Nov 27 2023

How Can Higher Education Institutions Combat Technical Debt?

Aging hardware, outdated software and legacy infrastructure put undue stress on IT teams, but technical debt doesn’t have to last forever.

Though the buzz phrase “technical debt” might be new to some, the concept isn’t. Gartner defines technical debt as “accrued work that is owed to an IT system” wherein “teams borrow against quality by making sacrifices, taking short cuts or using workarounds to meet delivery deadlines.”

In higher education, CIOs are well aware of where their tech debt is and why it exists. When their to-do list outpaces basic IT resources, such as manpower or the available hours in a day at an institution, these shortcuts start to build up quickly.

“Eventually, technical debt can accrue into a critical mass where the software becomes unstable,” Gartner notes. “Delayed maintenance can also result in significantly higher support costs when the software or its infrastructure reaches end-of-life.”

The situation in higher education is no different than what businesses experience. Over time, the financial burden of patching legacy software with quick fixes that don’t address the root issue, coupled with the valuable, limited time of IT teams, push an institution deeper into technical debt.

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How Does Technical Debt Impact Higher Education?

There likely isn’t a college or university that doesn’t have some amount of technical debt, particularly because the term encompasses such a wide variety of IT issues.

The future was not fully understood and perhaps not even considered when hardware and software were first installed at colleges and universities 20-plus years ago. Solutions were chosen based on singular needs rather than thinking through all the things one solution might affect. Then, rather than fixing foundational problems or updating equipment entirely, patches and applications were slowly added to the mix.

“Technical debt is rampant,” says Cole Camplese, who spent 25 years in higher education, 10 of those as CIO at Stony Brook University, the University of Chicago and Northeastern University. “Every vertical of an IT organization has some degree of technical debt that the institution is always dealing with.”

One of the first steps a CIO takes is to assess the existing technology at an institution and analyze the ways in which the current environment might be holding the institution back, explains Camplese, who is one of EdTech’s 2023 Higher Ed IT Influencers. “A lot of IT organizations get stuck maintaining the technical debt because it’s often in critical enterprise areas or underlying infrastructure.”

LEARN MORE: Here are six benefits of establishing a higher education device refresh cycle.

Camplese cites the physical network at an institution as a common cause of technical debt, which impacts speed and connectivity for student and faculty devices.

Even something as simple as replacing locks around campus can create technical debt, explains Camplese. Though facilities might be the ones physically removing locks that require keys, the IT team is responsible for setting up new security, including biometrics and intelligent video surveillance, and maintaining those systems over time.

For Ellen Yu, CIO at Union College, the most frequent occurrence of technical debt is maintenance of outdated equipment.

“When you can’t replace equipment at the recommended time, you ‘pay’ in support resources and potentially increased costs when you finally replace the system,” explains Yu. “My staff have to spend more time fixing older equipment and potentially supporting older versions of software. You are unable to efficiently use the limited resources you have, and your user community’s productivity could suffer.”

Common causes and effects of technical debt include:

  • Not considering the long-term maintenance of equipment, including the cost to maintain devices and the time commitment to do so
  • Having each college operating in its own technological silo, from website infrastructure to student information systems; from a data perspective, these differences create myriad issues at the institutional level in terms of class size, marketing to future students and connecting with alumni
  • Institutional reliance on physical on-premises solutions in lieu of cloud environments
  • Classroom technology, given how challenging it can be to take an entire building offline to update the technology in its classrooms
  • Maintaining devices that are decades old, which leads to wasted time supporting old equipment and downtime for the faculty, staff and students
  • Outdated payment gateways, which make it harder for alumni to give and can hinder donation efforts.

“It’s not poor planning. It’s incomplete planning, where you don’t think beyond the point-in-time solution,” says Camplese.

How Colleges and Universities Can Reduce Tech Debt

In planning to reduce technical debt, Yu emphasizes the importance of projecting costs. Under Union’s current leadership, she’s required to submit a 10-year plan, which encompasses both upfront costs as well as long-term maintenance. She also has submitted catch-up costs for equipment replacement, a pain point at her institution, outlining a one- to three-year plan.

Yu stresses that cost planning needs to including not only the financial aspect, but also the staff resources and potential impact on the user community, such as students and faculty.

“The biggest cause of technical debt is the lack of understanding that there is a need to plan not only for the resources for the initial purchase of equipment but also for the ongoing maintenance of that equipment,” says Yu.

EXPLORE: How to weave cyber resilience into the strategic fabric of higher education institutions.

Camplese encourages IT teams to consider each project request as holistically and all-encompassing as possible. Don’t embark on a new project just for the sake of it. Have a list of reasons why it’s the most pressing issue to tackle first, including the risk if the project isn’t completed. In addition to the financial burden of technical debt, institutions using multiple, varied or outdated solutions also make themselves more vulnerable to cybersecurity threats.

Presidents and boards of trustees want to understand the cost of projects and the risk associated with not fixing foundational issues. Highlight that if one problem isn’t solved, it could lead to loss of intellectual property, data breaches or security cameras malfunctioning, for example.

Last, consider bringing in outside resources for future-state planning. It’s helpful to know how other industries or institutions are responding to similar issues and how they’re planning for the future in their present-day implementations, something a third-party partner can share. Equally valuable is looking at consumer trends because those consumers could one day be students, faculty or staff.

“I think it’s really important to have an eye on the outside world, but also have key partners who can say, ‘You know, before you do that, keep in mind what we’re seeing over here,’” says Camplese. “Technical debt is not a moment in time kind of thing. It’s an ongoing conversation that should be looked at in a holistic sense as you’re thinking about improvement and maintenance.”

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