Risk-Taking Cultural Transformation Central to Meeting IT Needs
Today, both students and staff have heighted expectations of institutional IT. Students expect the service and convenience they experience in their other online interactions—with retailers and other service providers—to be replicated by their college or university. Staff, for their part, expect IT to offer tools and solutions that improve the educational experience and outcomes for learners. Accomplishing this, and avoiding the frustration that can follow failing to meet expectations, requires a shift in the way institutional IT teams operate. In this interview, Eric Miller reflects on the expectations of today’s IT stakeholders and shares his thoughts on what it takes to meet those heightened expectations.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): How have the expectations of students and staff, with regard to institutional IT, changed in recent years?
Eric Miller (EM): The biggest change seems to be that students expect you to meet them where they are. When it comes to technology and the tools being used, they expect to use things with which they are already familiar. So instead of using a learning management system that has a proprietary chat function, students want to be able to use the chat tools they already know, like Google or Facebook. The challenge in IT has been meeting students where they are in the conservative world of academe. It can be hard to convince the people who are running systems that it’s okay to allow students to use these outside tools and to do things the way they’re already comfortable.
This is true for faculty as well. They expect to not have to learn a new technology that duplicates functionality with something they’re already doing. They want to use tools they’re already using and comfortable with. The challenge for IT here has been, rather than setting up these systems that you expect people to learn how to use, integrating systems that people are already using together.
In the long run, these challenges are good to tackle because it makes everybody feel like they’re invested in the process and in the eventual outcome.
Evo: How important is it for universities to begin introducing technologies that create a customer experience that mirrors what students are seeing from other retailers and online service providers?
EM: It is very important that we do not get this reputation in higher education of lagging behind. If students are getting a certain experience when they’re using Dropbox, Google or Amazon, we don’t want to give students the impression that their online courses or systems are two or three years behind in terms of functionality.
It’s really important that we keep an eye on the trends and understand how consumers are using technology and try to keep up with that. We want to be able to model some of the best practices that are being used by retailers and other service providers and integrate those into our systems.
Evo: What are a few of the changes you and your colleagues have made to meet these heightened expectations?
EM: The biggest change we’ve made at Marylhurst is changing LMS providers. We had been using an open-source LMS, Moodle, but one of the challenges we had with that was the very esoteric ways that the LMS did things. It was difficult to do things like set up notifications or allow students to use their existing Google accounts for calendars and integrate them into the LMS.
As such, we made the decision to move our LMS to a different service provider. They, in our view, provide a more modern and open operating system—being that it’s proprietary—that more closely aligns with what students want. It’s really helping us to meet students where they are.
Evo: How must IT change if colleges and universities are to meet the full set of students’ expectations?
EM: It can be realty difficult because, as an institution, higher education tends to be very conservative. In addition, IT tends to be very conservative. When you put those things together, it can be very challenging.
It’s important, moving forward, that the cultural ethos of IT changes. We can’t be so concerned with our systems and security that we don’t take into account how quickly things are evolving and changing, both in higher education and in technology.
I don’t know that there’s an easy answer to that, but culturally we have to be more and more open to change and to realizing that our systems need to support students and the educational mission of the university, rather than just being there for convenience. We have to find new and innovative ways to be more nimble.
Evo: How does not meeting students’ IT expectations impact their overall experience?
EM: It leads to a lot of frustration when we don’t meet students’ IT expectations. People come to expect a certain level of what technology can do for them. At first, there’s a really high “whiz-bang” factor where the new feature really adds value, but very quickly people come to expect those features.
If people come to expect a level of syncing across the cloud, and they’re not seeing that in their online course management or institutional systems, they think, “Wow—you can’t do that?” That leads to a lot of frustration and discounting of the level of service that can and is being provided.
It’s critical that we’re always aware of that and to realize that features that were considered a nicety a few years ago are considered a necessity today. As such, as need to be constantly upgrading and updating and reading and researching to bring all those things into our systems.
Evo: What are the ramifications of not meeting the IT needs and expectations of higher ed staff?
EM: It causes staff to feel like they’re not invested in their institutional IT. It’s similar to the issues with students in that staff expect IT to support them and to help them do what they want to do with technology. However, staff tend to think less in terms of how they’re seeing technologies outside the university and more in terms of how the technology that’s being offered to them supports the educational mission and the teaching process.
It’s something of a different problem. It’s not as much about integrating new tools so much as helping people to see how the technologies can help them achieve specific outcomes. I do a lot of evangelizing for the different tools that are available, either online or in classrooms, because educators can become very used to the status quo. As opposed to students, who know what they want and what they expect the systems to do for them, I am almost selling these changes to staff by showing them how it will enhance their work and reduce their stress. It’s a different set of issues.
Evo: Is there anything you would like to add about students’ changing IT expectations and how institutions need to evolve to ensure they’re meeting those heightened expectations?
EM: It has to be more of a partnership going forward. My background is not in IT—I am an academic. We have to stop seeing the academic mission and the IT mission of the institution as being a chasm that can’t be bridged. You’re going to see increasing numbers of people crossing over between the two sides, and that has to happen. People who speak the language of IT and speak the language of academe need to collaborate to bridge this gap because, going forward, the IT department can no longer be separate. IT has to be integrated throughout the curriculum and at all levels of the institution. Otherwise it becomes too slow to move; it’s too bureaucratic. It needs to be seen as another way to meet the mission, rather than a separate department that needs regulation or even an impediment to change.
More decentralization of IT and more of an integration throughout the university will be the model of the future.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Educator