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Student Demands or Strategic IT Planning?

Are we placing too much importance on students’ needs when making IT decisions? A new survey’s findings include the fact that at today’s higher education institutions "executives place students well ahead of faculty and staff in their adoption of IT." According to Jose-Marie Griffiths, chair and professor of information science at the University of Pittsburgh, and an author of the survey’s report, much of the IT agenda – including things like connectivity on- and off-campus, mobility, smart classrooms, distance learning, course management systems, help desks, and more – is driven by a competition to recruit students. This is not necessarily bad, but she sees it creating a subtle disconnection from institutional strategic planning that might be diminishing the attention paid to the potential IT might have for the academic disciplines.

I agree, and further, I think that there is a direct relationship between this "disconnection" and the failure to recognize and reward early adopter work in technology applications for non-technical research and for teaching and learning. The issue is further complicated by a strong aversion, again on the academician side, toward getting involved in all that strategic planning stuff – especially if it means working with people who aren’t subject-matter experts. And this is killing liberal education.

The survey research study, titled "Information Technology Success and Best Practices in Higher Education," is a compilation and analysis of survey responses from 400 higher education executives at the president, chancellor, CFO, CAO, CIO level. [See Resources, below.]
These top executives believe that financial support for IT is critical to institutional growth and reputation. Consequently, they want their institutions to move further toward the early adopter position in developing and implementing new technologies. They’re also concerned about privacy and security issues. All of this is good news for IT staffers – it means more money, more "stuff," and more prestige on campus.

The same leaders also believe that IT is important to the achievement of institutional strategic goals, although they acknowledge that measuring its impact is not something we yet know how to do very well. Also, a lack of coherent IT planning processes is a major concern.
That sounds pretty mundane, but it’s also pretty important. Part of what it means is that if you define institutional goals as more students and you can show that you attracted more students because you have the coolest wireless network around (just like having the coolest campus around works in recruitment brochure pictures), then you can measure that success. But if your institutional goal is more students, then that’s not a whole lot different from saying it’s "more sales" of a product, and then you’re just another company.

What about success of a more esoteric sort? You know, the "core of the academic mission" sort: teaching, learning, research, scholarship? I think this is what Griffiths is getting at, and I think she’s right. Most of what has been spent on campus IT has been driven by students’ needs, or at least by their perceived needs. And it is important to keep them coming in the door. But, while that’s a precursor for institutional success, it isn’t what the institution is aimed at, necessarily, unless you work for a for-profit.

Why isn’t there more discussion of technology implementation in a strategic sense? It’s because the folks who are closest to the teaching and learning thing, and the scholarship and research thing, aren’t involved in the IT planning. But there is one notable exception. Early on the science and technology researchers and scholarship people bought into IT, and they’re doing a pretty good job with it. In their cases, they got rewarded for being good with IT – rewarded with things that mattered on their career path.

So, where is the reward for a faculty member to be an early adopter of IT? It wasn’t there 10 years ago, it wasn’t there 5 years ago, and it almost isn’t there at all right now. There’s a little bit of scholarly reward coming to those who specialize in the area of technology and teaching and learning, but that’s now a specialty in itself. What d'es the anthropologist, or the philosopher, or the p'et get from participating on IT planning committees?

The answer is, in terms of immediate rewards, that there often is nothing except lost time. That’s been the answer for many more decades prior to the previous one, for faculty who got stuck on other kinds of strategic planning committees, like the one about the campus master plan, or the one about developing capital for and designing the new building. These are the kinds of things that faculty run from or participate in reluctantly. Yet, their input is vital.

Even if there were rewards, being on planning committees is uncomfortable. For this one, it may mean interacting on a peer level with subject matter experts outside the academic realm. And that’s not something that many faculty are comfortable with – full-partner working relationships with experts in student services, architecture, classroom design, maybe even writing and communication. There are not a lot of historical mechanisms to let those kinds of discussions take place, and there’s rarely a shared language.

This reluctance to work with other kinds of experts, along with our inability to change the paradigm and find ways to reward academicians and subject matter experts – in short-term ways they can feel, as in the tenure process – is a significant part of what may now be fueling the relative disappearance of liberal undergraduate education. Wouldn’t it be nice if IT staffers could find mechanisms to induce those conversations and to make those activities rewarding; to create better mechanisms for engaging the faculty in planning of all kinds?
It’s nice that our CEOs and CIOs want to be early adopters, and that they think it’s worth spending money on IT. But if students already know what their education needs are, then why do we even have faculty at all?

I often hear from campus and master planners how difficult it is to work on a campus without an overall strategic or academic plan. Sometimes the physical facilities planners have to make an academic plan happen first. It sounds like IT planners are in the same boat, and that many IT plans stand out there on their own, either disconnected from a strategic or academic plan, or on a campus without one. Unless we can get faculty involved in strategic planning, and integrate IT planning in that process, then we risk moving our institutions’ directions away from traditional institutional kinds of goals and objectives.

Griffiths says that the campuses doing the best job are those with a strategic or academic plan and, within that group, those where the IT planning is fully integrated. She says that the best gains are at institutions where entire disciplinary groups of academicians are brought up to speed together on IT issues, training, and capabilities. That makes sense. Let’s hope that we see more of it!

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