Nov 02 2018

EDUCAUSE 2018: Top 10 IT Issues Emphasize Data and Funding Challenges

Annual ranking keeps security at the top, with an expanded focus on data, privacy and student success.

While it is little surprise that security again tops EDUCAUSE’s Top 10 IT Issues list, this year’s priorities also reflect the growing importance of data, renewed interest in funding and the debut of privacy, which came in third. 

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Susan Grajek, vice president for communities and research at EDUCAUSE, discussed the findings on Thursday at the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference in Denver. She was joined by panelists John Campbell, vice provost at West Virginia University; Loretta Early, CIO at George Washington University; Joel Hartman, vice president for information technologies and resources at the University of Central Florida; Merri Beth Lavagnino, director of strategic planning and enterprise risk at Indiana University; and Carlos Morales, president of Tarrant County College’s Connect campus

More than half of this year’s list relates to data, attesting to the surge of data initiatives taking place in higher education, said Grajek.

“That data journey is getting more complex, and you’re really moving forward,” she said, noting that campus leaders are grappling with the nuts and bolts of data projects, management and governance issues, potential applications and the logistics of integrating data from various systems. 

One of the best moves that colleges can make with data projects, Campbell said, is to start small and focus on outcomes. “The goal is not to just come up with the largest set of data we can, but it’s intended to solve and answer questions,” he said. “Start on some things you can actually take action on and build from there.”

Ultimately, said Grajek, the goal is to move past the dashboard being the end result of a data initiative to a point where “the dashboard is the beginning of the data conversation.”

MORE FROM EDTECH: Hear from experts at Harvard on how universities can best to use data!

Align Security and Privacy to Support, Not Hamper, Data Initiatives

Security is a perennial concern on campus, and Lavagnino said she sees two ways in which security can become an unintended barrier as colleges seek to become data-enabled institutions. First, campus security pros often get bogged down with too many responsibilities. That can slow down the review process that is required before an institution can engage with a new vendor and move forward with a data project.

“Try to keep your security office really doing the high-level prevention, detection and response kinds of activities and not support activities,” she said. “Use those security people for the things they have the skills for.”

Lavagnino also noted that many institutions are still figuring out how to track data from a risk management perspective, a tough but necessary step as they pursue data initiatives. “Besides knowing what the data is and is it accurate, we have to know which parts of that data are sensitive, such that we can put those controls on,” she said. 

The appearance of privacy on this year’s Top 10 list reflects the growing complexity of data as colleges seek to balance the benefits of data-driven decision-making and student intervention, protection of students’ personal information and overall transparency about data collection and use.

This year’s mandated compliance with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation was a good refresher for many institutions, Morales said, on the work that remains to be done in the area of privacy. At the same time, he pointed out, many people confuse privacy with confidentiality, so colleges may want to offer additional staff training and clarify policies and procedures.

Another concern is that institutions often pursue compliance based on the parameters of specific mandates, including GDPR, HIPAA and FERPA. Instead of this “one by one” approach, Lavagnino said, a better strategy would be an overarching privacy program. “I think we could look at this more holistically going forward,” she said.

Funding Complexities Emerge as IT Models and Priorities Change

This year also marked the return of funding to the list after its absence last year. “You’re seeing IT funding getting incorporated into — and, in many cases, inseparable from — institutional funding,” said Grajek. 

EDUCAUSE research shows that most institutions spend 80 percent of their IT budgets to run existing operations, with another 10 percent earmarked for growth and just 8 percent for innovation and transformation. That’s at a time, Grajek noted, when the innovation agenda has never been more important. 

One way to shift that trend, panelists said, is to take advantage of the broad perspective that IT leaders can offer.

“CIOs have a unique opportunity to see across our landscape and connect the dots,” Early said. “In that capacity, we can be not only trusted advisers, but also serve as investment advisers. How do we take the amount of money the university is spending on tech, whether that’s in enterprise IT or in departmental areas, and how do we help the university invest that and make those dollars go the farthest?” 

The analysis required to do that can be a fairly deep dive, said Hartman, particularly amid the current changes in spending trends taking place on many campuses. Migration to the cloud, shared services and centralization, for example, are giving many IT departments opportunities to shift their spending. The questions then, Hartman said, are how to spend those dollars and how to make the case to senior leaders. 

Early offered additional strategies for optimizing budgets, including enlisting school- and department-level IT directors in the effort; tapping into resources from EDUCAUSE, which offers research, benchmarks and best practices; and identifying ways to invest any resulting savings.

“I think sometimes IT has the reputation of ‘They cut costs and no one knows where that money goes,’ so let’s agree on what we can make happen together,” she said.


IT Has an Important Role to Play in Student Success Initiatives

Given that student success has always been part of the higher education mission, Grajek asked panelists to comment on why it’s become such a big focus in recent years. 

The renewed focus, Campbell said, arises in part from the fact that a more diverse group of students is coming to campus and may need different supports than previous generations. In past years, he said, only the top 20 percent or so of high school graduates expected to go to college. Today, that might be the top 50 percent or even more.

“We shouldn’t be shocked that students who are coming into higher education will have a much bigger degree of variation in how they learn and how they are prepared,” Campbell said. 

Panelists agreed that IT has a huge opportunity to help institutions support students. For instance, if research shows that students perform better academically if they live on campus, IT can focus on wireless connectivity in residence halls to ensure students have the connectivity to support academic work and to encourage them to live on campus for another year. 

“I believe IT staff can do amazing things if they’re aware of this pressure on student success,” Lavagnino said. 

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