Oct 31 2006

How Your University's IT Department Should Evolve

As technologies change, so does – and should – the role of the IT department.

The first time I saw an interactive whiteboard hanging on a classroom wall, I knew my days hunched at a desk, or folded into a server closet, were limited. After all, with the advent of hands-on classroom technologies like this glorified blackboard, it was only a matter of time before new and varied technology needs would be pulling all of us out of our chairs and across campus on a more regular basis.

But what I couldn't have known is that my role would change so drastically that only a handful of years later, not only would I be hanging interactive whiteboards, wiring overhead projectors and installing campuswide wireless networks, but I would also be carting around a color wheel and testing carpet samples. Much to my own (and my wife's) surprise, in an effort to make classrooms that are functionally high tech and aesthetically pleasing, I am suddenly becoming as comfortable with a color palette as I am with a mouse pad.

The change is indicative of what's happening nationally as the IT department goes from being simply a “server center” or help desk to helping actively integrate technology within the learning environment – and enhancing it.

In my case, the change began with a campus tour. This summer, I was preparing to update the most rudimentary classrooms at Lynn University's Boca Raton, Fla.-based campus with more than $25,000 worth of top-shelf computer equipment. Rooms full of metal chairs and plain-top desks topped with flat screen monitors, scanners and overhead video projectors prompted our university's president to hand me a new hat … or rather, a painter's cap. Along with our academic dean, I was soon heading up the university's Academic Spaces task force.

When we started, there were 61 different styles of chairs in the classrooms. Today, we have uniform podiums, tech stations and flat-top tables for faculty, and we are testing three or four different classroom configurations for students. Gone are the steel-legged desks of yesteryear. They've been replaced with oversized chairs, two-seater tables and tiered rows of laminated desktops. We even added chair rails in some classrooms and hardwood flooring in others – and every formerly white-walled room got its first coat of color.

Like any painters, our inspirations came in many forms. We visited Indian River Community College in Fort Pierce, Fla., to tour its new student center. We also went online, to sites like EDUCAUSE, and learned about colors and comforts that could improve the learning environment. We even dreamed a bit as we read about and lingered over photos of Stanford University School of Medicine's James H. Clark Center and other buildings built to do more than prop up a computer lab. By comparison, what we've done here at Lynn is more retrofit than reimagining. But it's still inspired.

The result is that the flat-screen monitors we're hanging on the walls are no longer the only things our students are gravitating toward. While they're still tinkering with the document cameras, students are also adjusting the blinds, settling into their seats and enjoying the new classroom environment.

The experience has convinced me that if you're not yet a part of your own campus's building committee, get ready. The IT office has unique roles to play in the classroom: Some roles play upon its strengths, and others expand them.

Christian Boniforti is CIO at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

Christian Boniforti

Title: CIO, Lynn University, Boca Raton, Fla.

Timeline: Promoted to CIO in 2006

Experience: Joined the IT department at Lynn University as a graduate assistant in 1999. Became the university's network and security manager in 2002 and its IT director in 2004.