Information Technology Trends

Top 10 IT Issues in Education

Staffing, the use of technology in teaching and learning and sustainable funding head the list of IT concerns for colleges and universities in the new year. The results come out of the annual survey done by Educause, a technology association that runs an ongoing research project to monitor what its members are facing in their institutions. The Educause issues list is developed by a panel of experts consisting of IT and non-IT leaders, CIOs and faculty members and then voted on by the entire Educause membership.

The overall theme for this year's list was change, reported Susan Grajek, vice president of data, research and analytics.

Top 10 IT Issues

1. Hiring and retaining qualified staff and updating the knowledge and skills of existing technology staff;

2. Optimizing the use of technology in teaching and learning alongside academic leadership;

3. Developing IT funding models that sustain core service and support innovation;

4. Improving student outcomes through approaches that leverage technology;

5. Demonstrating the business value of IT and how technology and the IT organization can help the institution achieve its goals;

6. Increasing IT's capacity for managing change, despite differing community needs, priorities and abilities;

7. Providing user support in the "new normal," encompassing mobile, online education, cloud and bring-your-own environments;

8. Developing mobile, cloud and digital security policies that work for the institutional community;

9. Developing an enterprise IT architecture responsive to changing conditions and new opportunities; and

10. Balancing agility, openness and security.

Source: Educause

"The pace of change for higher education information technology is increasing — not slowing — and on many fronts," she said. What is troubling, she added, was that the gap is "widening between the forward-thinking early adopters and the growing number of institutions that cannot keep up with the pace of change. More and more institutions are falling behind when it comes to implementing and leveraging technology to solve large-scale problems and address strategic issues, like using cloud technologies to standardize business processes on campus and analytics to predict and address student outcomes."

So it shouldn't be a surprise that the No. 1 issue this year is hiring and retaining qualified technology staff and updating their knowledge and skills. This was a concern that topped the list in 2013 as well. Job roles that were "common and necessary even a few years ago are really diminishing. New roles are coming into play," Grajek noted. "Until you get the IT organization and people right, you're not going to be able to deliver on the strategy."

According to Grajek, IT leaders are focused on staffing because it will strongly influence how successfully they can provide the services their colleges and universities will need "now and for the coming decade."

Second on the list, optimizing the use of technology in teaching and learning in collaboration with academic leadership, gets at the heart of institutional strategy, Grajek wrote in her report. "Institutions whose educational culture is intentionally and predominantly residential, ones that serve many part-time working commuters, those with strong global outreach, technological institutes, and institutions with strong practicum orientations may all grant similar degrees but will have very different pedagogical strategies and, therefore, different educational technology needs," she stated. "Without a larger guiding vision, the application of technology to teaching and learning is neither strategic nor optimized; it is instead a series of endpoint solutions driven by individual faculty requests and by the best (often uncoordinated) efforts of service providers throughout the institution."

Grajek called this focus on the primary mission of higher education the "third wave" for institutional IT. The first wave, she explained, was about "developing and delivering technologies"; the second wave shifted the emphasis to the delivery of services; the third wave calls for the IT organization to be "really focused on delivering and enabling institutional strategy."

The development of IT funding models that could sustain core services while also supporting innovation surfaced as the third top issue in the report. Funding has shown up on the top 10 issues list since 2000. What's become particularly challenging, Grajek noted, was that CIOs were getting ensnared into "two contradictory conversations. One was, how do we lower the cost of IT at the institution? The other conversation was, how do we transform the institution using IT?" That second pursuit, she pointed out, "really requires additional investment."

What CIOs want, she said, is to develop a strategy that provides "pools of money to devote to on-going maintenance and investment in infrastructure" while at the same time having other funding sources "they could devote to transformation." Currently, according to Educause research, 75 percent of IT spending is dedicated to running the institution; institutional growth consumes another 15 percent. That leaves only 9 percent for "transformative change."

While many CIOs on Educause's advisory panel reported that it was "pretty easy" to obtain capital funding for one-off projects, they found it very hard to get the funding for supporting that technology on an on-going basis.

Another aspect of funding that complicates the job of the CIO is that frequently, implementing those transformative technologies requires changes in business processes. "That's not something the CIO can declare," said Grajek. "The CIO can't say we're all going to use a different procurement process. That's where there needs to be a very tight and shared strategy between IT and the business, where the business can say, 'We're willing to do the change leadership required to get our folks to make the changes that will reduce the cost of these systems.'"

This year's issues list also featured two new themes: increasing the IT organization's capacity for managing change in position No. 6 and balancing agility, openness and security in position 10.

Managing change has two fundamental aspects, Grajek said. First, "unless the IT organization is able to lead both the transformation of IT itself as well as its role as a change agent within the institution, it's not going to be able to keep up with the demands made upon it." Second, change management requires a solid governance model in place for making decisions. "If a college or university is struggling with the way it makes decisions, the IT organization is going to have a very hard time helping and working with the institution to discern its priorities and to deliver on them."

The issue of coordinating agility, openness and security reflects the continual struggle schools have in balancing their mission of openness while still protecting personal and institutional data. "That's an interesting on-going tension," Grajek said. "Being agile in those kinds of circumstances is particularly challenging. You have to be agile because the environment and the threats keep changing."

The top 10 IT issues report appears on Educause's site at educause.edu/itissues.

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