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Future Proofing through Technology

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Marshall Eidson is CIO at University of the Incarnate Word.

Key Takeaways

  • Because a university's core mission (and competency) is education, appropriately outsourcing non-core competencies frees up resources to focus on adding value through service to students, faculty, and other key constituencies.
  • Customers will expect the capability to access any resource they need at any time and that the interface will be uncluttered and easy to use.
  • Students must be educated not just in the use of technologies but also in how to think critically about technology use and how to choose solutions that will help them meet their goals.

Like many higher education institutions, University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) has grappled with seismic changes in technology, an uncertain economic climate for graduating students, and the pressing need to do more with IT. UIW's vision for IT is to provide a reliable technology infrastructure experience for its users while advancing the university's mission through technological planning, innovation, and leadership. By capitalizing on technological trends such as virtualization, mobile applications, and outsourcing to meet its goal of improving and expanding IT services, the university's IT department is helping to prepare the school to meet present and future user demands.

When I started at UIW in August 2010, the United States was knee-deep in a recession and UIW faced a barrage of emerging technologies that needed evaluation for use in higher education. After a thorough needs assessment, we zeroed in on our guiding priority. We needed to prepare our students and UIW's technology team to meet two pressing challenges: to instill critical decision-making skills in a rapidly changing technology landscape and to broaden the future employability of our graduates. We hoped that through this "future-proofing" we could collectively seize opportunities and mitigate future risks through the strategic use of technology.

A major element in our 360-degree approach was to harness new technologies that could effectively meet our core value of engaging "thoughtful innovation that serves ever more effectively the spiritual and material." We decided to leverage a mix of high-tech and low-tech solutions that would employ outsourcing, virtualization, mobility, and community outreach to achieve this goal.

ResNet Outsourcing Empowers Students and IT

The first step was to fully understand the resources we were using. The next was to ascertain how to use less to deliver more. For example, we evaluated our current residential network to see if continued outsourcing of this element could drive greater efficiencies or displace resource-intensive processes altogether.

Many students in the residence halls count on having bandwidth, connectivity, and an environment that supports a high quality of life and fosters academic success. Since 2009, Apogee, a ResNet services provider to higher education, had been delivering high-speed wireless and wired access to the 1,200 students living in UIW's 12 residences. The university IT department provided help desk support for the ResNet. Our contract was up for renewal in the fall of 2011.

During reevaluation, we were careful to distinguish between value and commodity by asking ourselves, "Can this investment do things that we couldn't have done before or enable us to improve on the ways we are currently doing things?" Table 1 compares what we would have to do in-house with what we determined we could do through Apogee. Although loss of control and delays in on-site maintenance were initially issues for us, we quickly determined that handing over control was a benefit, and the timely on-site maintenance actually exceeded what we could provide in-house.

Table 1. Residential Network Capabilities: Evaluating In-House vs. Outsourcing

In-House Apogee

Provide 9–5 help desk support

Receive 24 x 7 network support available by phone, text, and e-mail

Hire and train three help desk staff

Handle all staffing for the service

Deal with student connectivity issues

Guarantee network reliability

Settle for static network speed

Benefit from ongoing technology advances that ensure regular bandwidth increases

Make a substantial capital outlay for maintenance and upgrades

Receive built-in equipment upgrades at no additional cost as part of the contract

Deciding Factors

We decided to renew and renegotiate the ResNet contract with Apogee because the benefits and costs of the company's solution exceeded the value we could obtain from an in-house team. Under the contract, Apogee would continue to provide bandwidth for our residence halls and round-the-clock student support while being responsible for replacing key network gear on a regular refresh cycle.

Previously, the IT department spent up to 25 percent of its to help desk time allotment to troubleshoot ResNet issues. With renewal of the contract and subsequent technology advances, increased ResNet reliability led to a 80 percent drop in support tickets issued. For every 10 tickets the UIW help desk used to receive about ResNet, Apogee now gets two because of the increased reliability of their infrastructure.The school further benefitted from Apogee's infrastructure upgrades, securing a 300 percent increase in bandwidth at no additional cost to the university. Other benefits included the opportunity for students to purchase additional bandwidth in a tiered format, if they were gamers, etc. Additionally, students have commented that they find network logon easy and the service consistent and fast. Student satisfaction with the ResNet, as measured by these factors, has clearly increased.

One of the most significant advantages of this arrangement is the flexibility to expand as needed. In network terminology, "fast" is continually redefined, so the expanding bandwidth and new equipment will let us scale to meet user demand. For example, we have leveraged our existing relationship with Apogee and are currently working with them to provide our last mile of connectivity to LEARN (Lonestar Education and Research Network), a high-speed network for Texas-based educational institutions. This partnership will expand our school's bandwidth capacity even further and position us to respond effectively to future demand.

Adjusting to New Roles

A university's core competency is not food service, housekeeping, or providing residential networking services. It is educating students. Therefore, appropriately outsourcing non-core competencies frees up resources so that we can truly focus on adding value through service to students, faculty, and other key constituencies. Once freed from mundane day-to-day minutiae, the IT department needed to shift the general mindset from "doing" to "thinking." Following outsourcing of the commodity ResNet service and support, IT staff can now focus their time and talents on tasks higher up the value ladder, such as planning, project management, and building solid relationships with our vendors and constituencies.

With any new solution comes a need to rewire old user habits, however. In the ResNet case, staff and students continued to call the old help desk number when problems arose. To raise awareness and adoption of the new support service, we educated incoming students on IT policy and held focus group sessions with campus life coordinators and residence hall directors. Our department also organizes a well-attended annual IT fair (Figure 1), where vendors are invited to demonstrate the technologies currently in place at UIW.

Eidson Figure 1
Figure 1. Tech Fairs Help Educate Students about On-Campus Technologies

We are currently redefining the role of technicians by reallocating the staff time previously committed to the help desk and ResNet maintenance. For example, we are pursuing projects such as desktop virtualization in our labs to provide a more customized experience for students. We are also investigating ways to leverage successful outsourcing contracts to optimize other areas, such as considering Apogee to administer other school networks in the future.

Service Management Software Increases Engagement

Every UIW student is required to complete 45 hours of community service to graduate. Their service had not been effectively tracked, resulting in a trail of paper slips that made accountability a challenge. Moreover, the manual process made it difficult to track the student experience and measure learning outcomes. We instituted service management software from OrgSync that engages nonprofit agencies, matches student interest with volunteer assignments, and tracks student involvement. Figure 2 shows how students can access the various service opportunities.

The SaaS (software as a service) solution provides a centralized place where:

  • Community organizations can be evaluated and approved by the UIW Office of Mission and Ministry
  • Students can contact and learn about nonprofit agencies
  • Students can take in all the opportunities available at a glance and make informed decisions on how they can contribute
  • Students can reflect on their service and give feedback
  • Students and counselors can track involvement and access records
  • Students can display a transcript of community service on their e-portfolio to boost their eligibility to be employed for select organizations, such as nonprofits
  • Proof is readily available for school accreditation reports

Eidson Figure 2
Figure 2. The UIW Service Management Solution

Before any campus tries reinventing the wheel, we recommend exploring the feasibility of employing a third-party provider that has a solution that is robust, cost-effective, and able to meet institutional goals. The challenge is getting all the stakeholders to agree on what the best solution would look like and who would own it.

We are currently involved in the implementation of and training for the OrgSync service management portal. Professional schools, such as the UIW pharmacy and optometry schools, will also be rolling out customized modules of the service management software. The manual system we currently employ for recordkeeping requires a full-time person to coordinate and, because all processes are manual, their accuracy is questionable. Additionally, reporting and assessment are almost nonexistent. We expect the new service management portal to require only one-half an FTE and provide us with significantly enhanced functionality and reporting, which is of special interest to us for accreditation requirements. Because we already use OrgSync to manage our student organizations, the annual license for the service management portal is less than one month's pay for the staff person who has been tracking service hours. With respect to potential privacy issues, we feel more comfortable storing this data in the cloud than in manila folders in a filing cabinet, especially because the data will not include confidential information such as Social Security numbers.

Mobility and Virtualization Increase Accessibility

Like many universities, UIW has many small computer labs with specific software, as well as large labs with generic programs. It is a challenge not only to maintain multiple standalone labs but also to facilitate accessibility for students who must use different software resources at different locations. In addition, we face an increasingly smartphone-savvy student population that now demands anytime, anywhere access.

We are piloting a cloud-based virtual desktop solution that hosts key software resources centrally and is permission driven. The goal is to provide a customized virtual environment: when students and faculty log in to a university or personal computing device, the right applications will be delivered to them via a familiar and consistent desktop environment.

In addition to pursuing desktop virtualization, UIW partnered with Blackboard to implement a full suite of mobile apps. We knew we needed a mobile app and actually tried to do it in-house first, but we did not have the resources or the skill set to succeed. Our partnership with Blackboard provides us with a positive ROI compared to the cost of trying to implement this service by ourselves. The UIW app and its 11 sub-apps (see Figure 3) are available for download through Apple, Blackberry, and Android. Through April 2012, the UIW app had been downloaded more than 7,600 times. Moreover, the Blackboard Mobile Learn app, which is integrated into the UIW app and gives students access to our learning management system, received 15,471 logins by 1,682 unique users in April 2012 alone. These numbers represent tremendous growth in mobile app use and demand, especially for an institution with a student FTE of about 6,000.

Eidson Figure 3
Figure 3. Mobile Applications Provide Real-Time Campus Information

Running applications in the cloud decreases management effort and replacement costs: virtual desktops can be patched at a centralized service level, and the machines in our lab no longer have to run powerful applications, thereby extending the computers' life cycles.

Strategic gains from mobile apps include increased efficiencies, service enhancements, and improved communications. For example, with our learning management system app, students can participate in online course activities, such as discussion boards, even if they are at an athletic event or waiting in line at a grocery store. They needn't be near a computer lab or even on campus.

Service enhancements include having information such as the university directory at your fingertips. Single sign-on access to the portal app also enables UIW to communicate up-to-date news or information about events to members of the community.

Choosing Wisely

It is not difficult to find a potential project everywhere you look. However, IT departments are increasingly being tasked to do more with the same — or fewer — resources. We choose IT projects that align with institutional strategies and goals, which include increasing mobility and flexibility for our key constituencies.

Flexibility and convenience are essential. Customers will expect the capability to access any resource they need at any time and that the interface (like a good mobile app) will be clean and easy to use. Schools must be prepared to meet this inevitable reality.

Mobile applications bring boundless possibilities to campus life. Our IT team is now exploring the possibility of adding QR (Quick Response) codes, like that in Figure 4, for our library and IT areas that will launch video tutorials, provide quick access to key resources, and put users in touch with the support they need without having to remember whom to call or where to go, online or in person.

Eidson Figure 4
Figure 4. This Code Launches a myWord Portal Video Tutorial

The latest iteration of our app incorporates augmented reality technology to layer virtual way-finding data (such as directories, event information, and schedules) onto the physical world by harnessing the smartphone's compass, camera, and GPS system. Augmented reality provides new students and visitors a self-guided campus tour. Location-based pop-ups, shown in Figure 5, help students find conference rooms, faculty offices, and other facilities. Going forward, the sky is the limit: ideas include developing apps for the local shuttle-bus schedule and identifying available parking spots.

Eidson Figure 5
Figure 5. Augmented Reality in a UIW App Adds Interactivity and Way-Finding

Education and Technology Enhance Employability

UIW's diverse student population comprises many first-generation college students who need help preparing for a difficult job market when they graduate. These young job-seekers face additional pressure to ensure that the investment in their college education pays off. Our IT team has collaborated with the business community and other UIW departments to provide additional career development support. A major initiative has been to partner with Epsilen to implement a comprehensive e-portfolio that increases opportunities for employability by showcasing a student's resume, transcript, and other artifacts that round out the student's skill set and experience. Figure 6 shows a sample page. The e-portfolio is a cloud-based SaaS solution for which the university pays an annual license fee based on student FTE. The cost for this service is less than we were going to pay for a document management solution to move faculty tenure and review supporting documents online, which we are now in the process of using Epsilen to do. With one solution we can achieve our goals of moving faculty tenure and review documentation into an electronic environment and providing all students with e-portfolio access.

Eidson Figure 6
Figure 6. Customize Profiles, Showcase Work Samples, and Archive Records in an E-Portfolio

Students can now provide custom portfolios (e.g., cover letters, resumes, etc.) targeted to specific employers through the software and can continue to archive, manage, and update their artifacts throughout their careers. Our faculty can also use e-portfolios to archive records and process documentation for tenure reviews.

Maximizing adoption is key. Educating students and staff about resources ensures that they know how to get the most from the available technologies while enabling feedback for the IT department.

The pervasiveness of Web 2.0 technologies sometimes entails greater risks, especially with the ubiquitous use of social media. Technology fluency means more than pushing buttons. Students must be educated not just in the use of technologies but also in how to think critically about technology use. They should know what technology to use, when to use it, and how to select solutions that can help them meet their goals.

We are working to increase student employment prospects by partnering with regional businesses that have large IT units to close the gaps between our curriculum and the needs of the marketplace. Specifically, we are having discussions with some of the larger employers in the city to ensure that the skill sets our graduates possess on leaving UIW (both technical and soft skills) are the ones needed in the regional marketplace. Employers currently tell us they are having to recruit elsewhere, and we want to be part of the discussion that helps close this gap.

Conclusion

Technology's role in education has advanced rapidly in the past decade. IT departments have moved from a "command and control" orientation to one of "service and support," and more recently have become trusted business partners with other units across campus, in terms of jointly developing strategic and tactical plans for projects in their divisions, all of which have significant IT components. With the advent of this new strategic institutional role, IT more than ever needs a seat at the executive table. Myriad new tools with capabilities unimaginable even a few years ago are available to us now. To keep up with student demands and shifting priorities, our IT department is moving away from functioning as mere technicians toward serving as facilitators of these new technologies, thereby adding value through service to students, faculty, and other key constituencies.

 

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