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Student Success Pervades Top IT Issues for 2017

Educause's annual roundup of the most pressing issues in higher ed technology highlights data issues, digital transformation of learning and "next-generation" use of IT.

The complexities of technology just don't generate much concern among college and university IT leaders these days. What do are more strategic initiatives such as student success, the transformation of learning and the use of data.

Yes, it's true that for the second year running cybersecurity has come in first on Educause's list of the Top 10 IT issues for higher education. But this year it doesn't dominate the results as it did last year, according to Susan Grajek, the organization's vice president of data, research and analytics. Information security "is a huge risk area," she said, but, according to Educause member votes, "not by quite as much."

Instead, Grajek sees growing concern for the broader area of student success, an issue that landed in third place in 2016, fourth place in 2015 and first place in 2014. While the explicit topic of student success showed up second on the 2017 list, Grajek pointed out that many if not most of the other issues link back to that theme — including data-informed decision making (No. 3 in the ranking), effective leadership (No. 4), the digital transformation of learning (No. 10) and even sustainable funding (No. 8).

"When I've been listening in on the conversations that institutions are having about what they're trying to do with student success, technology is less of a challenge," Grajek explained. "Really, the schools that are having success have the leadership in place, understand where they want to focus initially, and have invested in this rather than seeing it as a cost."

To compile the IT issues list, Educause pulls together a representative group of about two dozen members who meet four times a year to talk about what's going on in their institutions. Their discussions result in a slate upon which the larger membership votes. In January 2017, Grajek said, Educause will issue its official annual report that examines the Top 10 IT Issues in depth. The coming report is also expected to offer guidance from IT leaders about why each issue is important; what risks, misconceptions and opportunities come along with the issue; and what higher ed would look like "if we get this issue right."

The Educause Top 10 IT Issues

  1. Information security: Reducing institutional exposure to information security threats;
  2. Student success and completion: Applying data and predictive analytics to improve student success and completion;
  3. Data-informed decision making: Helping administrators, faculty and students use business intelligence, reporting and analytics that are relevant and convenient;
  4. Strategic leadership: Promoting the role of IT leadership as a strategic partner with institutional leadership;
  5. Sustainable funding: Developing funding models for IT that sustain core services, support innovation and enable growth;
  6. Data management and governance: Improving the management of institutional data through standards, integration, protection and governance;
  7. Higher education affordability: Prioritizing IT investments and resources in the context of increasing demand and limited resources;
  8. Sustainable staffing: Ensuring adequate staffing and addressing retention even in the face of shrinking or flatlining budgets;
  9. Next-generation enterprise IT: Putting together IT applications, architectures and sourcing strategies to sustain agility, scalability, cost-effectiveness and effective analytics; and
  10. Digital transformation of learning: Working with faculty and academic leadership in using technology for teaching and learning in innovative ways and to support the school's mission.

At the recent Educause annual conference, Grajek moderated a panel in which higher education IT leaders offered their thoughts about several of the Top 10 issues. Here's what they said.

Next-gen Enterprise IT

The subject of IT infrastructure is less about technology and more about integration and how the resources are managed — particularly when the technology may be on premise and in the cloud, observed Gerard Au, associate vice president of IT services at California State University, San Bernardino. Referring to the recent DDoS attack that pulled down many popular sites, including The New York Times, Twitter, Netflix and PayPal, Au pondered how institutions would deal with "these situations." "How are we going to handle parts of our enterprise IT not working when there's an incident like that?" he asked.

At Case Western Reserve University, the challenges of next-gen enterprise IT are evident in the implementations within specific departments or operations. John Landers, project management office leader, said the university runs a "strong business process team" to map processes in detail before starting a new software implementation. That mapping helps the IT organization understand the process and obtain "current state metrics," which in turn enable IT "to do a compare and contrast" after implementation.

The institution also attempts to embed the business process team into the community where an implementation will be taking place, to help with buy-in and address specific concerns. For example, when researchers on campus were getting new software tied to grants, having the business process team be part of that project "was really invaluable," Landers said, "to help them have a successful rollout on time and on budget."

Grajek recommended that IT leaders adopt and adapt the 2015 framework created by Educause research division ECAR to help them think through total cost of ownership (TCO) as they move their applications to the cloud.

Data for Decision-making and Data Management

Frequently, the largest misconception on campus is that IT "owns all the data," said Au. But the reality is that it comes from a multitude of sources: student affairs, administration, finance and so on. Therefore, the use of data for "informed decision-making" requires IT to get "engaged with all the people who [play] any part with any kind of data on campus," he said. "They all contribute to these data we use on campus." IT's job is to "be the glue that brings all these folks together" and help them figure out how to get at the data they need from across the campus.

Rebecca Davis, director of instructional and emerging technology at St. Edward's University in Austin, TX, reported that her school hired a chief data officer and that individual is going across campus, talking about what kinds of data the university has. As a result, that person is "raising a lot of questions" and convincing people that "we all need to engage and work with our data more."

Those efforts include upstream activities such as data management and governance, standards, integration and protection. But they also involve community-facing activities such as persuading students that they need to think more about their data — and in very concrete ways. For example, one faculty member received a grant from MIT "to buy Fitbits for all his students," empowering them "to take control of their own data." Another faculty member is tracking student progress on learning outcomes, "which he shares with them on a spreadsheet."

Marden Paul, director of planning, governance, assessment and communications for the University of Toronto, added that the upstream activities will have a real impact on the downstream effects of data misuse. As an example, he pointed to a project undertaken at his institution that would use data from Blackboard for course evaluation. A check of the data fields found that they were used for all kinds of unrelated reasons. "Where we have to put more effort is in paying attention to data standards, to properly using the systems we put out there. If it turns out that it can't do what you want, then [you have to] tell somebody; don't just use fields for what you need."

Digital Transformation of Learning

The final issue in the Top 10 list, the digital transformation of learning, is often misunderstood, said St. Edward's Davis. Frequently, people assume transformation equates to deployment of a specific product or "solutionism," as she called it — that old misconception that "if we get that technology, it will solve our problem." True change requires more than that, she insisted. "What we're actually talking about is a cultural transformation of the whole university."

For example, St. Edward's IT team faced a hurdle when the school adopted a student retention platform three years ago. Faculty members were asked to input attendance records. Prior to that, the practice was to maintain attendance right in the learning management system. But because the LMS and the retention system didn't integrate, instructors needed to change their practice. Therefore, the new system was viewed by faculty as "yet another burden that tech has placed upon them."

Toronto's Paul concurred. Transformation "isn't just the implementation. It will change roles, activities, delivery mechanisms, the way students engage with materials, instructors, each other."

Ultimately, IT's job is to become a partner on "anything and everything our campuses do" and "how everything works on campus — from student success to budgets to how our lights and sprinklers work on campus," he said.

As a result, IT has become "more relevant than ever," added Davis. "If we go through this digital transformation that addresses not just learning but institutional culture, then everybody is a part of IT."

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