Using Technology to Maximize Output with Limited ResourcesRuth Pionke | Senior Information Officer in the College of Arts and Sciences, University of Alabama
“Making do with less” has become a familiar refrain for many working in higher education and business during the Great Recession. Whether we have experienced budget cuts or enrollment growth, we are constantly pressured to provide a consistent level of support despite changes to our institutional environment.
So, how do we accomplish this when resources are stretched thinner year after year?
At The University of Alabama, the challenge has come from a positive trend—consistently increasing enrollment growth over the past decade. In 2015, The University of Alabama was ranked second in the Chronicle of Higher Education Annual Almanac for a 71.3 percent increase in enrollment growth of public doctoral institutions (2003-2013). Our total enrollment for Fall 2015 is 37,100. This rapid growth in students has resulted in a 19-percent increase in faculty as well. The College of Arts and Sciences now employs 423 tenure-track faculty, 138 instructors, and 179 staff to educate and support 9,573 declared A&S majors, as well as the roughly 10,000 students from other areas who enroll in core courses taught by the college (English 100, History 100, etc.).
As the primary instructional technology support group for the College of Arts & Sciences, our Office of Educational Technology has witnessed this growth in the number of computer labs and mobile devices we manage. In 2010, the College of Arts & Sciences had fewer than 400 computers in five designated learning labs and zero mobile devices. Today, one staff member and three student workers oversee support of 1,084 computers in 19 designated teaching and learning labs and 693 iPads distributed to faculty and staff. Our staff could manage this work when we supported fewer than 50 mobile devices; however, it became much more challenging once those numbers doubled, then tripled.
After doing some research, we identified a device management system that could be used to manage both iPads and computers. After using it now for three years, we consider this system to be a valuable tool for several reasons.
It allows our support team the means to efficiently distribute apps and eBooks
The College of Arts & Sciences provides iPads (Wi-Fi + cellular) to all eligible faculty and staff, as part of an academic continuity plan that was put into place as a result of a tornado that destroyed large parts of Tuscaloosa, Alabama on April 27, 2011. The mobile device management (MDM) system allows the college to purchase and distribute educationally relevant apps, as well as eBooks, in order to provide faculty and staff with the ability to work remotely using these devices.
It gives faculty and staff the ability to set up their iPads within a 45-minute group session
Because we have 700 individuals who are eligible for these iPads, it takes time and coordination to assist everyone who receives a new device or an upgrade. The MDM provides a rapid method for initial setup and upgrades. This streamlined process is essential when we distribute 200 iPads within a three-week period.
It efficiently tracks mobile devices while still providing individuals with some level of privacy
The mobile management systems available vary considerably when it comes to monitoring capabilities, and for some environments a higher level of monitoring might be necessary. In our case, the college opted for a system that limits what the administrator can control and observe. This allows the college to provide faculty and staff with tools for work and research, without resulting in undo concerns over privacy.
It allows for rapid supporting of technology in the computer labs
Over the past four years, the college has also expanded the number of computer labs that it makes available to faculty for teaching purposes and students for learning spaces. Our mobile device manufacturer and vendor also manufactures and markets a similar management system for desktop computers. The system allows our staff to deploy images and updates, and remotely connect to these computers when providing support. This is critical when trying to update computers between semesters and when providing assistance to students and faculty members with a rapid turnaround time.
It provides a quick means of cataloguing computer equipment distributed across the college
As a state institution, it is important that The University of Alabama College of Arts & Sciences can account for how state funds are used to purchase equipment and where that equipment is used over its lifespan. We currently keep track of all technology inventory using an inventory database that was created in-house. However, the device management system works cooperatively with this database so that our staff can quickly compile iPad user lists in order to determine when individuals are due to receive inventory audits or device replacements. It also keeps track of purchase dates for warranty information. The inventory system further streamlines our process for tracking technology purchased through state and grant funds. These data allow us to estimate and plan for replacements needed over the next three years, so we make informed decisions regarding upcoming purchases.
Conclusion: Extra Benefits for the Institution
Now that technology is viewed as an expected commodity, such as plumbing and electricity, it is important that we offer reliable equipment to our faculty, staff and students. Incorporating analytics in technology decisions allow institutions to make intelligent purchasing decisions and to maximize return on investments. Although the tools are not usually free, investing in these types of tracking and support systems on the front end can pay off on the back end, since they allow the users to work more efficiency and prevent unnecessary expenditures due to misinformation.
In addition to the direct cost savings, our management tools also result in intangible benefits. Our ability to streamline these processes and limit the time we spend on administrative support allows us to focus more attention on the services we offer faculty and staff. We use this time to provide more one-on-one instruction and technology-themed workshops, and find additional ways to improve response times for technology issues. As a result, these tools allow us to assist the college in its mission, as well as enhance teaching and learning at the University of Alabama.
Author Perspective: Administrator