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3 Starters for Digital Leadership in Higher Ed

A higher education technology leader offers his take on three transformative themes that will dominate in colleges and universities for 2018.

United States higher education is struggling to move into the 21st century digital era, according to Dr. Samuel Conn, president and chief executive officer for nonprofit technology consortium NJEdge. Holding back the segment, he said, are legacy processes and "last-century" thinking, which can no longer meet the demands of students who are more digitally savvy than their instructors — not to mention the growing competition coming from global institutions that are attracting those same students.

What institutional leaders need, Conn noted, is "re-energizing." Only then will they have the spark and inspiration needed to undertake the change they wish to see in their organizations. Enterprise transformation is the major theme of this year's NJEdge Annual Conference, taking place Jan. 11-12 in Whippany, NJ. Although the organization and its event are situated in New Jersey, its products and services have stretched far beyond state borders, and even outside of higher ed.

NJEdge was founded in 2000 to deliver access through EdgeNet, a high-performance optical fiber network spanning the state's colleges and universities. Since then, the organization has added additional solutions: EdgeCloud (for co-location and platform-as-a-service), EdgeMarket (for consortium buying), EdgeSecure (for security coverage), EdgePro (for professional services), EdgeMedia (for digital asset management and cloud-based videoconferencing) and EdgeEvents (for professional development activities).

Along the way, new kinds of members have joined, including K-12 districts, local government agencies and healthcare providers. And that EdgeMedia media management system, Illumira, which Conn calls "a YouTube on steroids," has been adopted by schools outside of the state, including higher ed customers in Michigan, Maryland, New York, Virginia and Connecticut.

NJEdgeCon 2018 takes place Jan. 11-12. Learn more on the NJEdge website.

The annual conference reflects that diversity. Although there's a heavy emphasis on the subjects higher ed will care about, since that's the major type of member NJEdge has, the two-day event will also offer coverage of topics of interest for leaders seeking to remake their organizations to reflect current trends in digitalization.

In a recent interview, Conn offered his take on three themes colleges and universities can expect to pay more attention to in the coming year as starters for kicking their transformation efforts into high gear.

1) Big Data and Analytics

Predictive modeling using business intelligence applications should be a big deal to schools, said Conn. Forget about the buildings, faculty and other aspects that campuses have "historically prided themselves on," he asserted. "Institutions are really starting to understand that data is one of their primary assets, that the data is what's telling the story."


NJEdge isn't new to the data realm. The company is part of New Jersey's Big Data Alliance, an initiative formed by legislative action and run from Rutgers University, with a membership that includes academia, industry, nonprofits and government. NJEdge provides the transport mechanism for big data initiatives and, in particular, for research. "The composition of research environments is all about three things," Conn said: "Networks that can transport data at very high speeds, storage and high-performance computing." Those same components are being picked up to power other kinds of data analysis as well.

He noted that many schools have found that they have business processes working counter-intuitively or that they should be tracking data points that nobody had ever considered important before. As an example, he offered point-of-sale data from cafeteria operations. "Nobody ever thought that would be a leading indicator of anything. But as it turns out, the combinatorial factors of certain data points allow you to accurately predict when students are going to drop out, almost with certainty. As it turns out, students who are not doing well in school, with a poor GPA or other factors, quit eating. They stay in their dorms, because they dread [the idea] of going home to tell the parents that they're flunking out of school."

Social media efforts and data also work hand-in-hand, he added. "Every time a student likes something, has a thumbs up [or] a thumbs down, that's a data point." To help schools accelerate their data analysis muscles, NJEdge is teaming up with companies such as Washington, D.C.-based Full Measure Education and Montreal's OOHLALA, which offers customized campus mobile apps.

The goal: "to allow institutions to understand how to form intervention strategies and apply them at the right point in time, for student success, to lower attrition, and also to make data-informed decisions about student populations that they're after," Conn said. Those smart uses of data and analytics, he added, can help schools avoid blunders like misplaced recruitment efforts, where students may respond (and register) in droves but end up "dropping out early and leaving high debt balances."

2) Networking and Data Security

While networking and data security are evergreen topics in higher ed, suggested Conn ("Nobody wants to be on the front page of the Chronicle or have a data breach"), the Internet of Things is aggravating concerns. "More and more devices are connecting, so there's more opportunity and new ways ... for bad things to happen," he said.

NJEdge deals primarily on the wide-area network side. By being part of a "closed network," Conn explained, members of the organization don't have to worry about denial-of-service attacks. Mitigation is provided "upstream," so the DDOS attacks potentially never reach institutional firewalls or routers.

However, Conn added, the concept of hybrid cloud computing, in which schools are moving more activities out of their own data centers and into the cloud, is "starting to blur the lines between WANs and LANs." Campuses are redefining the edge of their networks to pull them inward, and concluding that they "don't have to be responsible for managing the routers or firewalls," he said.

As a result, more of NJEdge's members are choosing to outsource security and management of edge routing into networks, Conn said. Much of that decision-making is being driven by cost and a lack of resources. "Many institutions don’t have the budget for a chief information security officer, and NJEdge has one that we 'timeshare,' where if you can't afford a $200,000-a-year position, you might be able to afford enough of that if it were split among 10 other institutions."

An example of how that might be used is in the case of vulnerability scans and security assessments performed by third-party software but managed by NJEdge. Once the institution has the assessment in hand, the school could tap a virtual CISO service, such as the one provided by NJEdge, to help develop a plan for mitigating the risk identified in those scans.

3) The Route to Personalized Instruction

Conn believes we've entered the third generation of digital online instructional design. The first wave was characterized by text-based design in the learning management system, which was intended to enable fully online and hybrid courses to emulate classroom activities. For instance, the discussion forum gave people a way to talk as if they were in a classroom, but asynchronously and based in text. "You had to read something and write something," he said.

However, he asserted, that approach to instructional design didn't serve all students, which led to the second generation of instructional design. For example, "In the non-traditional market, where you have people in their 30s and 40s who were coming back to school for their degree completion, reading comprehension skills were not so good, because they had been out of school for a long time. They had very low persistence rates and high attrition rates in these courses that were predominantly text-based — just because it was too arduous for many people to endure." Instructional designers responded by developing digital learning objects — short videos on a given topic — around which learning activities were built.

Now, institutions are moving into third-generation deign: the personalization of education. In this wave adaptive learning dominates, Conn said. Through artificial intelligence, education applications are "learning how you are learning and then adapting the pace and the course of what you're learning to personalize it."

Picking up and running with these education movements won't be easy, Conn acknowledged. "Everybody wants to transform," he laughed, "but nobody wants to change." A good starting point for executing on a plan of change is to "relieve some of the complexity" of operations, by outsourcing call centers, the help desk and self-service initiatives, he suggested. Doing so will leave room in the day for overhauling business processes and technologies related to the primary mission: getting students in and helping them graduate with useful knowledge and skills.

Digital leadership ultimately calls for institutional people to evolve their "thinking, so they start to see things from the customer experience," Conn said. That kind of realignment in perspective is vital for understanding how the entire ecosystem supports the student lifecycle — "from the first time a student hears about the institution to the moment they graduate and start writing alumni checks."

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