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What's on the Higher Ed IT Agenda?

Despite budgetary barriers, Campus IT leaders aren't lowing their sights; rather, they're targeting projects that are ambitious, forward-looking, and broad in scope.

Call it an arms race, if you will, but the pressure is on for some institutions of higher education to implement the latest and greatest technology tools, and budgetary issues be damned! Today's universities have to do what they can to keep pace with student and teacher demands, all the while making sure they don't "over-invest" in IT tools that will just end up gathering dust.

In order to meet the needs of their constituents, IT leaders are continuing to push large-scale projects, ranging from the expansion of campus wireless to new attempts to reach out electronically to future students. They're also making some sideways changes, such as moving to hosted services and even switching out platforms.

Campus Technology talked with three higher education IT leaders to get a sense of the kinds of projects they'll be implementing this year.

TCTC's Move to Linux, Hosted E-Mail, Campus-Wide WiFi
As IT operations manager at Tri-County Technical College in Pendleton, SC, Matt Edwards has a "long list" of projects on his agenda for 2010. The school is switching platforms to Linux and upgrading all associated hardware. The project will go live in July and is expected to reduce the bottlenecks that Tri-County is seeing at the student registration point, where the number of new applicants is up 20 percent this year, compared to 2009.

Also on Edwards' IT agenda this year is a movement to a fully deployed wireless Internet system across campus to replace the current Cisco "hot spot" environment. "We're trying to get full coverage in place by next year," he explained.

To get there, he said, Tri-County will expand its current coverage, beginning with those buildings where laptops are used the most.

"We're going to build it out from there," he said.

Edwards said he's also looking to get all of the school's students fed into its Active Directory, which is used to manage identities and relationships that comprise Tri-County's network. Right now, he said, only employees and faculty are loaded into the system, which is being expanded to include more users this year.

He said the college is also planning to upgrade its SunGard Higher Education Banner ERP system.

Finally, he said, the college also wants to move student e-mail accounts to a hosted solution--a goal that will probably be met sometime in 2011.

Paperless Operations at U Tennessee Martin
At the University of Tennessee at Martin, Mike Abney, process improvement facilitator, said his IT agenda includes some projects that are in the early stages of implementation, some that were just finished, and others that are in the brainstorming phase. Most recently, the school implemented a paperless, dual enrollment system that reduced the number of steps involved from 41 to five.

"We literally went from having unhappy customers to very happy customers overnight," said Abney. (Those customers include high school students and their parents.) Where its dual enrollment process was previously handled manually, via paper forms and transcripts exchanged between UTM and guidance counselors, the institution now points students to an online portal. "There's no more paperwork," stated Abney. "A counselor gets an e-mail, hits the mouse a few times, and signs off on it. On our end, the approval winds up as a PDF."

Abney said document management sits high on his IT agenda right now. "We're really stressing the fact that PDFs don't need to be printed out and routed for signatures," remarked Abney, "and that it can all be handled electronically."

Right now, he said, Abney is looking to add to the school's IT arsenal a utility that would allow prospective students and their parents to align themselves with UTM via the Internet. That would help the school establish a "cradle to grave relationship" with those individuals, he explained.

"We'd like to be able to form those relationships early, with the idea that students will attend UTM, get their master's degrees here and then donate money as alumni," said Abney. "It's part of a wider vision for growth, and one that we know can be facilitated by technology."

Portal Expansion and E-learning Upgrades at St. Scholastica
This year, Bill Reichelt, director of enterprise information systems at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, MN, said his school is implementing a new, campus-wide information portal, increasing its online course offerings and upgrading to the most recent version of Blackboard, which was recently migrated to a hosted environment. The latter has allowed the institution to ramp up faster to meet the demands of its growing student body and "be more scalable," according to Reichelt.

To fulfill its Web portal needs, St. Scholastica recently invested in SunGard Higher Education's Luminous product, which will help create a "single port of entry for anyone from applicants to alumni," said Reichelt. "The portal will allow us to target students' needs more directly, rather than having them go to a Web site to try to find what they're looking for," he said. The project is set for implementation in May, with a goal of going live Jan. 1, 2011.

Also at the end of the year, Reichelt said, St. Scholastica plans to upgrade its Blackboard system, which it uses for learning management and all of its online courses. Right now, Reichelt said, "a number of programs are either online or partially online," with more expected to be added in the near future. "We've seen considerable growth in the online education area," said Reichelt, whose own IT wish list includes single sign-on capabilities for users across campus.

"That's something we'll be looking at in the next year or so, for sure," said Reichelt. "If it comes to fruition, the single sign-on will allow a student to log into the college portal and access e-mail plus all other applications with one simple step instead of having to log in eight times."

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