Published on 2014/03/31

Five Ways of Transforming IT to Support New Models of Learning (Part 1)

Five Ways of Transforming IT to Support New Models of Learning
As higher education becomes more student-centered and technology-enhanced, the role of postsecondary IT departments must change to suit the new reality.

The demands on information technology (IT) have grown dramatically since the 1980s. EDUCAUSE’s latest Core Data Survey found that 4.4 percent of the average institution’s budget goes toward IT. You would be hard pressed to find a campus department that does not rely on IT for its core operation.

Yet the type of demand placed on IT is changing. In the 1990s, institutions wrote their own learning management systems; now off-the-shelf versions such as Blackboard and Sakai are mainstream. Institutions no longer have to build their own web portal frameworks or write identity management systems from scratch. Many IT services are now commodities: vendors write the tools, and campus IT implements them.

Online learning is one of the first pedagogical changes to develop in this environment of commodity IT. Savvy online learning vendors provide instructional design support, but also help desk support. Administrators and IT staff alike may ask: what is campus IT’s role in online learning when vendors even provide help desk support?

In this era of commoditized IT, internal IT still needs to design strategic services, but its role will move from builder to integrator. Below are five key points for improving IT’s ability to integrate between disparate vendors.

1. Build Expertise in IT Supplier Management

Campus purchasing departments negotiate large-scale contracts, but rarely have the IT knowledge required to ensure vendors can provide quality service. This is the basis for the role of “IT supplier manager,” a role that can understand the IT vendor marketplace, negotiate service levels and manage the risks associated with an IT supplier.

Establishing this role is central to ensuring quality IT service from vendors. Without it, departments each negotiate their own IT contracts and all opportunity for consistent service delivery is lost until the contracts expire.

IT supplier managers can attend vendor expos, understand the tools used at peer institutions and subscribe to IT market research. When someone needs to know which vendors offer learning management tools, the IT supplier manager should know (or be able to research) the major players and their strengths.

IT supplier managers understand service levels well enough to know the difference between “four-hour response” and “four-hour resolution.” Vendor relationships need to be formalized and managed; vendors do not wake up at 2 a.m. to fix your production systems unless there is a clause in the contract that compels them to.

IT supplier managers also can help with building requests for proposal (RFPs), on-boarding and terminating contracts. They can ensure periodic contract reviews and serve on IT projects involving vendors. Notably, IT supplier managers can ensure the institution has an exit plan for each vendor.

2. Simplify Integration with IT Standards

The corporate sector and the American government have been developing enterprise architecture capabilities for the last decade, but the field is still very new to higher education.

Enterprise architecture is bigger than IT. Fundamentally, enterprise architecture prepares organizations for large-scale change by building patterns to apply. It includes institutional business processes and information flow, as well as IT technology and service standards. Although the entire discipline of enterprise architecture is useful for long-term planning, institutions can begin with defining IT standards.

IT can define patterns to apply to technology: for example, a preference for SOAP interfaces over inter-database connections. By writing down and controlling these standards, IT can build consistency in its internal processes — and build a framework for interoperability.

These standards are not a configuration database: they should be relatively short, easy to reference and a goal state for current and new IT infrastructure.

They can serve as training materials for new employees. They can be blessed by IT governance groups to cover all campus operations. Most importantly, these IT standards can be stapled to every RFP to provide vendors information about standards and “quick wins” for information and tool integrations.

This is the first of a two-part series by John Borwick exploring different approaches to innovating postsecondary IT to adapt to changes in educational technology. To read the second installment, please click here.

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Readers Comments

James Branden 2014/03/31 at 12:45 pm

I echo Borwick’s point that it’s important to have someone with an IT background to manage a tech contract. That person will be better able to negotiate contract stipulations and ensure the institution’s needs are met by the vendor. With so many options out there, an “expert” is needed to ensure the best fit.

Beth D 2014/04/01 at 10:29 am

It’s not only integration with IT standards that one has to consider when signing onto a vendor. It’s important to also consider whether the new technology/system is compatible with existing ones at the institution, especially if those were delivered by another vendor. I look forward to the next piece in this series.

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