IT Governance by the Customer, For the Customer: Don't Forget the Students

Michael Hites, CIO, Southern Methodist University
Michael Hites, CIO, Southern Methodist University

Michael Hites, CIO, Southern Methodist University

When information technology leaders talk to each other about priorities, we tend to sprinkle the conversation with condensed statements of goals and trends. For example, we might think that saying “digitization to modernize higher education” or “student-centered learning” is everyday dialog. When you bring IT subject matter experts or IT technicians into the discussion, we might dive into the technical nuances of e-learning plug-ins or artificial intelligence algorithms. What happens when we take a step back and involve the customer into the IT conversation?

As universities began to incorporate various methods of IT governance into the approval and prioritization processes for new work, more administrators, staff members and faculty became part of the conversation. Common goals were agreed upon by both functional and technical staff, and projects had a higher chance of success than ever before. A single set of priorities was the result of collaboration, and it started by putting people with different needs and views together in the same room and letting everyone speak.

  IT customer service in higher education is all about collaborating with the most critical stakeholder: students  

So, what have we left out of the conversation? I’m three paragraphs into an article on information technology in higher education and haven’t mentioned our students. This is more common than you might expect, and forgetting about your primary customer is not the best way to ensure IT success. I’ve been in meetings where about 55 minutes into a 60-minute meeting, someone has the idea to talk to the students. Often, it’s not “the students,” it’s “a student.” Given that students outnumber employees on the order of five to one in higher education, it seems students ought to have a bigger voice in setting priorities.

At SMU, we found that a multi-pronged approach to student involvement in IT prioritization works well. We started by first surveying the students. Our initial comprehensive student survey was in 2016, and it measured satisfaction with IT services at the university. The survey was broad and included electronic learning systems, wireless connectivity, administrative systems, helpdesk services, training and classroom technology. Back in 2016, the student survey showed that interactive presentation technology was a high priority. Based on this survey, and also at the request of the faculty, we created a proposal for several different styles of room configuration that implemented new technology in a way that fit the pedagogical demands of the school. This included interactive projectors and wireless screen-casting. These new rooms were so successful students in 2018 suggested adding the same technology to the residential commons to make interactive group studying more convenient.

In 2017, satisfaction levels were consistent with 2016. It’s interesting to note that 23 percent of those who responded did not know how to contact the helpdesk. As a result, we simplified our message about where the helpdesk is located and how to contact it electronically. We also changed the IT main webpage to use the same language as the first-year student onboarding process, which is extensive at SMU. The 2017 survey answers were less voluminous and less specific than in 2016, which could mean that we cleaned up some of the problems identified in 2016. The more likely answer is student survey fatigue: “we are emailed too much, and we are asked to do too many surveys. ” It seems our enthusiasm to administer and receive input from surveys is not shared by the students who need to take them.

Surveys are only part of the solution. The next step was to ask if the students would meet regularly with the CIO to provide feedback, propose solutions, and prioritize work. This resulted in the CIO Student Advisory Board where students from across many majors and academic levels joined a monthly meeting. This board was discussed in 2017, created in 2018, and we are finishing our first full year together. While I’m confident that our students would attend a monthly, evening meeting just for the joy of it, we nonetheless provide food for them. They get to sample cuisine from Dallas, and we get to have an interactive discussion for 90 minutes. I’d note that while we schedule the meetings for 90 minutes, we almost never finish on time, and there is always one more item to discuss. In reality, it is one my favorite meetings.

If you are lucky, you might end up with a student advisory board like the one at SMU, which was assembled by the student body president. The roster includes: a student pursuing a master’s degree in security engineering with bachelor’s in computer engineering and math, and also minors in electrical engineering, creative computing and physics; a Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society member with English and international student majors along with mathematics and political science minors; majors in theatre, philosophy, finance, computer science, mechanical engineering, mathematics and art. This broad base of experience has led to great conversations.

The outcomes of the first CIO SAB meeting were interesting. I wanted to discuss the admissions and onboarding process and plan the technology that would go into one of our new buildings. They wanted to talk about having a single calendar with all university events, as well as ways to simplify advising. We both wanted to talk about classroom technology, group collaboration, and mobile phones as supplements (not replacements) for ID cards. It was clear from this first meeting that the group discussion yielded some results that were different than the student survey and were also different from my initial expectations.

At the second meeting, our CIO SAB members were even more participatory. We discussed the use of paper in the classrooms, online testing, lockdown browsers, unified calendaring, the helpdesk, and the technology equipment recently installed in a fine arts classroom. By this second meeting, it was clear we needed to add one of these students to the university’s Information Technology Leadership Council, which is the formal IT governance group at SMU.

Also, by the second meeting, it seemed that the notion of improving the calendar was not going away, so by the third meeting we provided the first demo of a unified calendar. The resulting conversation was detailed and informative, and it allowed us to create a solution. Putting application developers and customers together is an often-used strategy, and it was interesting to use an agile development methodology with the Student Advisory Board. It worked well.

Recently, we have presented the IT strategic plan and progress report for feedback to our Student Advisory Board. We then finished our final meeting of 2018 with a recap of what the Board recommended: hands free attendance tracking, electronic room reservation, parking lot intelligence, four-year schedule planning, electronic advising, smartphone as a secondary ID, unifying the student administrative and learning systems. And stop with all of the email, please.

There are many groups at SMU that have student advisory groups, and many universities receive significant student input for projects and services through surveys and participation in the university’s governance process. What we have found is that while surveys and ad hoc committees are great, there’s nothing like a roomful of bold, curious, and creative students to help make sure you are spending your time on the right solutions.

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