Steven C Burrell, VP-IT & CIO, Georgia Southern University
The job of the CIO at a traditional public university is complex. These institutions are like cities with many diverse businesses including retail sales, transportation, police, construction, health care, landscaping, food services, legal services, financial services, entertainment, hotel, research, and oh yes, education too. CIO’s of these institutions are challenged to maintain regulatory compliance and compete to attract and retain IT talent with diminishing financial resources. Strategic initiatives like Complete College America seek increased productivity and efficiencies in producing graduates. External pressures on public universities create intense pressure to implement deep structural changes and executives are seeking to leverage technology to evoke new efficiencies and institutional effectiveness through instructional and student support systems. The increasing pace of technological change, particularly in the area of consumer electronics, also challenges CIOs to provide modern robust services to meet the high expectations of students and employees alike. Leaders at institution’s like Georgia Southern University are meeting these challenges by building new IT ecosystems that embrace changes from a student-centric point of view.
Today’s college students are digital natives and they will bring their technology-rich experiences and expectations to the workplace. Don Tapscott, author of the acclaimed book Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World, describes the current college-age generation as natural collaborators who value more than just salary as reward for their jobs. They would rather have a flexible work environment and access to social media than a bigger paycheck. They blur the distinction between their jobs and their lives, and bring their own personal everything to their education and to their work.
The net generation students at Georgia Southern simultaneously connect 2 or 3 distinct devices to the campus wireless network. They expect web-enabled applications and wireless services everywhere. They’re perfectly comfortable accessing online library services and building knowledge though social media... They text message mom, read tweets from the president, post an interest to Facebook, and coordinate their recreation activity schedule online as they make their way to class. They use Google Apps during class to collaborate with classmates on a project, and then submit a group assignment to the learning management system as class ends. To these students, plugging in is what old people do and the mobile wireless access experience should be like the oxygen they breathe - available in abundance, fresh, free, and shared.
Georgia Southern University, like many other institutions, is adopting new strategies and creating a genesis of reinvention and innovation in technology service to address the needs of students and the “new normal” conditions in higher education.
It is impossible to conceive a modern educational or business IT strategy without a robust foundation of infrastructure from which to build IT services and Georgia Southern’s IT infrastructure required significant improvements. A plan to build a fiber-optic network to 200 buildings across a sprawling 900 acre campus was conceived and implemented based on Cisco technology. What was once an unreliable and limited connection to the internet has been replaced by a regional service node on the Georgia PeachNet Network that provides fault-tolerant diverse route services and unabated scaling of bandwidth. The campus network now connects thousands of wireless access points that canvas student residences, campus buildings, walkways, green spaces, and even the bus system, but still falls short of student expectations for “just everywhere to everything” access.
The robustness and reliability of the network and internet connections has allowed traditional computing and storage servers to be supplanted by SaaS, PaaS, and IaaS cloud services that provide best in class, high availability, and scalable performance at predictable costs. Cloud-based services create opportunities for new pedagogical methods and inter-institutional collaboration that enable students to access applications and services that improve their college experience and contribute to their academic success.
The vision of a student-centered IT ecosystem required the adoption of applications that leverage technology like HTML5 and responsive design for mobile friendly websites. Like most universities, a web portal serves as the authentication and authorization gateway to cloud services. The portal is the virtual front-door to the institution removing barriers to application and information access through single-sign-on services while providing critical messaging and process work-flow capabilities.
For Georgia Southern and others, the adoption of the Google Apps platform of applications established the foundational baseline for collaborative and customizable productivity tools that are mobile device friendly and accessible to students and faculty anywhere in the world. The rapid adoption and ease of deployment of the Google Apps for Education platform of applications confirmed our strategy and was a catalyst to the accelerated adoption of other cloud applications such as Desire2Learn Learning management system (D2L). D2L is used by students to interact with learning content and faculty instruction. The D2L platform is integrated with Google Apps and other cloud-based learning tools to create an environment of student-faculty engagement that is unprecedented. Most recently, predictive analytics in this environment are providing early-warning indicators to students, faculty and administrators who collaborate using cloud-based specialized applications to provide additional instruction and support to students who need it. Additionally, the instructional content in D2L is augmented by cloud-based Galileo library services and professional training resources that provide “everything I need to know, right now” services.
Virtual desktop capabilities (VDI) allow students to utilize their own device and network connection to access applications. VDI technology is breaking down the old concept of the laboratory, and limits of place and time to enable all students’ anytime and everywhere access to laboratory applications via the cloud.
IT Talent Resources
The new IT ecosystem also requires significant changes in the approach to human resource management. As CIOs embrace cloud solutions IT staff are transitioning from traditional programmers, system operators, and technologists to business analysts and systems integrators. Rebooting technical staff requires training in very different skill sets and can take relatively long time to develop or hire. But they add tremendous value to IT services as a true business partner by understanding operational problems and drawing on their technology acumen. For Georgia Southern University, the adoption of cloud technology has mitigated the need to compete in the marketplace for high technology skills, and brought the benefit of agile engagements with business units to improve utilization of systems and outcomes.
“Adoption of the Google Apps platform of apps established the baseline for customizable productivity tools that are mobile device friendly to students”
This new IT ecosystem also requires changes in financial resource planning. A shift from periodic infusions of capital is giving way to planned annual operational funding. Similarly, traditional long-term structured strategic plans are replaced by conceptual themes and the identification of annual key result areas that align institutional priorities with new technological capabilities. This change is reflective of a shift to outcomes-based financial models which require institutions to be agile and prioritizing strategies and investments which positively impact the bottom line—student completion. Institutions will continue to need periodic capital infusions to maintain campus network infrastructure, but the change in strategic funding approaches has created opportunities to shift resources that support the reinvention of IT Services at a bring-your-own-everything campus.
University CIOs are challenged to strategically leverage technology to improve institutional effectiveness during an unprecedented time of rapid change in higher education. They strive to balance the need to secure the academy while creating open collaborative learning environments for net generation students who bring their own everything–devices, networks, applications, ideas, and relationships to college. Some CIOs are successfully turning to application, platform, and infrastructure cloud-services, redefining IT staff roles, and adopting short-term key result strategies to create new IT ecosystems that support how today’s net-generation college students prefer to learn, work, and live.
Perhaps most important to the development of a new IT ecosystem is creating opportunities for net generation students (and your future employees) to engage in IT governance and participate in the decisions that will define the environment they work in. CIOs who seek to help their university or business become more agile, adaptable, creative, and innovative in a highly competitive global economy should look to the net generation for new ideas. They are, after all, the most connected, collaborative, educated and sophisticated generation in history. And they are eager to “bring your own everything” to help improve our institutions and businesses, while building a better community and planet.