What Boards Need to Know about Technology in 2015

By June 29, 2015 March 7th, 2019 Trusteeship Article

Change has always characterized information technology, but today change is occurring on many fronts at the same time, and the pace of change seems to be increasing. Colleges and universities are confronting opportunities and imperatives that are dependent on and enhanced by technology, including developing new revenue and business models, increasing innovation and efficiency, managing institutional risk, improving student success, and applying analytics (based on patterns found in large databases) to inform strategy and improve decision making.

Every year EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association devoted to advancing higher education through the use of information technology, gathers a panel of chief information technology officers, other senior IT leaders, and institutional and faculty leaders to identify major IT-related issues that colleges and universities will face in the coming years. Then it asks members to identify what they see as the Top 10 IT issues for the coming year. (See full 2015 list that accompanies this article.) This year’s results indicate that several of the issues identified hold important implications for governing boards. Because the EDUCAUSE Top 10 list identifies higher education’s most strategic IT-related challenges and opportunities, understanding these issues can provide governing boards with an opportunity to help advance and strengthen their institutions through effective and innovative uses of technology.

A few overarching themes in the most recent list of issues characterize the circumstances and needs facing many institutions. Information technology in higher education has reached what IT leaders term an “inflection point”—the point at which the trends that have dominated discussions among leading strategists and that have motivated “early adopters” of various technologies are now cascading into the mainstream of institutions. For example, cloud computing (a model for delivering IT resources from data to major applications via remote Internet-based, rather than campus-based, locations or organizations) is now incorporated into campus IT strategy or is exerting a major influence over emerging strategy at more than 60 percent of colleges and universities. The same is true of businessprocess redesign, as institutions have begun to adapt institutional processes to software requirements instead of the reverse, which had been the common—and costly—practice for decades.

A second theme is the shifting focus of IT leaders and professionals from solving technical problems with systems to solving “business”— operational—problems. Ideally, such solutions should result in increased interdependence between the institution’s IT organization and its operating units. Underlying all this strategic change, the day-to-day work of the IT organization goes on, but even the daily challenges are in some ways more complex than ever and are producing a “new normal”—the third theme of change— that requires providing support for users in a growing variety of settings and using multiple types of devices.

What should boards know about the top themes and related issues? What do the data say? And how can boards support their institutions in ways that capitalize on the opportunities and manage the challenges that accompany the issue?

The Inflection Point

Colloquially, the term inflection point is often used to describe a turning point that results in extraordinary change. Andrew W. Grove, Intel’s former CEO, described a strategic inflection point as “that which causes you to make a fundamental change in business strategy.” And Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee assert in The Second Machine Age (Norton, 2014) that due to exponential growth in processor speed, storage, bandwidth, and other fundamentals of technology, we have reached a transformative point for the uses of technology. They write in their book, “Computers and other digital advances are doing for mental power—the ability to use our brains to understand and shape our environments— what the steam engine and its descendants did for muscle power.” Analytics, cloud computing, mobile devices, social media, new opportunities in digital scholarship, online education, and research using computing might all be viewed as the fruits of the second machine age.

Exponential growth in digital capabilities is one reason for the inflection point we have reached, as is the increased adoption of various technologies by mainstream institutions. Individuals and institutions adopt technology at different rates—a few are in the vanguard, a few are the last to change, and most fall somewhere in the comfortable middle of the bell curve of adoption. Higher education is no exception (see Figure 1). Geoffrey A. Moore describes an inflection point when mainstream adopters begin to enter a marketplace. As Moore describes it in his 1991 book Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Technology Products to Mainstream Customers (Harper Business Essentials, 1991), the initial mainstream adopters are motivated not by the desire to innovate (which motivates early adopters) but by the need to solve a pressing problem that their current solutions cannot address—a need that activates an otherwise cautious group. When solutions become available that particularly address their most urgent problems, members of the mainstream middle will adopt new technologies.

The present inflection point in higher education information technology is likely due to improving solutions in cloud storage, analytics, bandwidth, and other technologies that now can potentially address the very real problems of cost, productivity, and student success. Mainstream adopters also can now apply the useful examples and knowledge provided by the more-innovative institutions.

Of course, the increasing adoption of moresophisticated technologies also means change in institutions’ IT leadership and workforce. As they stretch to help colleges and universities use technology to address challenges of student success, affordability, and accountability and to support research’s increasing dependency on the sophisticated use of technology, IT organizations have to retool and restructure to adapt to challenges of their own.

Boards need to be aware that changes in technology and its applications mean that the leader of the campus information-technology structure needs to be a good communicator and salesperson for the internal changes needed, as well as have the ability to build teams and manage the broadening array of technologies.

Even more fundamentally, wider adoption of technologies by more institutions and companies means more jobs will be available for IT professionals, and so the challenge of retaining good staff will increase as the labor market heats up. Based on survey data, EDUCAUSE estimates that one in eight chief information officers (CIOs), one in six IT managers, and one in five IT staff members are at high risk of leaving their institutions (see Figure 2). This has clear implications for human-resources departments, which may need to work much more closely with campus IT leaders than in the past to effectively manage these personnel needs.

From the board perspective, while members may be accustomed to hearing proposals from campus IT leaders for costly new computer systems, it is important to realize that faculty and students are driving many of the demands for changes and upgrades since they have high and diverse needs and expectations for IT to keep pace with their experiences as consumers, their aspirations as educators and learners, and what they hear from colleagues at other institutions (see Figures 3 and 4).

From Technical to Operational

Moving from delivering technology services toward intensively assisting with the institution’s most strategic “business” and academic needs is a challenge that many IT leaders are struggling to address. Herein lie two of the most pressing issues in higher education: how to apply technology to teaching and learning, and how to improve student outcomes.

Students expect to be more engaged in their instruction than simply listening to lectures and are eager to see technology used innovatively. Optimizing the use of technology in teaching and learning must be done in close collaboration with academic leadership, however, and includes understanding the appropriate level of technology to use in a given situation.

Indeed, optimizing the use of technology in teaching and learning depends on the ability of the institutional and academic leadership to help faculty members develop digital competencies and then to continue to provide learning opportunities to keep their competencies current. In a recent survey, more than half of the faculty respondents said that they believed they could be more effective if they were better at integrating such things as free web-based content, online collaboration tools, simulations or educational games, and ebooks into their courses.

EDUCAUSE data also indicate that faculty members’ strongest motivation for incorporating more technology into their teaching is having evidence that it will benefit students. Faculty members also rated the availability of release time for course redesign, along with confidence in the technology, better understanding of available technologies, and more support from IT staff and instructional designers as important factors in facilitating and accelerating their integration of technology into teaching (see Figure 5).

As tools for discerning meaningful patterns in large quantities of data and applying those patterns to improve institutional and individual outcomes—known as data analytics—have become more sophisticated, institutions have been better able to more quickly recognize students’ challenges, track students’ progress, assist students with just-in-time interventions, and provide a comprehensive view of the students throughout their educational journeys.

For example, a 2013 EDUCAUSE survey of more than 800 colleges and universities found that 46 percent of institutions have early-alert systems to identify students experiencing difficulties in coursework, 66 percent apply data analytics to assist with academic advising, and 73 percent use analytics to track students’ academic and degree progress. (For more on data analytics, see “Taming ‘Big Data’” in this issue.

In the area of online education, too, similar “wraparound” student-support services are being provided by some institutions, with career coaches available to online students to offer such help as tracking students’ progress toward degrees and selecting courses that will best fit their learning styles, lifestyles, and career plans.

Both faculty members and students are interested in academic planning and advising technologies based on learning analytics that can help students succeed, according to EDUCAUSE surveys. Students cite interests ranging from finding ways to improve their academic performance to feedback about how they’re doing compared with other students (see Figure 6). Faculty members, meanwhile, say they’re interested in finding new IT resources for students and suggestions about how digital resources could help improve students’ performance in a course, among other uses of analytic data (see Figure 7).

Financial, Support Issues

Technology can add value to college and university operations both by introducing cost-containing efficiencies and by delivering innovations that can increase institutional value and reputation. IT leaders’ knowledge of the range of technological capabilities can enable them to offer strategic insights for moving the institution forward. But on some campuses, IT personnel are struggling to manage the ambitious expectations of administrative and academic officers without losing credibility, while on other campuses, IT leaders are wrestling with how to communicate more effectively with institutional leaders and how to influence disinterested leadership.

Right now, EDUCAUSE data show that the main campus institutional IT department spends an average of 53 percent of its budget on administrative or business services, 39 percent on teaching and learning, and 4 percent supporting academic research (other uses account for the remaining 4 percent). Individual academic and administrative departments have separate or so-called “distributed IT budgets” that account for additional IT spending on administration and, particularly, on education and research. At its best, distributed IT spending can optimize IT investments for specific and diverse departmental requirements. At its worst, it can lead to redundant, rather than optimized, IT staffing and services. Distributed IT spending may account for two-thirds or even more of total institutional IT spending at the largest and most complex institutions.

Because of the current growing demands on campus for a wide array of digital technologies, what is needed is the development of IT funding models that can sustain core services, yet also support innovation and allow the institution to grow in some areas as its mission evolves. An EDUCAUSE survey in 2013 found that, on average, institutions spend 76 percent of their IT dollars on running the institution, 15 percent on activities related to institutional growth (related to increases in students, faculty, and staff, as well as increased usage of IT capabilities as individuals use more bandwidth, storage, and other resources), and 9 percent on activities related to transformational change (such as adding online learning programs, applying analytics to improve student outcomes, or automating manual business processes).

Funding growth while containing costs requires the ability to project and prepare for growth. Institutional leaders and leaders of individual departments need to understand what various IT services actually cost, what influences those costs, and how the leaders can help manage their needs. Three examples illustrate the complexity and ensuing costliness of seemingly straightforward IT investments:

Online learning. Providing a course online can seem relatively inexpensive if it is construed as using a single camera to record class lectures and then posting those videos online along with course materials. In reality, delivering high-quality online learning might entail recasting the entire course to better fit the digital environment—adding new resources, using multiple cameras to record key parts of lectures, augmenting lectures with special online resources, training faculty to deliver lectures and discussions optimized for an online environment, and planning for ongoing updates of the material as scholarship, pedagogy, and technologies evolve.

Campus wifi. Providing wireless networking for laptops, smart phones, and other mobile devices requires installing and maintaining a wireless network. This is not rocket science, but it is more difficult and expensive than a typical Starbucks customer might think. Wireless access points must be installed on existing wired or electric networks ubiquitously. They need to be tested continuously to ensure demand is not outstripping capacity. Further, today’s state-ofthe- art investment is tomorrow’s insecure white elephant. Data security must be monitored and updated continually to safeguard the institutional data being accessed and transmitted over these networks.

A new system to track alumni and donors. On the surface, such a system would seem to consist of selecting, installing, and maintaining a software application. Yet cost and complexity expand due to the necessity of, among other things, accurately documenting the institution’s needs for such a system; determining which solutions actually meet those needs; determining whether and how to move data from previous systems into a new system; adapting staff skills, roles, and workloads to support the new system; monitoring and managing project expenses, work, and timelines; and estimating and funding the costs of maintaining the system.

While all this may seem overwhelming, in the long run it is important to provide funding for the IT-related aspects of innovations that can lead to wholesale changes such as curricular transformations; new academic programs and certifications; investments in research and digital scholarship to attract new faculty and support existing faculty; strategies to attract and support international programs, students, scholars, and collaborations; and the ability to meet constituents’ expectations that institutional digital resources and services will provide the same functionality and performance as is available at peer institutions and, when relevant, commercial entities.

One approach to these challenges is to restructure decision making on IT priorities and resource allocations. Very often, IT spending and investments are optimized at the departmental level rather than the institutional level. In a 2014 study, EDUCAUSE learned that decisions on IT priorities and resource allocations are overseen by the president or chief academic officer at only one-third of the institutions surveyed. Almost half (45 percent) of the institutions surveyed have no formal process or decision-making body that sets IT priorities. EDUCAUSE found that a formal institution- wide process or decision-making body for IT priorities is associated with more effective IT investments, more transparent and timely decisions about IT priorities, more support from faculty about IT decisions, and better coordination across departments.

Board members can help their institutions maximize the effectiveness of their IT operations in a number of ways. The first is to recognize that educational objectives and strategy should guide applications and investments in the increasingly important technologies related to teaching and learning—and they should ask relevant questions related to objectives and strategies. Without a larger guiding vision, developed through collaboration among the chief academic officer and other academic leaders, the chief financial officer, the IT leader, and the president, the application of technology to teaching and learning may wind up being neither strategic nor of maximum impact. It might instead be driven by the individual requests of influential members of academic units or by the preferences of IT staff members.

Teaching and learning technologies need to be carefully scrutinized for their pedagogical effectiveness. Particularly in the area of applying analytics to improve student success, technology is developing rapidly. That is not to say that institutions should put off investments in this area, but rather that investments in getting good clean data and in analytic models of those data (for example, identifying the data elements and thresholds needed to measure and improve student success) will likely last longer than investments in specific software.

Board leaders can also help institutions remember that it is important that technology should not lead or replace strategy. There will always be more technological opportunities and options than institutions have funds and time to implement. Starting with a vision and strategy and then applying technology to achieve that strategy will help direct technology investments appropriately. This is key because, as will come as no surprise to most board members, technological solutions are often more difficult and expensive than leaders have anticipated.

The New “Normal”

The issues here revolve around that fact that users—students, faculty members, administrators, alumni, applicants, and others—now expect around-the-clock support from an institution’s IT staff in a variety of situations involving mobile devices, online education, cloud storage, access from off-campus and even international locations, and support for whatever devices students and faculty may bring to campus and expect to use in the classroom or elsewhere.

Yet at the same time, it is important that institutions balance openness and flexibility with the need to safeguard institutional data. The primary IT risks for campuses concern information security, data privacy/confidentiality, and identity and access management. Experts estimate that around 822 million digital records were breached worldwide in 2013, and yet 2014 EDUCAUSE data indicate that 81 percent of institutions surveyed did not include managing IT risks as part of their strategic plans. (For more on this topic, see “Anticipating Cyberattacks on College and University Campuses,” in this issue.)

Effective policies and procedures for data ownership, access, and use can enable responsible, yet open, data access with minimal risk. Boards might ask for ongoing briefings on the current information-security environment on campus. Are hacking attacks taking place? Have data breaches been reported? Then they can ask what institutional measures are in place to deal with the most frequent issues. Board members might also urge administrators to include management of IT risks as a specific component of the institution’s strategic planning.

It is important that policies and procedures developed for IT security be enforceable and fit the institutional culture. An enforceable policy is one that lays out concrete and achievable individual responsibilities for safeguarding data and assets, that specifies consequences for disregarding those responsibilities (including loss of access or even suspension or termination), and that relies on existing institutional disciplinary processes and authorities (such as the dean of students, chief academic officer, head of human resources, general counsel) for enforcement commensurate with other institutional policies.

Summary Recommendations for the Future

Technology provides colleges and universities with opportunities to strengthen their brands, advance their missions, and manage resources efficiently. As noted, boards can play important roles in understanding the potential of digital innovations and in helping the administration manage technology effectively. Some overall guidelines include:

Develop a digital strategy. A well-conceived and executed digital strategy can be a key element of an institutional strategic plan. Such a strategy requires understanding where the institution is today in terms of the use of available and desired information technologies and where it wants to be in the future. Institutions should be wary of advocating an aggressive swing of the IT pendulum. If an institution has been more of a middle-ofthe- road adopter of technology, a knee-jerk move to cloud storage of data, shared services (such as centralizing all IT support or moving from multiple learningmanagement systems to a single one), online learning, or some other transformation will fail if leaders put purchases of innovative new technologies ahead of strategic objectives. Strategic objectives should continually guide efforts.

Align IT priorities and funding with institutional priorities. The institution should have an IT decision-making structure that is responsible for allocating funding, not just identifying IT priorities. Any initiatives adopted should include mechanisms for obtaining ongoing operational funding. Leaders should understand the costs of today’s IT services and what drives increased costs, and establish the expectation that the costs of growth and maintenance should be included in funding models for core IT services, rather than just including the day-to-day costs of delivering services. Today’s IT models for funding services often assume zero growth or tie increases to inflation rates and ignore drivers of technological costs, such as software fees that grow with the number of users; the need to expand support or technology as faculty, staff, and student usage increases; or the need to upgrade equipment or software to continue to be eligible for vendor support. Too often, institutions pursue the seemingly thrifty approach of waiting until something breaks to invest in a replacement or repair rather than proactively spending on maintenance and updates. This places IT in a reactive mode and erodes institutional confidence in the competence of IT personnel.

Strengthen IT management. Boards can help ensure that leaders of the IT operation develop an effective infrastructure, manage resources responsibly, work to maintain a stable workforce, and make sensible decisions about which IT to keep in-house and how to choose and manage outside vendors of technologies.

Monitor and manage risks. Institutions should establish a process for identifying, assessing, and documenting risks to support wise decision making about what risks to avoid, what risks to accept, and what risks can be mitigated through various actions.

Remember that culture will always trump strategy. The challenges facing higher education today will require most institutions to develop and implement strategies that may very well conflict with institutional culture. For example, implementing technology-based student advising and academic-planning services may seem to challenge faculty autonomy by asking faculty members to use new systems or processes that conflict with their established and personally effective practices. New strategies must take the existing culture into consideration. While leadership is a key factor for success, it is not sufficient in the absence of buy-in among faculty members, administrators, and students—or at least ensuring that these constituents understand the need for change and retain some feeling that they will somehow benefit from the changes being made.

Despite all the issues, information technology, applied wisely, can help colleges and universities move successfully into the future as they negotiate the challenges of financing, teaching and learning, campus expectations, and growing options for technological investments.