Mark Koan, Ed.D., is director of the University Technology Office at Arizona State University's West Campus in Phoenix.

May 16 2011

Practicality Breeds Clever Innovation

Arizona State University stays competitive in challenging economic times by targeting IT services that make students more productive.

Austerity still reigns in the state of Arizona. However, Arizona State University's Provost Office, supported by its IT department, made targeted strategic moves over the past several years that place the university in a strong position to weather the storm and grow as the economy rebounds.

In 2006, the Provost's Office and IT leadership decided that the best way to help the university stay competitive was to focus on applications that would either attract students or keep them at ASU, and outsource many routine IT functions.

ASU was an early adopter of outsourced e-mail, which now saves roughly $350,000 annually on management, licensing fees and hosting costs. IT leadership also recognized that, like e-mail, networks had become a commodity, so ASU contracted with a service provider to manage telecom, as well as wired and wireless networks across the university. ASU also outsourced PeopleSoft; hosting and support for its learning management system; and the help desk, which let it begin offering 24x7 service.

Outsourcing these noncore functions has allowed the university to reallocate its IT resources and focus squarely on services that help the university attract and retain top students and faculty.

For example, ASU used the money it saved from outsourcing to design and develop MyASU, the university's student portal, which is now the most popular destination on the ASU website. MyASU draws more than 300,000 visits per day. During peak times, such as the start of a new semester, the portal receives more than 750,000 page views. Students use MyASU to check e-mail, register for courses, review financial aid status and purchase textbooks. MyASU is also the central access point into the university's systems and services, including the learning management system, the ASU libraries and PeopleSoft.

This realignment of resources also let ASU rebuild its online course catalog, which makes it possible for students to get better electronic advising so they more easily understand how many credits they have earned toward different degrees. Easy access to this information contributes to the university's goal of improving retention and graduation rates.

Virtual World

Outsourcing noncore functions also has allowed ASU to invest in application virtualization and cloud-based storage for students. Over the years, it became clear that the cost of computer applications was an increasing burden on students. Software licenses for some of the more expensive applications are $1,000 or more, a price that is prohibitive for many students. By virtualizing the applications via Citrix and providing free online storage for files, students can now access Microsoft, Adobe, and academic software such as nursing and engineering applications from any location at no cost.

Along with the portal and free access to applications, the IT department established technology studios on each campus where all students can receive technical support for their notebooks, free of charge – everything from troubleshooting a failed hard drive to reimaging computers and recovering lost files, for any make or model of computer. ASU also has partnered with preferred manufacturers to provide technology scholarships to help students with financial need purchase notebooks.

Although Arizona's budget crisis is ongoing, there's no question that the steps ASU has taken over the past five years have had positive results. In that time, student enrollment increased by 15.4 percent, freshman persistence improved 5 percent and graduation rates are up 3.7 percent. This continued focus on excellence, access and impact has helped ASU become an IT innovator.