As EDUCAUSE conducted research to develop this year’s Top 10 IT Issues list, the organization facilitated lots of conversation among member panelists and leaders at their institutions.
Of note in those discussions was this directive: “We said, ‘This is not a conversation about IT, and it’s not a conversation about technology. This is a conversation about your institution and higher education,’” said Susan Grajek, vice president for communities and research at EDUCAUSE.
Ultimately, those conversations and supporting research coalesced into this year’s list, organized under the theme of “Simplify, Sustain, Innovate: The Drive to Digital Transformation Begins.”
Grajek and four of the 24 panelists discussed their findings on Tuesday at the annual EDUCAUSE Conference in Chicago. While information security strategy again topped the list, followed by privacy, several of the issues fall under the broad umbrella of digital transformation and the challenges it seeks to address.
The list includes, in descending order of importance, information security strategy, privacy, sustainable funding, digital integrations, student retention and completion, student-centric higher education, improved enrollment, higher education affordability, administrative simplification and the integrative CIO.
IT Issues Speak to Simplification, Sustainability and Innovation
Issues that reflect the “simplify” theme address the difficulty of finding the resources to pursue digital transformation amid legacy systems that are cumbersome and inefficient, Grajek said.
“How can we find the bandwidth to innovate when the current systems and processes are so complex and convoluted? How do we give a good experience to end users, students, when they’ve got to use those convoluted systems and processes?” she asked.
In keeping with those questions, she presented research that showed institutions are increasing their focus on user-centered design, from 33 percent in a 2018 survey to 39 percent this year.
She also observed that many higher education leaders are more than willing to tackle barriers in the way of transformation: “You’re ready to break down silos. That’s not anathema anymore.”
Another theme, “sustain,” encompasses security and privacy concerns, as well as the need for sustainable funding and higher education affordability.
Here, too, surveys show evidence of change in supporting technologies. In 2018, for example, just 11 percent of institutions were using information security analytics; today, that stands at 39 percent. Use of cloud-based security services is up from 35 percent to 55 percent.
“That’s the big story, isn’t it?” Grajek said. “In our conversations with the panelists, they talked a lot about the availability of new technologies to apply to managing information security, so that’s big news.”
Looking forward, panelists said they’d like to see institutions adopt common data frameworks that can support a range of initiatives.
“We see data as a new currency for the institution, so we have to develop a sustainable strategy for both our currencies — data and financial — that sustain,” said Grajek.The third theme, “innovate,” focuses on recruitment, enrollment and retention efforts that are personalized and student-focused. Institutions are tapping various tools to advance these areas, from mobile devices to digital microcredentials and Internet of Things devices.
“There’s quite a bit of movement in these really cutting-edge areas,” Grajek said.
Panelists said they envisioned a future in which different types of institutions, each focused on a different type of learner, would deliver an experience and success metrics that are more nuanced and relevant to students, she said.
A More Strategic Role Could Position CIOs to Tackle Broad Goals
Finally, panelists prioritized a new role for CIOs that is more integrated with senior leadership and in a position to exercise influence in strategic decisions.
Making that happen, Grajek noted, is a chicken-or-egg dynamic: Do institutions need to recognize that CIOs can make valuable strategic contributions, or do CIOs need to start making those contributions so institutions will recognize their value? “It’s probably a little bit of both,” she said.
Expanding the CIO role could be the most far-reaching item on the list, said Kellie Campbell, CTO at Vermont Technical College. “Can we really hit the other challenges without this priority?” she asked.
IT leaders who aren’t having strategic conversations will be far less likely to be able to move other goals forward, or have access to a macro-level understanding of the issues institutions face and how IT can help solve them.
Opinder Bawa, vice president and CIO at the University of San Francisco, called for a dramatic re-envisioning of the CIO’s role, arguing that a successful shift could have a formidable effect on technology funding.
“Historically, IT has been viewed as a cost center, and we’ve been funded as such,” he said.
In today’s environment, Bawa said, IT leaders should consider themselves an integral part of the business of running a university, with one customer in mind: the student. Leaders who can articulate the business value of technology will find that funding becomes less of a challenge, he said.
Meanwhile, institutions have room to grow in creating that student-centered ecosystem, said Sasi Pillay, vice president of IT services and CIO at Washington State University. While colleges may have ample data and ideas, many stall when it comes to execution, he said, in part because they lack an integrated view of the student experience.
A big step forward would be to develop systems that deliver just-in-time remediation to any aspect of students’ experiences that could affect their success, including academic performance, financial capability, a sense of belonging, and health and wellness.
“We have to think more holistically about what we are trying to do,” Pillay said.
See more of our EDUCAUSE coverage here.