Dr. Mira Lalovic-Hand, CIO & SVP, Rowan University
Education, the long-lived institution with the straightforward mission of transferring knowledge from current and past generations to new generations, has not changed fundamentally over hundreds of years. There still exist classrooms, teachers, students, books and tests.
“Higher education is entering into an era of personalized and boutique learning”
But today, there is also technology, which is slowly introducing a change in our industry. With the 21st century, institutions saw the rise of online education and personalized learning, which are continuing to evolve. With them came the need for technology and digitalization.
We see the greatest change and challenges in auxiliary services that support the main operation. With students’ need for just-in-time services, speed, connectivity (access) and accuracy, support services such as the registrar, bursar, admissions and even HR grew in very complex and cumbersome set-ups due to lack of time and resources for meaningful upgrades and redesigns of aging workflows. This may lead to eroding of reputation and credibility of institutions.
At the same time access to enormous amounts of data became available. Many colleges and universities are in the process of incorporating data analytics in their everyday operations and decision-making. But this is hard. Higher education is fluid, often segmented and greatly decentralized.
In addition, digitizing any process requires deep understanding and flexible thinking, keys to improvement and the true cost to the entire institution and its mission. People who are responsible for deliverables in most cases do not have the time and capacity to figure out the mechanics of the systems they use. This is very crucial for maintenance cost and overall overhead, which in turn affects stability of the overall business.
CIOs often see this but rarely have an opportunity to do something about it, because in higher education IT is viewed as a back-end function. CIOs’ domain of oversight differs greatly from institution to institution. They are seldom members of the president’s cabinet. However, to a certain extent, some things are changing because of recent and eminent need for more effective cyber security programs.
There are a few more critical components of IT that will ensure stability of the business and make a difference. Central among them is excellence in customer service. Fostering close and effective communication is half of the battle. Getting the interaction with the customer right is a must. Social media affects customer decision-making every day and have no tolerance for IT snags. IT customer service operations must be set up in such a way that they create value for customers within and outside of the organization. Customer service teams have to understand student and faculty needs. IT cannot leave a problem unsolved, but it should prioritize, focused on customers’ needs and overall benefits.
The performance of the university network follows closely. Ensuring the adequate capacity, reliability, and performance of the wireless network, means having a robust wireless network infrastructure as well as a robust and agile wired network—that supports the wireless network. Health of the wireless network is associated directly with customer satisfaction. The onslaught of administrative applications, digital content, and mobile devices demands strong response from universities. Students and their parents expect universities to provide ubiquitous Wi-Fi as part of their fees or tuition. This is typically observed as a way to offset potential overages in mobile data plans. When the Wi-Fi network doesn't meet their needs, they see those overages and fault universities for a lack of service.
Higher education is entering into an era of personalized and boutique learning. As a result, IT must focus on the user experience. The focus on the user experience requires network and application architecture agility. Internet access has to be resilient to an attack or an outage, especially if the institution has transitioned to cloud and Software as a Service (SaaS). But regardless of how integrated universities’ platforms are currently, evolution of the application architecture has been rapid and it will demand that CIOs and their teams act swiftly. The new approach should be software-defined architecture (SDA) for application services (SDAS). Defining these systems effectively requires significant investment in design, assets, and expertise. However, investing in IT and these initiatives is necessary. For the first time ever, IT is no longer a back-end function but a key component that will give institutions the competitive edge, which they need and ultimately ensure the stability of higher education for future generations.
The role of IT in higher education in the future will be very dramatic. In the future IT will be both a supporter and part of the evolution of higher education. Schools must transform their operations to account for that. For higher education to truly evolve, IT must be at the decision-making table.