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Technology Upgrades Require Staff Learning

The EvoLLLution | Technology Upgrades Require Staff Learning
The cloud has the capacity to transform institutional processes and vastly improve student experiences, but only if the IT team using those services truly appreciates how it works and how it can be manipulated.

Cloud computing presents exciting opportunities for higher education institutions to transform the way they operate and to create better experiences for students, but only if the leaders and staff who make the transition can take advantage of these opportunities. In this interview, Lige Hensley reflects on his team’s move to adopt cloud-hosted technologies in their analytical area and discusses, on a wider scale, what it takes for an IT team to successfully understand and serve the needs of its constituents.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What led you and your colleagues to adopt cloud technologies in the area of analytics?

Lige Hensley (LH): One of the first things I noticed when I got to the college was our ability to analyze data and even simply report on data was limited. The technology we were using at the time was from our SIS vendor, and it was limited to just the SIS system. What’s more, it only digested and reported on about 10 percent of the SIS data that we had, and wouldn’t talk to any other system.

We approached Google and ran a beta project using their platform as a service about three years ago. We then built a prototype system, but we had a lot of problems with it. It was just not a good fit with our skillset. The performance was decent, but not outstanding. The product wasn’t mature in the way we needed it to be mature. We had a small staff and dedicating four people to that effort wasn’t a good use of resources for us. Then we spoke with Amazon Web Services. We were using some of their services in another area, and knew they had analytics offerings.

The price was right and the engineering support was really good, but the real reason we went that way was resource use. We don’t have resources tied up in a data center, we don’t have administrators tied up in maintenance and upgrades and backups—it is literally a service to us where we click a few buttons. It allows our staff to get out of the maintenance of the system and focus on using the system to answer business questions.

Evo: Now that your IT team is no longer focusing its energies on managing the system itself, what kinds of more high-value tasks are they able to focus their energies toward?

LH: There’s a wide variety of work we’re able to focus on now. One of the things we do today is ingest data from a variety of systems—our SIS, our LMS and our student advising system among others—and do exploratory data analysis to see what stories we can learn. One of the things we identified is that students who succeed tend to display an array of similar behavior, or patterns, and so do students who do poorly. We were able to identify those patterns by running some analysis across a diverse range of data and getting a holistic sense of what their Ivy Tech life is like.  Now, we’re able to run reports for those patterns to predict how a student will do.

This is something done entirely by the IT staff after just toying around with available data. We can run an analysis two weeks into a 16-week term and look for some key patterns of behavior that we know will very likely lead to failure. Every few days we run this report and identify students who might be on pathways to failure, and we can classify those students into students who might need intervention and ones who might not. We give that to the student affairs team and other student-services teams who perform interventions to help those students and lead them towards the services that could help them persist and succeed.

In essence, we can proactively reach out to students on that list to prevent them from failing later on.

Evo: What aspects of the institutional administration should be outsourced to allow the IT team to focus on more high-value tasks?

LH: A lot of commodity services could benefit from being outsourced. We started off with outsourcing student email. Four years ago, student email was something we built and housed in our data center and we maintained it with our staff. We had approximately 840,000 student email accounts, and we maintained, supported and managed this system internally. We transferred this service to Gmail and that freed up a great deal of our time and infrastructure. We had about 12 terabytes of student mail in our data center and we were able to free that up and use it for other things. It also saved us from buying additional storage.

This led us to decide that any commodity services—anything industry can do better and cheaper than us—should be outsourced. This allowed us to focus on the things that really matter to our students, faculty and staff.

We moved some servers and software systems to the cloud because it just made more sense for us. It’s not just Infrastructure as a service, nor is it that we are taking the server from our data center and running it from a shared provider. We are taking the services themselves and getting them out of our maintenance cycles.

There’s a great deal of these we’ve already outsourced and a long list of more that we’re hoping to do in the coming years.

Evo: What are some of the most significant challenges of making the transition to the cloud from on-premises?

LH: The biggest challenge is not necessarily technical. The biggest challenge, when we shifted our analytics to the cloud, was the mindset shift for the staff.

We needed to get out of the mindset of, “the server is in our data center and this is the way it works.” All of our IT folks grew professionally with a certain way of doing things; you buy a server, you rack it, stack it, turn it on, configure it, install software and it gets used.

That’s not the way you do it in the cloud and if you try doing it that way, you’ll pay more money and get less out of it. I know a lot of schools do that and they’re not as successful with the cloud.

Getting the staff to understand that you don’t operate the same way with the cloud was a challenge. With analytics, we no longer build the cubes to analyze data. We don’t have dimensions, per se, to analyze data. We do it differently because the technology has changed. We don’t have to worry about disk space or performance. We don’t have to do it the old way. The old way still works, and might minimally change time spent on a process, but it isn’t worth the effort anymore. On premises, the “old ways” are critical to get performance, but it’s not critical when you move to the cloud.

When we moved to the cloud we brought in a member of our vendor’s professional services team to help our team really learn how to take full advantage of the new product. We learned a tremendous amount about how to use that tool effectively. I equate it to a power saw. People used a hacksaw for many years, so when the power saws came out it was pretty obvious how to use them. We have a very sophisticated power saw in our toolbox right now, but if we don’t know how to use it, it’s not worth as much. We want to make sure we’re leveraging it the correct and most effective way.

Evo: How are you ensuring that your team is taking full advantage of the opportunities presented by the cloud?

LH: There are a few different ways we do this. We work closely with our vendors and meet with them frequently. One big difference on the cloud is that things change, and they change quickly. We work closely and maintain good relationships with our vendors to stay abreast of the changes. We don’t have the staff available to wade through all the information flooding out whenever a change happens, so we rely on our partners to keep us informed on major changes on the horizon.

The other way we stay relevant and effective is by openly collaborating amongst our internal teams. Our analytics team and data warehouse team works closely with our infrastructure, networking and security teams daily. We provided them a shared office to ensure they regularly communicate with one another.

We challenge ourselves constantly on finding new and innovative ways of doing things and finding solutions. That collaborative nature is important to getting the most out of our tools.

Evo: Is there anything you would like to add about what it takes to successfully adopt and transition to cloud services?

LH: I came from private industry, so doing things in new and different ways was par for the course. In the dot-com world, that’s what you always try to do as there’s a culture of out-innovating your competition. When I moved to higher education five years ago, it did seem that the culture of innovation was not common—it was not fostered or embraced. It’s more common now, but trying new things and trying new technologies to solve existing business problems is not something I’ve seen a lot in higher education. It’s not completely hidden, but there could be more of it.

At Ivy Tech, our students are not paying $50K/year to go to school. For us, every dime we can save and every student we can retain is a really big deal. A lot of our team takes that very seriously. We look at how we can make the student’s life better. It’s not, “How can we make this computer faster?” but “How can a faster computer help the student?”

We look at it from the student’s perspective. I took some of our staff down to our registrar’s office—one of our busiest locations—and we sat down during registration day and watched how the registration process worked. People were coming in with their kids, they’re waiting in long lines, it was chaos. A lot of the reasons for that disruption is because the systems were not designed effectively or efficiently.

By sitting and watching the real-world impact of what happens when your system goes slower than it should, you realize that it’s more than just bigger numbers flashing across your screen. It means people waiting in line, or that single parent deciding to just go home because their kid is screaming.

We should not be a roadblock; we need to think differently, get better, try new things and not be afraid to fail. Shifting that mindset within the IT staff has been instrumental to our growth.

This interview has been edited for length.