Tim Brooks says Saint Louis University uses video conferences to keep the college's community in the United States in close touch with faculty, students and staff at its satellite campus in Spain.

Jan 11 2010

Handling The IT Chanllenges Of Distance Learning

Expanding overseas enhances a university's prestige and revenue stream, but the IT challenges are considerable. Here's how three U.S. colleges made it happen.

Expanding globally enhances a university’s prestige and revenue stream, but the IT challenges are considerable. Here’s how three U.S. colleges made it happen. Expanding globally enhances a university's prestige and revenue stream, but the IT challenges are considerable. Here's how three U.S. colleges made it happen.

Saint Louis University and its campus in Madrid, Spain, are separated by the Atlantic Ocean, two languages and disagreement on who makes the best tapas. But thanks to video conferencing, the IT and administrative staffs from both campuses work almost as closely as if they were in the same room.

IT and administrative staffers from both campuses regularly hold staff meetings through high-end Polycom video conferencing technology in conference rooms. Managers are also equipped with webcams, allowing them to launch Polycom software on their PCs to hold individual video conferences. For more informal meetings, staff, faculty and students use instant messaging software for video chats.

“We leverage collaboration tools to keep everyone involved and provide face-to-face time,” says Tim Brooks, CIO of Saint Louis University, a private Jesuit college that established its Spain campus in the early 1960s and began using video conferencing five years ago. “It improves internal operations, and administrators and researchers can collaborate.”

An increasing number of U.S. colleges are expanding with international branch campuses. It requires a big investment, from hiring staff to purchasing or leasing facilities. An international presence enhances a university's prestige and allows it to diversify its revenue while gaining a foothold in countries – such as those in the Middle East and Asia – that seek additional higher-education options for their students, says Madeleine Green, vice president for international initiatives at the American Council on Education. The move also gives its American students and faculty the opportunity to study or work abroad.

Going global, however, poses new challenges to IT departments, which must build and maintain an IT infrastructure in a facility that could be half a world away. They must build networks and provide access to back-office applications that are either the same or compatible with the applications of the main campus, Green says.

The number of international branch campuses has grown 43% in the past three years, to 162 worldwide.

Source: London's Observatory on Borderless Higher Education

Some IT issues are cultural. Financial systems have to handle the foreign currency. And if English is not the dominant language at the remote campus, the IT department needs software that uses that country's language, says Kenneth “Casey” Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project. In addition, Internet service could be more expensive, and reliability could be spotty, he says.

Standard Apps

Saint Louis University-Madrid is a free-standing campus that attracts students from more than 65 countries. The key to successfully supporting an international campus is to standardize applications and IT policies, says Brooks, who joined the university two years ago.

Madrid uses the same applications – enterprise resource planning, an online learning management system and e-mail – as the main St. Louis campus. Having standard software and IT policies lets the IT department, including the small IT staff in Madrid, know how to handle every situation, he says.

Brooks says that it's important to have standard operating procedures. The university uses a common set of management and monitoring tools and communicates with the same e-mail system, he says.

“We have a common framework for how we operate, from change management to security policies,” Brooks says. “Everyone understands the rules and culture of our organization and that service delivery goals are important.”

Third World Infrastructure

When the University of Georgia's new San Luis, Costa Rica, campus needed to overhaul its IT infrastructure four years ago, David Matthews-Morgan, the university's IT director, flew in to help. The campus, in the middle of a cloud forest, is a beautiful study-abroad destination for Georgia students who want to take biology, ecology and Latin American culture classes. However, there were issues with the technology infrastructure and its reliability.

Matthews-Morgan found several computers in the Student Union building with 256 kilobits-per-second connections that dropped constantly. Power outages occurred regularly. The campus also had insufficient wiring for its growing IT needs.

“You were lucky to get an e-mail out,” he recalls.

Matthews-Morgan assessed the IT situation and gave his technology recommendations to campus administrators. He advised against laying copper because lightning strikes could damage IT resources connected to the cabling, so he suggested Wi-Fi.

Administrators connected to a government-owned 4 megabits-per-second point-to-point wireless link for general campus use and another 2Mbps point-to-point wireless link for the Student Union building. A local IT consultant designed and built an 802.11a/g wireless network that covers the campus.

Matthews-Morgan also helped administrators spec out new hardware. The administrators purchased the hardware from local suppliers, and local IT consultants installed the equipment. Today, the campus has two computer labs and a server used for file-sharing and remote access to the main campus network.

Matthews-Morgan made a second visit to Costa Rica two years ago to help troubleshoot the server, which had been compromised because of insufficient security protection. He patched the server and – for extra protection – moved it behind a router and installed a security appliance.

For the past two years, he has handled problems remotely using remote management tools, augmenting the work done by IT consultants hired by the Costa Rican campus. The campus now has all the technology it needs, but power does still go out, about four times a month. To combat downtime, consultants have installed uninterruptible power supplies.

Expect the Unexpected

When building an international campus, expect challenges during the initial IT implementation, says Ben Hockenhull, deputy CIO of Webster University, which has 12 campuses outside the United States, including Geneva; Vienna; Chengdu, China; and Cha-am and Bangkok, Thailand. All instruction is in English.

Hockenhull once flew to the Geneva campus to install a virtual private network (VPN) router so campus administrators could access administrative applications that are housed centrally at the university's main St. Louis campus. But his expected several-day stay lasted more than two weeks. That's when he learned the importance of understanding the culture and how a foreign country conducts business.

Hockenhull says SwissCom (a Swiss telephone company) was only available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. He says the SwissCom technicians stopped work at 5 p.m. sharp, a factor that made the project take longer. “But you can't let those sorts of things frustrate you,” he says.

Webster's IT department in St. Louis provides access to billing, registration and admissions applications. But each campus hires its own IT staff or hires IT contractors who handle the local instructional technology, as well as their own procurement and payroll applications, says Larry Haffner, Webster's vice president for information technology.

The IT situation is different on each campus. Some contract out to consultants. Others, such as those in Thailand and China, hire their own IT staff. The number of IT staffers ranges from one person to a handful of people, and they report to each remote site's campus administrators, not the IT staff in St. Louis. In situations where Webster partners with local colleges and uses their facilities, such as Regent's College in London, the local college handles Webster's IT needs, Haffner says.

The IT department in St. Louis does have to modify its administrative billing systems to accept local currency, such as Euros and Swiss Francs. The main IT department also provides core services, such as e-mail, a learning management system and library resources through the web, Haffner says. About 40 percent of its students study abroad, so it's important to offer standard applications, he says.

“We think of it as one Webster,” Haffner says. “So no matter where students go, they have access to all their applications and records, on one system. They can register online from their house in St. Louis or their dorm room in Geneva.”

IT Guide for the Global Campus


  1. Find out the institution's goals and whether you're purchasing your own facilities or partnering with a local college that will offer campus space. If a partner is involved, find out what technology they will provide. Once you know the goals and facility situation, you are better able to determine what technology is needed.
  2. While you can run core services remotely, hire an IT staff at the remote campus and let them run day-to-day operations.
  3. Hire skilled IT staffers. If the administrators on the remote campus make the hiring decisions, you should review résumés and suggest interview questions.
  4. If students and faculty contact you for desktop technical support, take advantage of remote management tools, such as LANDesk.
  5. Consider subscribing to two separate Internet connections. The secondary connection can be used for redundancy in case the first one fails.


<p>Jay Fram</p>