How to Come Out On Top in the Mobile Revolution

Bill Seward, Director of Information Technology, Pfeiffer University
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Bill Seward, Director of Information Technology, Pfeiffer University

Every August and January, college and university computer networks are assaulted, not by those with ill intent but by our students, faculty and staffs. The nature of this assault is predictable for anyone with more than passing exposure to IT in higher education as these are the months that the majority of students and faculty return to campus. With them they bring not only the technology—laptops, smart phones and other devices—they left with at the end of the previous semester, but also new items they’ve purchased or received as gifts.

While our counterparts in the corporate world experience this to a lesser extent, we in higher education face the full panoply of consumer technology, and not just from our students. While students bring the largest amount of consumer-related technology to campus and consume the most digital content, faculty and staff hold up their end as well, bringing personal items and buying items to experiment with.

Without question, our institutions’ technology infrastructures must be robust, flexible and expandable— built within a “higher education budget”—meaning one that is never large enough. This is compounded by costs related to an installed base that cannot be abandoned, unpredictable upgrade cycles, diversity of devices to be connected and the ordinary pace of change in technology.

At the physical layer, our networks are (or ideally should be) undergoing a change from being mostly wired to predominately wireless, and with good reason. A wired network restricts our mobility to the length of the cable from our device to the wall. Wireless allows us to move about freely from room to room and from indoors to outdoors. With this capability, faculty and students can blow out classroom walls and take learning where ever it needs to go. A biology class can go to the lake for hands-on research while an art class visits a sculpture garden for inspiration. Learning quality is improved.

 A savvy higher Ed CIO will find opportunities, demonstrating to students that their desires are heard and understood while becoming a game changer 

Building these new and improved wireless networks is more complicated and expensive with each new generation of technology. This is no place to go it alone—be willing to enlist professional wireless engineers in the process. Understand that building a full-coverage, maximum performance network in a single swoop may be beyond the financial reach of your institution, so be prepared to implement in phases.

A big issue for most institutions is internet bandwidth, which seemingly needs to double every year to keep pace with student demand. On many campuses, streaming video is the main culprit. A little gentle traffic shaping coupled with caching appliances can keep a lid on bandwidth use while going mostly unnoticed.

Some student-facing applications continue to remain mobile-unfriendly. These can include prospective student application, registration, payment and learning management systems. Since these are systems students interact with on a daily basis, it is paramount that deficiencies in this area are addressed immediately.

Other applications (or other modules of the same apps) may be just as mobile unfriendly but affect faculty and staff. In years past, we could safely assume that both groups worked in an office on campus. Today they may be working at home or several states away. Failure to address their needs can cripple productivity, and with it recruiting efforts, advancement activities and research.

Both of these point out the need for an accurate application portfolio. Knowing your inventory, its capabilities, upgrade schedules and similar details allows the identification of potential problem applications. These can then be targeted for replacement before they become roadblocks. In an environment where visually attractive, high performance and mobile-friendly applications are a must, your application inventory is an early warning system that a vendor is lagging in software updates.

Presentation technology is a highly visible area that grabs the attention of a prospective student and retains the interest of those currently enrolled. The days when a projector, cheap speakers and screen were adequate are over. Today, students expect flat screens, high-quality sound systems, desktop power and ubiquitous wireless. Larger lecture halls should up the game with video walls, surround sound, video conferencing and breakout areas with flat screens tied back to the main video wall.

Closely related to presentation technology is digital signage. The best digital signage is unobtrusive while providing easy access to up-to-date information including way finding and events. In the event of a campus emergency, digital signage is a part of the campus notification system, quickly communicating critical, need-to-know information to the campus community.

Cloud computing is an area to watch. Many vendors in the academic vertical are offering hosted versions of their software either á la carte or in packages. Depending on need, some packages allow for the standardization of toolsets while reducing overall costs.

Another benefit cloud computing can bring to the table is simplification of disaster recovery plans. A carefully negotiated contract can include uptime guarantees, backup and restore options, hot site availability and other options that provide better recovery abilities than can be put in place on an individual campus.

Network security is a growing concern, yet at many colleges and universities, inadequate funding is available for it. With a reputation for lax security, higher education institutions of all sizes are targets. Using our unfortunate fellow institutions as examples of what can go wrong, it’s important to present reasonable estimates of anticipated costs, starting with items that bring the biggest payoff. As stories of losses due to security issues cross your desk, forward them to the CFO and other decision makers, pointing out the cost of the incident versus that of proposed preventive measures.

Throughout the course of an academic year, IT departments face demands from students and faculty for various new technologies. While higher education institutions are typically willing to experiment with new technologies and approaches, it’s not always reasonable or possible to accommodate these requests. A strong technology steering committee and well-written policies are helpful allies when prioritizing requests.

Finally, the most important component for achieving your department’s goals is budget. For conversations with the CFO or budget presentations to a board of trustees, be prepared. Remember that because they are primarily business people, a business point of view will resonate. Be simple and direct: This is the problem, here is the proposal to solve it, and here are the costs and how long it will take. Anticipate common questions and have responses ready. If they ask technical questions, provide technical answers; until then, try to leave the technology at the door.

Remind them that allowing the technology infrastructure to fall behind and being forced to catch up is hard on both staff and students—and has implications for recruitment and retention. Students choose and leave a school for what seem like small reasons, but no matter what they are, it matters.

In a well-run corporation, information technology is seen as a differentiator, something that gives the business an edge in the marketplace. In higher education, information technology is often still seen as a cost to be contained.

Today’s student expects a certain level of technology in their residence halls and classrooms, which many times is not provided. A savvy higher ed CIO will find opportunities, even small ones, to do so, demonstrating to students that their desires are heard and understood while demonstrating to the institution how IT can become a game changer, helping increase recruitment and retention rates.  

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