Oct 31 2006

3 Technology Lessons Learned From Relocating Campus

Concordia University is relocating to a new campus. As a result, the IT department has learned some valuable lessons about academics and itself.

Moving can be a major ordeal. While some people like the idea of relocating, many find packing and unpacking to be stressful and exhausting. These mixed emotions are evident on the faces of college students each year as they move in and out of campus housing.

Now, imagine moving an entire university campus – and the implications of such a large-scale ordeal for an IT department.

That's the challenge facing the IT department of Concordia University at Austin, Texas. After a comprehensive study on managing enrollment growth, the Board of Regents of this 80-year-old independent, liberal arts institution voted in May 2005 to relocate the campus.

Concordia currently occupies a 22-acre site several blocks from the University of Texas at Austin, near the city center. Concordia is landlocked and bordered by a large regional medical center, a major freeway and a historic neighborhood, making it difficult to grow beyond the present enrollment of 1,260 students.

Plans call for the new campus to be under construction by next January, with an expected move sometime during the summer of 2008.

The IT department is leading the relocation effort. University Services was created six years ago through a combination of Facilities Management and Information and Technology Services. The combined department operates the school's physical and electronic plant, and it is preparing to deploy a new administrative computer system before the campus move.

“When the merger took place, many people on campus thought the idea was a bit crazy,” says Ron Petty, facilities manager. “What would maintenance and information technology have in common?” But, according to Petty, the unique synergy that emerged has resulted in an integrated help desk, coordinated management of all campus infrastructure and strong leadership of the relocation process, with the vice president of University Services heading the campus move.

“Our campus is attempting to do something that few schools have tried,” says Thomas Cedel, Concordia president. “It's one thing to construct a new science building, but designing and building a totally new campus and then moving everything and everyone down the road over a period of a few weeks is a major undertaking that requires vision and coordination . . . and the innovation that created University Services a few years ago has been a blessing in our relocation efforts.”

The school's new site, located 10 miles west of its current campus, contains a 250-acre nature preserve. The land is a habitat for several endangered species of birds and will provide science students with a unique living classroom environment literally in Concordia's backyard.

Valuable Lessons

“Moving a college campus does not happen every day,” says Stan Kruse, director of IT services. “So this has been a real learning experience for us. Several important lessons have emerged, so far, when it comes to IT.”

1. Understand Teachers' Needs

The relocation process has resulted in a close working relationship between the academic program and IT staff, says Joel Rahn, University Services academic computer manager. “We saw from the beginning a need for our IT staff to better understand the teaching/learning environment at Concordia,” he says. While evaluating faculty comments from a departmental survey, Rahn says, “We came to the realization that we were not thinking like teachers when we made decisions related to technology on campus. We were viewing issues from the perspective of hardware and software – the typical ‘geek' approach.”

This led to changes in how University Services views the academic program and evaluates academic needs. The department is taking a crash course in instructional design and teaching methods to better understand the viewpoint of instructors and the challenges they face in the classroom.

“We [realize] faculty members view information technology as a utility,” says De Wayne Mangan, University Services network administrator. “Instructors expect our electronic systems and IT equipment to be as reliable and seamless as electricity, heat and water.”

2. Create Better Classrooms

The lack of pedagogical training among IT staff can be challenging when these same individuals are asked to design and equip next-generation classrooms, also known as smart classrooms. To facilitate the design of Concordia's new classrooms, University Services developed the concept of a technology toolbox – an in-depth list of equipment, software and training the department needs to support for the academic program.

For the new campus, University Services built a mockup of a classroom in the school's television studio. The mockup provides an environment where faculty can experiment with different presentation tools, room arrangements and overall design to help define what a Concordia smart classroom might look like in the new facilities.

“Instructors can hold classes in the space to test out different teaching/learning methods and suggest changes and alterations to the room,” explains Dan Gregory, University Services media services manager. “We believe that what we learn from this experimental classroom will be invaluable when the architect starts designing Concordia's new classrooms.”

3. Hire and Retain the Right People

Possibly the most important lesson deals with human resources – investing in the right people. “IT staff can play a critical leadership role within a university,” says Kruse. “But it requires more than simply knowing how to operate hardware and software. It means finding skilled IT professionals with a passion for higher education and a collaborative spirit willing to develop a broad range of skills beyond technology.

“Our IT staff has committed itself to reading and discussing leadership development books [once a week],” Kruse says. “It's been an enlightening and invaluable exercise where the entire department works to raise everyone's ability to be an effective leader. This, in turn, has broadened our view from being focused only on information technology to facilitating the development of Concordia's new campus.”

Concordia University's relocation provides a unique opportunity to strengthen the school's core values. As University Services designs systems and spaces, it is going through its own transformation, developing a broader set of skills to help Concordia succeed with relocation and achieve its mission.

David Kluth is vice president of University Services at Concordia University in Austin, Texas. He is also an associate professor of communications and teaches media law and communication technology.


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