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Giving Technology Traction

To gain ground with technology spending, institutions must first create an environment that can capitalize on technology investments.

By Karla Hignite

Higher education institutions are remarkably different from one another in how much they spend on technology and in what ways, says Wendell Brase, vice chancellor for administrative and business services at University of California, Irvine. One thing they all have in common, Brase notes: “Even the best-funded institutions can never seem to spend enough to address everyone’s technology expectations.”

How to best leverage technology spending is an ongoing challenge, in part because of so many competing internal audiences and interests, says Ruth Constantine, vice president for finance and administration at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. “Because technology is so pervasive throughout our administrative infrastructure, our instruction and research, and the ways in which students expect to communicate, we must continually assess where to make our next set of technology investments and where those limited dollars might have the greatest and most lasting impact.” An added challenge is the spending required to deal with external issues, says Constantine. “As recently as six or seven years ago, network security was not nearly as high on our radar as it is today.” And regulatory issues increasingly threaten to drain limited IT resources, she adds. “That obviously can draw dollars away from priorities we set internally.”

How can institutions ensure that their IT investments get traction? Key actions include building a base of collaboration among leaders, seeking what you don’t already know about your institution and its students, replacing bad processes with ones that work, and making full use of technologies that fit and further enhance performance goals. These actions don’t represent a series of steps so much as a continuous loop guided by leaders who truly understand the strategic impact of technology initiatives.

The Collaborative Campus

The starting point for Vanderbilt University has been to look beyond functional hierarchies. Especially at large research institutions, the reporting structures of many campuses are complex and indirect, says Nim Chinniah, deputy vice chancellor for administration and academic affairs at the Nashville-based institution. Unlike a corporation where roles may cut through the entire organization, a university’s chief information officer may report on the administrative side or to academic life. That itself may influence expectations and the rate of acceptance for specific technology projects or initiatives, says Chinniah. He knows firsthand the challenge of reaching wide and varied groups on campus. Each of Vanderbilt’s 10 schools essentially operates with its own technology unit.

According to Chinniah, while the university already benefited from a strong relationship between its chief financial officer and its provost, his new role—which reports to both positions—was created almost a year ago to strengthen the connection between the administrative and academic realms and to increase understanding throughout Vanderbilt about how to put resources where they are most needed. “Part of my job is to provide translation,” he says. “That may be as simple as explaining to the academic side of the house why network security is important for faculty and students.”

For Chinniah, it boils down to learning how to communicate respectfully across all areas of the institution, using language that is easily understood and that allows for “layers” of possibilities. “Too often when we discuss technology we talk in all-or-nothing terms,” he says. “In many instances it is helpful to lay out options.”

What You Don’t Know Matters

For Sherri Newcomb, leveraging institutional spending for technology—or anything else—hinges on asking the right questions. “Knowing what you want to find out will help you focus on what matters most,” says Newcomb, chief of budget planning and strategy for California State University, Fullerton. Because strategic decision making requires good information, data-mining activities and the use of business intelligence tools can help your institution find out what it needs to know, but you still have to develop the right questions, she says. And that involves thinking through relevant performance-based queries.

“Very often it ends up that what you didn’t know and weren’t trying to find out is what yields the most useful information,” says Newcomb. Several years ago she began working with a company on a pilot software project to query her institution’s student databases to assess progress toward degrees and determine what courses students needed to stay on track. “The company uploaded all our catalog information, and in the process we discovered a number of errors in what we stated as prerequisites. In some instances, these mistakes set up impossible situations for our students,” she says. In addition to a corrected course catalog, an unintended consequence, the project was beneficial for learning how the institution could better schedule courses.

Something else the institution learned, she adds, was that students graduating in majors other than what they had declared in some cases likely didn’t know that they already had sufficient credits. “Understanding the progress of students as a whole makes it possible to construct a better road map for students to complete their degrees and can help the institution better allocate instructional resources in sync with what students need.” Newcomb believes that while most institutions are engaged in developing performance indicators, many don’t go as deeply as they could based on the data. In her case, that might mean not only tracking student progress but also determining why students who take a certain path toward a degree seem to do better than those who take a different path.

“The data won’t tell you why, but they can present the basis for asking those next layers of questions,” Newcomb explains. “I think we have barely scratched the surface in higher education for understanding what we don’t know and where that can take us.” Back to her example: So many interrelationships are present when students show up to register that it’s never as simple as saying that because this many students need English 101, this many new sections are needed. “You still do not know when students want to or can take the class.”

Most institutions already have robust systems, she notes. If leaders can step out of the upgrade cycle long enough to catch their breath and learn what their current systems will do, they may find they already have the tools they need. Or, they may need to ask what the relatively new realm of business intelligence software can bring to the table beyond their current IT infrastructure.

Bottom line, Newcomb says: “We all have to ask whether we can afford not to better understand our institutions and what students want that they are willing to pay for elsewhere.” Key to being responsive to new realities is acquiring information about your institution that can help leaders make important decisions about capacity—how to build, what to build, and when to build. All that begins by asking the right questions.

Business—And Learning—That Makes Sense

In the same way that technology can’t tell you what to ask, no amount of technology spending can fix a bad process. At Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey, redesign of the admissions and registration process entailed dissecting a jumble of policies and procedures that had developed during several decades. “It took months to diagram workloads, and in the process we discovered that 30 percent of staff time was spent trying to find things that were lost,” says Michael Redmond, vice president of technology, information services, and institutional effectiveness. In an office of eight staff, that equaled more than two FTEs. Migration to a document management system—while not without cost to implement—essentially meant regaining two staff positions.

Another example of a process in need of revamping was Bergen’s online instruction. The quality of many of the original courses was questionable, says Redmond. But rather than blaming the faculty who had led the way, the college made major efforts to provide better training. “Many institutions start by thinking about technology support. We realized faculty needed pedagogical support so they could take advantage of the technology,” he says. In addition to giving faculty significant control in developing Bergen’s online training program, the institution gave faculty overall technical support for learning new applications through the college’s Center for Instructional Technology. “Indicators that online instruction has improved in quality,” says Redmond, “are increased retention rates and a subsequent drop in student complaints.”

The college is now also looking to enhance online instruction in response to issues of capacity. In projecting enrollments for 2010, Bergen’s leaders saw insufficient classroom space to accommodate students, Redmond notes. “We were challenged by our board to figure out how to use a combination of online and hybrid courses to close the shortfall between enrollment growth and room capacity.” At this stage, the institution has drafted a distance learning tactical plan that includes specific targets for online and hybrid courses. (These targets were used as a basis for negotiating more favorable contractual terms for distance education with Bergen’s faculty union.)

Got Leadership?

Of the main factors that contribute to business innovation—leadership, technology, and environment—leadership trumps technology as most important. That’s according to the key findings of an EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (www.educause.edu/ecar) study, based on responses from 335 EDUCAUSE member higher education institutions. The 2005 study Good Enough! IT Investment and Business Process Performance in Higher Education notes that while the purchase of ERP systems has been a catalyst for improving business process performance at many institutions, for the most part colleges and universities report satisfactory rather than exemplary processes.

Translation: Technology is important, but it is insufficient on its own to gain necessary improvements in institutional operations. Good leadership is as important if not more for developing and implementing processes that simultaneously improve performance and efficiency. Logical conclusion: Investments in technology must be paired with strategic thinking about how to leverage spending.

According to James Morley, NACUBO president and chief executive officer, the historical tendency of many institutions has been to focus on the purchase and implementation of software and infrastructure systems to the exclusion of institutional change management—the leadership, governance, sourcing, and management strategies required to reap institutional performance benefits from technology investments. “The reason so many ERP systems have not worked to their full potential is because not all stakeholders were included in the upfront work of thinking through the goals and purpose of what the institution wanted to accomplish,” says Morley. One result has been an inability to harness these systems to increase productivity.

That same unrealized potential can be seen at many institutions with the implementation of course management systems, says SunGard’s William Graves. In part, this is because institutions tend to treat instructional technologies as add-on tools. When they do so, they simply bolt on expenses, says Graves. “Leaders aren’t thinking enough about how to use these systems to redesign instruction in ways that drive down costs while also improving performance and quality.” And no efficiencies can happen without broad-based leadership support and agreement on specific performance metrics.

Developing these hybrid courses will entail taking certain classes that typically meet 3 hours per week and adapting the course content for a class geared to meeting 1.5 hours on campus and 1.5 hours online, explains Redmond. “This also entails rethinking class sizes to accommodate more students without increasing workload of faculty.” And that will mean helping faculty understand ways to engage students that translate online. Examples Redmond offers include helping faculty learn how to effectively use threaded discussions instead of one-on-one conversations and transitioning from the role of coach to facilitator so that students also learn from other students. The latter could include pooling commentary and conversations from multiple sections of the same course. Redmond adds, “Another way to enhance online instruction without increasing faculty workload is to have key faculty develop ‘reusable’ modules for certain courses such as research paper writing that can then be made available to all faculty who teach the same or a similar course or for use by adjunct faculty.” 

Performance-Based Solutions

Maryland’s Frostburg State University is also facing classroom capacity concerns. When asked by the state’s board of regents what the university could do to improve output of current buildings, university leaders began taking a serious look at how to get students through faster, says Roger Bruszewski, vice president for administration and finance. Piggybacking on existing January and summer sessions, Frostburg faculty and administration partnered to develop online options for these inter-sessions and started offering virtual semesters three years ago. “This is an easy way for students to still go home and work for the summer while also picking up some additional classes,” Bruszewski points out.

Frostburg is looking to further accelerate student progress by introducing two seven-week online sections during both the fall and spring semesters. “We can still require that students take no more than four courses at a time. But this way they could feasibly end a semester having completed five courses,” he says. Using such an option, students who, for whatever reason, have to withdraw from a course and are too late to pick another class could also register for an online course that starts mid-semester. Preparing to launch these online mini-semesters has required paying careful attention to course sequence, student workload, and faculty teaching loads.

Even without the launch of these new online semesters, improved graduation rates are already evident. In 2005, the university had its biggest graduating class in the institution’s history, thanks in large part to moving students through the institution in closer to four years versus five, Bruszewski says. “Ironically, because graduation rates have increased, we’re now showing a drop in enrollment.”

These days that drop is easily accounted for in the context of Frostburg’s performance dashboard. Almost two years ago, Maryland’s board of regents tasked state institutions to track performance on 64 indicators compared to peer institutions. In response to its lower enrollment numbers, Frostburg is now giving greater attention to student retention. “We try to avoid managing to the number and instead manage to the situation,” Bruszewski explains. For instance, while on first review the dashboard may indicate that Frostburg should try to improve its SAT scores, the bigger question about how to do so must also be entertained. “Does that mean we become more selective? As a state institution, we’re supposed to hold accessibility as a primary goal, and that goal would suffer if we became too selective.” While the dashboard provides a quick way for the state’s board of regents to identify what it wants institutions to work on and to determine where to allocate funding, Bruszewski believes the tool is most helpful as a conversation starter and for discussing the larger implications of specific decisions.

Price, Cost, and Quality

One big-picture issue with which most institutions continue to grapple is ever-rising tuition, says William Graves, senior vice president for academic strategy for SunGard Higher Education. He says there is growing evidence that the price of attendance is driving some students away, with more students either dropping out or not bothering to apply. That makes it all the more important for colleges and universities to seriously consider expense accountability—the direct unit costs of instruction and other key lines of service such as IT, registrar, and financial services, says Graves.

“While institutions have done a decent job of cutting overall administrative and operational costs, the need to stabilize price—that is, tuition—begs the question of how to stabilize or reduce the per-unit costs of instruction, whether cost per student, cost per credit hour, or whatever unit cost makes most sense for an institution to measure,” he says. The bad news is that accountably improving academic performance while cutting unit costs is now a policy imperative. The good news is that it is also a feasible goal, Graves says. However, success requires rethinking quality measures while using technology innovatively to redesign academic service processes.

Using technology to introduce greater flexibility in student instruction and service and to redesign the pedagogy and unit-cost structure of common courses is the key to success, believes Graves. (See “Read Deeper” for the link to an article by Graves, which offers an in-depth discussion of this topic.) As for quality, it’s time for higher education to reconsider the foregone conclusion that lower student-instructor ratios are a valid quality benchmark. “Ultimately, the student-instructor ratio is only a proxy for the most direct indicator of quality—student learning that can be benchmarked. The increasing pressure to account for student learning while also stabilizing tuition rates may force many institutions to increase the student-instructor ratio—because it reflects the bulk of direct instructional unit costs—and simultaneously account for improved learning outcomes.” This would all be possible without increasing faculty labor, Graves says.

Read Deeper

NACUBO's business partners often participate in member-driven initiatives by attending and even hosting small-group meetings. In the case of NACUBO’s recent IT Council meeting, SunGard Higher Education served as host at the company’s Maitland, Florida office and contributed leadership and intellectual capital for a preliminary one-day technology summit. SunGard’s Lise Patton, strategic services consultant, facilitated group discussion. William Graves, Sungard’s senior vice president for academic strategy and professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, co-led the group with NACUBO President and Chief Executive Officer James Morley. Participants considered the interplay of technology, leadership, and the academic enterprise. The wealth of detail that provided the backdrop to the IT summit, from which this article was developed, is available from these resources:

  • “Improving Institutional Performance: The Necessary Role of IT-Enabled Innovation,” a white paper by William Graves, is downloadable at www.sungardcollegis.com/pages/203.asp. A shorter version of this paper was published in the November/December 2005 issue of EDUCAUSE Review as “Improving Institutional Performance Through IT-Enabled Innovation.” Graves also hosts a blog at www.institutionalperformance.typepad.com.
  • “Working More Effectively by Building Organizational Capacity,” by James E. Morley, Jr., December 2005 Business Officer. This article details NACUBO’s Building Organizational Capacity project, providing higher education leaders with tools to improve performance and achieve success with high-value initiatives.   

Because business officers understand the relationship between tuition and instructional costs, the connection between affordability and access, and the external pressures their institutions face, they are in a position to help leaders understand that across-the-board budget cuts are no longer adequate, Graves says. “Institutions simply must employ technology and business and academic redesign to drive down the unit costs of instruction.” As critical as helping a president and board make these connections is helping to frame the conversation with key academic leaders. They need to understand the financial implications of instruction and what can be done to improve financial performance while also enhancing learning quality and stabilizing a faculty workload measured in time (i.e., labor). This differs from the traditional measure of total credit hours delivered.

Gaining Ground

In the end, the best way to give your IT traction is to first introduce a strategic leadership focus that brings clarity regarding key institutional goals and performance measurements. Only then can leaders identify the specific technology investments needed to help your institution achieve those goals and measurements.

KARLA HIGNITE, principal of KH Communication, Tacoma, Washington, is senior editor of Business Officer