools where I had contacts. Before I came over to the KYCOM side of our campus, I had served as the instructional technologist for our institution and as director of instructional technology for a while. As part of those positions, I interacted with colleagues in similar positions at fellow liberal arts schools in our state and throughout Appalachia. We had created a network since we shared the small school experience. I had worked with those groups for years and knew that I could trust their feedback.

I also reached out to two sister osteopathic schools near us as the osteopathic leadership has encouraged more cooperation between schools. It was an easy move for me as well, as one of my former students worked with the software we were researching and the other school was my alma mater. This may not be the case for you as you start this process, but if you have no connection with other schools, consider establishing those relationships as they help to gather insights from people who have used the program that you are researching. Spending solid time at this stage will provide great benefits further along in the process.

Prepare Your Team
Again, the "easy button" doesn't exist. The bulk of the work with instructional technology lies in the building of the infrastructure, which will require time and energy from everyone involved. Make sure that your team is aware of this. Up-front transparency is key to being successful. Don't surprise your team members by giving them last minute instructions. By letting them know early on what is involved and what they will be responsible for, you will avoid preventable misunderstandings.

Before we implemented our new system, Pikeville was notorious for its lack of assessment technology, and our faculty typically dragged their feet when an implementation started. To address any issues that could have arisen when our school started building the exams, we had our partner for this project, ExamSoft, set up meetings in a room with many large monitors so all attendees could view and participate in the training easily. This helped in two ways. it created a team-building experience that we could all rally around, and it created a backup net of support, so any team member could step in for any other team member, if needed.

When you have a fully invested team, it's easier for you to address any problems that may arise and it helps you to avoid difficult situations if key personnel are not available. This helps if you have established good relationships with the faculty and staff as you are trying to show them how the program(s) will help them and their students. If you can help them see that, you will have them onboard.

Utilize Internal Resources
Small schools tend to have a smaller pool of money to work with, so existing talent can be a critical, yet underutilized, resource. Instead of spending money to bring in outside consultants, take advantage of the foundations of your workplace — administrative assistants, secretaries, and program staff.

Bringing in these colleagues on a new project can be like hiring someone new, and it might bring them a new sense of accomplishment. By reaching out to these staff members and showing them that you respect their work and dedication, you can keep them challenged and motivated while working toward larger institutional goals.

However, this can be a difficult situation for many administrations. Many of us are far too familiar with the image of a consultant on campus to "help" us with our situations. Too many times in the past, I have provided information to consultants at my previous schools just to see those consultants turn around and give the administration a report consisting primarily of that information. The consultant walked away with much more compensation for the report than what I was paid and the administration had the comfort of data that came from an "outside" source. The data had not changed, but the delivery person did. In our situation, the academic affairs associate dean made the case that our department had done our due diligence and showed the med school dean our research.

Involve the Faculty Early in the Process
This seems like an obvious step, but it is often overlooked. You would be surprised how much easier the whole process will be if faculty are involved with the new technology from the beginning. Too often, administrations make decisions without fully involving faculty, perhaps because they believe faculty members are set in their ways and are resistant to change. Making faculty aware of the benefits they and their students will receive by utilizing a new program can make a world of difference — chances are, if you see the benefits, so will they. It might take some time to get the support of all faculty members, but the early adopters can help rally the rest of their peers. Especially at a small program, if you can get one faculty member to act as your champion for a technology change, it can make a huge difference with an implementation.

Reward Your People
People like to be rewarded and recognized — this is a simple fact. Rewards can come in many forms, but even a simple gesture of recognizing a group member at a meeting or taking your team out to lunch can do a great deal for morale. Any gesture that shows team members you value their good work will be appreciated. Recognition at certain milestones is particularly effective. Happy people usually produce good results.

Track Your Progress
Document everything that you do during this process. It is good to remind yourself when you go through a similar process down the road. Establish milestones. Set your criteria for success and prepare to make adjustments when you don't reach your goals. Be flexible because something will go wrong. The best technologies have issues, but the ones that succeed have contingency plans. Deadlines are stressful and sometimes they are not met. Make sure that you have plans to address those situations that will arise to challenge you. Channel your inner Batman. He's one superhero with no superpowers, but a great ability to come up with contingency plans when he encounters pitfalls.

Smaller programs can achieve the same results as larger programs. We might have to work a little harder, get a little scrappier in the way we handle situations, and at times we might wish the "easy button" actually existed, but it can be done. Large or small, our focus is the same: providing the best education for our students. When we do that, everyone wins.

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