What are the top IT issues for small Liberal Arts colleges?

As one fiscal and academic year comes to an end and another is about to begin at Wheaton, I’m starting starting to prepare materials for our department’s year-end annual report. This not only provides me with a chance to reflect on the last year, but also to look forward to what the challenges and opportunities for the coming year will be. So, for that reason alone, the title of this post has been on my mind these days. But I’m interested in this topic for several other reasons as well.

First off, Wheaton is about to get a new Associate Vice President for Library and Information Services (and I’m about to get a new boss)! This is great news, because this position has been vacant for about a year now and while we have certainly been able to keep the trains running and even been able to make some good progress in certain areas, it will be nice to have some leadership within LIS again that will help us focus on addressing the top issues for both IT and Libraries.

This is also on my mind, because it’s been covered in a number of venues recently.The current issue of the Educause Review, for example, gives a “Top 10” (11 actually, because two of them tied for 6th place). Here they are:

    1. Funding IT
    2. Administrative/ERP/Information Systems
    3. Security
    4. Teaching and Learning with Technology
    5. Identity/Access Management
    6. (tie). Disaster Recovery / Business Continuity
    6. (tie). Governance, Organization, and Leadership
    7. Agility, Adaptability, and Responsiveness
    8. Learning Management Systems
    9. Strategic Planning
    10. Infrastructure/Cyberinfrastructure

This list is pretty good, though not entirely surprising, and I must admit I find some of the categories a little too broad. The article does a decent job of outlining the major questions under each topic, though. I for one am happy to see “Teaching and Learning with Technology” and “Learning Management Systems” featured so prominently in this list, as they are near and dear to my professional heart. And I would agree with what I think Issue #6b and Issue # 7 imply:  IT organizations (and merged organizations like those at Wheaton) need to develop better ways of prioritizing their projects and services in a time of fiscal austerity and in an environment of technological advances which require our organizations to remain “agile, adaptable, and responsive.” As the article puts it:

Keeping one foot in the present and the other in the future is the charge to which IT organizations and leadership must answer. Cloud-based applications and services, such as Gmail, as well as sophisticated consumer technologies, such as smartphones that rival the features of laptop computers, are entering campus technological environments at unprecedented rates. As more stakeholders seek the flexibility, functionality, and convenience of these new devices and systems, IT organizations must strive to meet their evolving needs and expectations. Such changes in behavior not only impact traditional IT support models but also challenge deeply rooted institutional policies, business processes, and operational practices.

Finally, I started this blog post a while ago (and let it sit in draft form for far too long), as a way to digest a recent conference I attended in June: the annual conference of the Consortium for Liberal Arts Colleges. Bryan Alexander addressed this question by looking to the future. In his a keynote entitled Liberal Arts Campuses in 2015: five visions, he lays out five potential scenarios for IT in the liberal arts in 2015 based on current trends:

  • Digital Balkanization.  Silos are the norm, as an increasing amount of content and software  are located in separate platforms.  Academic life reflects this in many ways, directly and otherwise. (opposite of Open World, below)
  • The Long Great Recession.  The American economy remains flat, never recovering fully from the crash of 2008.  Campus budgets have flattened in response, and academic life has changed in other ways.
  • The Open World. Open content, open access, and open source are the norm.  (opposite of Digital Balkanization, above)
  • A World of Points.  Gaming is the world’s leading culture industry.  At the same time, our normative behaviors and interactions are shaped by gaming practices and role-playing.  Academia has started changing in response.
  • Imbrication Nation.  In a world where networked mobile devices are the norm, augmented reality is now mainstream.

Take a look at his blog post about it on the NITLE site, which also links to his Prezi presentation, for more. It’s a great way to think about how these trends and perhaps even how our actions as IT leaders could affect how we interact with information in the future at our institutions.

In addition to this and other great presentations and conversations that occurred at the conference, there was a really interesting thread on the CLAC listserv right before the conference started, subject line “What’s on my mind.” This conversation gave me a good view into what CIO’s at small liberal arts colleges from around the country are thinking about. I probably should not directly quote the content from that listserv, because I’m not sure if it is for public consumption. But I think I can at least summarize the major topics that arose from both that conversation and the conversations at the conference — at least from my point of view. In no particular order they were:

  1. Exploring alternatives to traditional technologies: There were several questions about use of Voice over IP (VOIP) instead of analog phones, whether cable TV was necessary in the dorms given content now available over the web, and whether wired connections to the internet in the dorms were necessary anymore.
  2. Data security: In this category, there were concerns about keeping certain kinds of data private and controlling access to information through effective forms of identity and access management.
  3. Mobile Devices: The iPad was in many people’s hands at this conference, and I think it and other mobile devices were on people’s minds. Do we provide them? Do we provide content for them? Will they replace the laptop?
  4. The Future of the Learning Management System: Many small colleges have now moved to open source LMSes. Some are still thinking about it. Some are wondering if other technologies (e.g. blogs and wikis) will one day supplant the LMS.
  5. Handling high demand for services with a small(er) staff: Some institutions have had staff reductions, others because of their size had a small staff to start with. But we are living in an increasingly rich technological environment and our user community have increasing expectations for our services. How do we meet those needs and manage expectations?
  6. Getting value out of the ERP: ERP (Enterprise resource planning) software (e.g. Banner or PeopleSoft) is integral to a colleges’ business operations. But this software is also hard to use and expensive to maintain. How do we get the best value out of these systems? And what do projects like Kuali mean for small colleges?
  7. Funding replacements: How do we continue to fund replacing desktops, infrastructure, and classroom technology when our budgets are shrinking?
  8. The Cloud/Outsourcing: Do we look to cloud services like those that Google provides to save money and improve services? Do they really do both of those things?
  9. Managing Projects: How do we set priorities for our projects in IT? And how can we both plan well and be agile?
  10. Managing relations with other departments: More and more IT organizations need to collaborate with other departments on campus. Contact with the Communications department, who are now managing web sites, is one obvious example where this is happening… but it’s occurring in other places as well.

As I finish up this blog post, I am realizing that it is probably an overly ambitious one. I’m sure I haven’t covered everything. Perhaps I’ve done too much! But blogs don’t need to be the final word, right? I wanted to at least make sure that I captured what I’ve been hearing and thinking as I move forward into a new year and under new leadership within our merged organization. I’m sure this is a question I’ll be returning to again and again, and that we’ll be returning to as an organization.

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