IT Trends

Staffing and Tech Integration Dominate Campus IT Priorities

The concerns relayed in this year's Campus Computing Project survey results reflect ongoing struggles with budget, user preparation and security.

The current and continuing priorities for campus CIOs center on five areas:

  • Hiring and retaining IT personnel;
  • Instructional technology integration;
  • Boosting network and data security;
  • Providing adequate user support services; and
  • Leveraging IT resources for student success.

Those findings come out of the annual survey done each year by the Campus Computing Project, the largest continuing study of IT planning and policy issues in American higher education, according to Founding Director Kenneth "Casey" Green. Each fall the survey queries senior campus IT officials — CIOs, CTOs or other senior campus IT officers — regarding their top institutional concerns for the next two to three years. During a recent presentation at the Educause annual conference, Green noted that 339 colleges and universities participated in this year's survey, down about 100 campuses from last year's project.

Staffing and Budget Quandaries

Out of a given list of operational areas, the top priority, designated by 82 percent of respondents as "very important," was hiring and retaining qualified staff for the IT organization. Three quarters of IT leaders reported that they can't pay competitive IT salaries; nearly a third (28 percent) have reduced their IT staffing; and almost a quarter (23 percent) have cut their professional development budgets.

Top three institutional IT priorities by sector, fall 2016 (Source: Campus Computing Project)

As Green wrote in an annotated report about the survey findings, the impact of staffing challenges is felt most keenly "in rural areas and small college towns, where the competition for a limited pool of IT talent may be intense and expensive."

Much of the struggle in this area is continued fallout from the budget cuts that hit during and after the Great Recession of the late 2000s, explained Green, reductions that are still "chipping away at the core IT infrastructure: hardware, software and people." Nearly two-thirds of respondents (63 percent) stated that IT funding still hasn't fully recovered from the budget cuts imposed over the previous four to six years. Nearly a third (29.5 percent) experienced a budget cut during the 2016-2017 academic year and a quarter also faced a mid-year budget cut of an average of 8 percent. Hardest hit were community colleges: Forty-three percent saw an annual budget cut, and 32 percent experienced a mid-year budget cut.

One interesting budget-related sidebar shared by Green related to the use of student tech fees, which exist at 55 percent of respondent schools. "At one time, many institutions used student IT fees to provide new, supplemental services rather than to supplant stressed, core campus IT budgets," he observed. "The 2016 survey data [reveal] that student fees are now overwhelmingly used to replace funds lost due to continuing IT budget reductions."

Across all institutional sectors, most schools now plow student IT fees into the core campus IT budget rather than isolate those funds for student-requested services. Green added that while private institutions are less likely than public schools to have a tech fee (32 percent of private universities compared to 76.5 percent of public universities, for example), in those where the fees exist, they tend to be higher in the private institutions ($399 vs. $233 on average, respectively).

Gaps Between Tech, Teaching and Outcomes

CIOs and other campus IT leaders maintain their certainty in the promise of technology to help transform the process of education at their institutions. As an example, nearly everybody (96 percent) supported the idea that adaptive learning tech has "great potential" to improve learning outcomes for students. And almost nine in 10 (87.5 percent) said digital content can provide a "richer and more personalized learning experience" than the standard textbook.

While IT staffing dominated the list of concerns overall for campus IT officials, the use of IT resources for improving student success came out on top for two types of institutions: public colleges and community colleges.

But simply providing access to new services or applications isn't sufficient. In a new question added to this year's survey, CIOs were asked whether their senior academic leaders understood the "strategic value" of institutional investments in IT. Nine in 10 said they do. At the same time, however, these same respondents said they need to put a major emphasis on helping faculty learn to integrate tech into instruction. The survey found that only 23 percent assess faculty IT training as "excellent." Just a fourth of schools have formal programs in place to evaluate the impact of IT on learning outcomes. And 17 percent have formal policies in place to evaluate faculty IT efforts as a part of review and promotion for those instructors.

As Green observed, "Decisions about IT in instruction are often fueled by good intentions, anecdotal data, opinion and epiphany as opposed to research and hard evidence."

Security Problems Continue Apace

Universities have become major targets for cyber break-ins. According to this year's results, more than four in 10 schools (44 percent) were the victims of data theft during the 2015-2016 academic year, specifically due to the loss or theft of a device. Public and private institutions were twice as likely to be hit in this way compared to community colleges; whereas 63.5 percent of public universities and 61 percent of private colleges suffered data breaches through device loss, 31 percent of community colleges said the same.

Nearly half of schools (49 percent) suffered hacking to their networks and a fifth (22 percent) dealt with spyware or ransomware incidents.

Also, 7 percent of campuses had cloud-related security problems during the past year, Green reported, adding that the resulting ding to reputation will hit the institution, not the cloud provider. "When there is a breach, it's not going to be Amazon, Microsoft, Google; it's going to be Acme College," he said. "The fact is that faculty or researchers had that experience, and that's where the headline will be — not who you used [as a cloud provider]."

Pursuit of User Happiness

Most IT leaders maintained that their organizations are providing adequate support to users. Nearly six in 10 (59 percent) said users were "very satisfied." Yet what users they're referring to is a bit mystifying. After all, among the same respondents, only 27 percent considered the IT training they provided to faculty as excellent, and only 10 percent said the same about the training they delivered to students.

The perceived level of campus community satisfaction with other key IT services and resources varies widely. For example, the majority of respondents contended that their institutional users were satisfied with the level of wireless and WiFi technology in place. At the other end of the spectrum, just over 15 percent believed the same about their delivery of analytic tools.

In fact, Green coined the phrase "analytic angst" to describe the rift between investments in analytics and payoff. In the current survey, only 16 percent of respondents said they were "very satisfied" with their colleges' analytics initiatives. As he explained, "The campus angst with analytics should not be surprising. As with so many new technologies in the consumer, corporate and campus sectors, the actual, implied and inferred promises often fall short of initial performance." Where analytics do seem to be finding success, he noted, is in the areas of student recruitment and development work.

The lack of sufficient user training and preparation for cultural change may be at the root of much of that discontent, he added. "Campus officials and faculty who are eager for just-in-time, complex analyses of student performance really do need effective training with these new resources to understand both the potential and also the limits of the data and these analytic tools." Likewise, they need to make a transition from using data as a "weapon" ("You failed, because you said you were going to do 15 percent and you only did 12 percent") to using data and analytics as a resource. The main question to be answered, he offered, "should be not what did we do wrong, but how can we do better, and how do the data and analytic tools show us the path to do better for our students."

The complete results of the Campus Computing Survey will be made available for $45 starting on Dec. 10 at the Campus Computing Project website here.

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