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Supporting Digital Transformation in Education: A Model for Statewide and Regional Networks

A Q&A with Samuel Conn

For years — since its beginnings back in 1997 — NJEdge has helped education institutions in New Jersey by providing networking services, consortial advantages with technology vendors, and above all, leadership in the use of networking and digital technologies. In a recent press release, the statewide networking and services organization announced the addition of seven new members to its board of directors — all distinguished higher education leaders in the state. The release explains that this move "signals an increased commitment to the digital transformation of education in New Jersey". Here, Samuel Conn, president and CEO of NJEdge, talks about his organization's ongoing priority of fostering "excellence in education through the effective use of technology".

"By encouraging the soft skills, NJEdge offers institutions a framework for how digital transformation should occur." — Samuel Conn

Mary Grush: Is NJEdge redoubling its efforts now, in terms of supporting higher education? And will this extend to K-12 as well?

Samuel Conn: That's right. NJEdge is more committed than ever to building out the resources to ensure that digital transformation is occurring in higher education, and also in K-12.

At this time we're pursuing many K-20 initiatives, which of course will span both K-12 and higher education. For example, through a strategic partnership with the New Jersey School Boards Association, we've started a dialogue about how to create student success pathways throughout the whole of the K-20 journey. That's very exciting for NJEdge.

Grush: Are higher education institutions in your state particularly interested or ready to pursue digital transformation? How can you help them?

Conn: Digital transformation is complex, and while it is a very popular topic, it's also very hard — institutions don't always understand how to go about it.

And it's not all about the technology. What we at NJEdge are trying to put out there, is thought leadership and guidance — to build a framework, or a roadmap if you will, to help move our institutions toward digital transformation.

Grush: What are some of the key issues you're focusing on, to achieve this framework?

Conn: It really starts with the business architecture. We especially focus on the lifecycle of students: from when they first become interested in the institution, through applications and admissions processes, through the education years at their institution, and all the way up through their alumni status. We look at a whole series of workflows and business processes that have to occur.

And, especially in the traditional market where there's a younger generation of students, we find that the ways students want to engage with institutions are completely different than in the past. New students today, rather than asking "Where's the computer lab?" — a last-century question — will want to know "How's your WiFi coverage?" or "Will I have enough bandwidth for video?" or "What does your mobile app look like — can I make transactions, and add/drop classes through my iPhone?" We need to help institutions be responsive to these student expectations.

Grush: Who on campus will be affected by such new business processes — administrators?

Conn: Administrators, yes, but not only administrators… think of how faculty are now teaching in new and different ways.

Grush: What systems and support are important for institutions to have, to be on top of all this?

Conn: Again, where it really starts is having a business architecture in which the student lifecycle is enabled, supported, and refined… and can be altered in response to the needs of incoming students.

Building on top of that is a data architecture as well as a physical infrastructure in the campus plant that supports the automation of these new business processes and workflows. All of this is created in light of the student lifecycle and how students need to engage, transact, and learn, ultimately to become part of the alumni of the institution.

And as I said, while it's not "all about" the technology, there is technology that needs to be addressed — including the movement toward the cloud, the hybrid cloud, and much more.

Grush: But will you be focusing more on the technology or on leadership? What is your own opinion?

Conn: It's a balanced approach. It's partially about the technology and infrastructure, but it's more, I think, about the soft skills that need to be developed.

Grush: Can you give me an example of the types of soft skills NJEdge is helping institutions develop?

Conn: Sure. Institutions need to be able to model their business processes in order to look at them with clarity. Organizational change management is a skill that functional leaders within the institution need have to help facilitate the changes that need to occur. And project management is a soft skill that's necessary today.

By encouraging the soft skills, NJEdge offers institutions a framework for how digital transformation should occur.

Grush: How do you work with institutions?

Conn: We spend time with institutional leaders, helping them think through their strategic plan for information technology and how it aligns with the mission and vision of the institution. In concert with that are discussions about the digital transformation of the institution and how to go about that.

But campuses in general are having a hard time coming up with strategies and the capital investment that it takes to approach digital transformations, while at the same time addressing the changes that will need to happen in the campus culture.

Grush: So what are some of the problems institutions have, as they approach these technology and culture changes? Is there a central problem?

Conn: Higher education, by its very nature is somewhat resistant to change. In an era when technology is increasing at an exponential rate, institutional staff are getting deluged with e-mails and promotions about the latest and greatest emerging technologies. Just working through all that is a very difficult process.

And I've had presidents say to me, "We don't understand: We've spent the money — millions of dollars of investment in technology — but yet, we are not seeing the impact. What are we doing wrong?”

By and large, it goes back to strategy. Institutions are not yet using best practices in enterprise digital transformation.

Grush: Then do they need to work more on the soft skills we've been talking about?

Conn: Yes. And we help them do that. Institutions need to learn to look at the student experience in view of the student lifecycle. We help them develop those soft skills, and help translate their work into the selection of technology and the buildout of infrastructure environments using the cloud.

Grush: What do member institutions that are looking for solutions and best practices gain in the long term, then? Does NJEdge's thought leadership provide a model that institutions, or even other statewide or regional networks can use?

Conn: Yes. Utilizing an ecosystem model, we help institutions to understand that technology permeates the higher education landscape; there is no one on campus who is not impacted by, or is not a user of technology. What our members end up with is streamlined processes, new ways of attracting, engaging, and recruiting students, and ultimately a cost-affordable model — all because they are using best practices for digital transformation.

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