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Three Ways Institutions Are Using Technology to Improve Efficiency and Effectiveness

Three Ways Institutions Are Using Technology to Improve Efficiency and Effectiveness
Technology is making great strides in helping institutions become more efficient and effective organizations, from teaching and learning to management.
The socioeconomic ecosystem in which colleges and universities exist today is highly dynamic and extraordinarily competitive. It is widely noted that the scope and scale of forces confronting institutions have increased dramatically over the past decades, with many suggesting that the challenges are of a level not previously seen.

Diminished public financial support, more heavily constrained resources, increasing competition from both traditional and non-traditional institutions, escalating security threats, globalization, heightened accountability, the ubiquity and fundamental role of information technology, and a host of other issues confront colleges and universities today.

Competition among institutions is fierce, and the need for operational efficiency and effectiveness is greater than ever. Within this context, institutions are confronted with a broad range of decisions in multiple areas that affect not only institutional efficiency and effectiveness, but institutional sustainability and longevity as well.

Two of the most cited and fundamental drivers of institutional decision-making can be broadly classified as revenue generation and academic quality. These two categories are integrally linked in many ways, including planning and resource allocation decisions, and may well represent the most fundamental and consequential of decisions made by senior institutional leaders. Technology plays numerous roles in this process, from being critical in developing information to guide decision-making, to ensuring that student learning outcomes are successfully realized and that graduates are fully prepared for lives and careers in a globalized socioeconomic system with an integral technological infrastructure.

Looking Back: The Origins of Higher Education Transformation

The backdrop for this situation includes the fact that higher education has long had a love-hate relationship with technology, and the reasons are as old as the Classics themselves. Since its beginnings in ancient Greece, “liberal” education has emphasized humanism, which still runs deep in colleges and universities today. Humanism holds that there is a human nature that sets us apart from the other members of the animal kingdom, and that the greatest aspiration of a human is to achieve the highest possible realization of this inherent nature. The principles of humanism are directly tied to human-to-human interaction. Remove that direct personal contact and insert various forms of technology from writing through computers, and you get a sense for why technology is still regarded with suspicion, disdain, and far worse in many areas of higher education.

Higher education, by its nature, is not the most welcoming place for technology. Witness the “teaching naked” movement still active among many university faculty members.

The first American colleges, which derived from European higher education, were typically church-aligned or supported. And they focused on two things: religion and the Classics. Similar to ancient Greece, you had to be pretty well off to attend college. As such, a college education was reserved for an elite class of aristocrats. In turn, it was these “fine gentlemen” (all were male, of course) who were capable of providing leadership and governance for society. But America was a growing and expanding nation, and science, engineering and technology became increasingly important in both war and peacetime. This proliferated with the era of Jacksonian Democracy and westward expansion.

It wasn’t that the Classics weren’t appreciated. But they simply weren’t enough, and there were so many colleges competing for students and resources that colleges began to fail. The most remarkable thing about this was that those humanists who ran the colleges and supported them were completely resolute in their refusal to change the curriculum. Science, engineering and technology were becoming far more important, and students even then were paying with their attendance and their tuition money.

Rudolph (1990) provides an excellent history of American colleges and universities. As he notes, scholasticism—concentrating on established knowledge handed down for centuries—was being seriously challenged by the role of experiments and experience and the the search for what “is.” Rudolph reports that over 700 colleges died in the U.S. before 1860. Failure to adapt does indeed have consequences. As Francis Wayland, then president of Brown, said in 1850, “We have produced an article for which the demand is diminishing. We sell it at less than cost, and the deficiency is made up by charity. We give it away, and still the demand diminishes. Is it not time to inquire whether we cannot furnish an article for which the demand will be, at least, somewhat more remunerative?”

The Role of Technology In Postsecondary Transformation

Eventually science, engineering, technology and numerous other forms of study made their way into courses of study at universities—over the wails of traditionalists. With printing presses, counting machines, word processors, computers and networks, institutions eventually began to actually use the technology in their administrative operations that they had been teaching in courses. Networks and computing systems advanced, particularly personal computers, and were even incorporated into teaching and learning programs by faculty. However, the tension between humanist faculty on the one hand, and technology on the other, remains to this day. This is true at nearly all institutions, and particularly liberal arts colleges and universities with strong liberal arts foundations.

Technology is inherently neutral and can be used in equal measure for good or evil. Interestingly, this determination is a matter of perspective. Technology enables or enhances a number of activities. These include communication, information storage and retrieval and others. Fundamentally, technology can be used to improve teaching and learning, to make administrative operations more efficient and effective, to help discover knowledge and to help improve access to information. The problem, of course, is how these things relate to the role of humans—most importantly, scholars.

Technology in the Modern Higher Ed Context

Roll forward to today’s world, in which conscientious financial officers and institutional leaders work feverishly to keep the net cost of attendance from increasing at the same trajectory as in recent decades, and where many faculty and academic administrators are completely dedicated to providing students with the most effective learning environments possible. And note that this is the same world in which prospective students and their families perform sophisticated consumer research before investing their hard-earned dollars in one college. Technology lies at the heart of all of this.

Higher education institutions are exceedingly complex organizations. Using time as a vertical axis, institutions have at least four distinct generations from digital natives to baby boomers and everything in between. Seen vertically across disciplines and functions, there is an incredibly diverse set of backgrounds, philosophies, values and beliefs.

It’s therefore not a mystery why different people within institutions describe the role of information technology in very different ways. Similarly, it’s no mystery why the navigation of information technology projects and initiatives through colleges and universities is fraught with challenges and obstacles.

Yet information technology is having a profoundly positive impact on higher education today. I feel completely comfortable in saying this because even though I have been a CIO for years, I am also at heart a humanist with a strong background in anthropology. If we keep our students at the center of our values and our decision-making, then ideology should never get in the way of improving our academic enterprises and our administrative operations. After all, it is students who are paying to keep colleges and universities open through their tuition dollars.

Defining Value

A fundamentally important issue today involves what has been called “The Quality Question” in higher education (Glenn, 2010). This issue involves a dichotomy concerning whether it is the inputs or the outputs that determine the effectiveness of institutions.

Not surprisingly, the traditionalist view is strongly held by humanists and suggests that traditional inputs are the drivers of effective institutions: high percentage of tenure-track faculty, small class sizes, large endowments, etc.  These of course come at a significant cost, and are ultimately paid for by students.

A differing and growing view holds that outputs, rather than inputs, are the key measures of institutional success. As the Lumina Foundation (2012) notes:

In serving today’s students, that word “value” is important because it points to the second change that’s needed. That is: a redefinition of “quality” in higher education—one rooted, not in the concept of inputs (large endowments, impressive facilities, highly selective admission policies, steep tuition costs), but in the idea of outputs (the knowledge and skills that graduates actually demonstrate). (p. 3)

The balance between inputs and outputs is critically important because it speaks to the decisions that are made by institutional leaders concerning resource allocation, and to the perceived value of educational programs of colleges and universities to prospective students and their families. As a result, it speaks to the sustainability of institutions themselves. Resources available to support goal achievement are finite, which constrains the nature and scale of the decision-points available. Trade-offs must be made such that the collective result from these decisions is most favorable to the institution within the competitive and dynamic external environment. As Loomis and Rodriquez (2009) note, “what decision-makers should recognize is that not all things are compatible in a world and within an institution dominated by scarcity of resources” (p. 482).

It is precisely at this intercept point that technology becomes a fundamentally important force and a strategic asset for institutions who use it effectively.

The following are examples of how many institutions are adapting technology as a strategic tool to improve both efficiency and effectiveness.

Case Studies: Three Ways Institutions Are Adapting Technology to Improve Efficiency and Effectiveness

1. Business Intelligence to Support Effective Decision-Making

Business intelligence (BI) is now considered the most advanced capability available to support information-based decision-making. Norris and Leonard (2008) define business intelligence as a broad category of technologies that allows for gathering, storing, accessing and analyzing data to help leaders make better decisions in such areas as budgeting and finance, customer relation management, student recruitment and enrollment, and academic progress. Business intelligence is the comprehensive term for both structured (or quantitative) and unstructured (or qualitative) information. It is critical to note that business intelligence encompasses much more than data or the computational derivative from data and analytics. As Vedder et al. (1999) state, business intelligence includes information that allows the organization to predict the behavior of critical entities comprising the “general business environment” such as competitors, suppliers, customers, markets, products and services.

At the root of BI is a way to identify and measure quantitatively or qualitatively the elements that enable institutions to be more effective. It is also, ostensibly, to maintain cost controls. However, there is widespread disagreement among institutional constituencies about what it means to be more effective and how you improve institutional performance. This relates once again to the quality question and whether it is the inputs or the outputs that define outcomes and quality.

Not surprisingly, within many elements of the higher education community, particularly faculty, the use of key performance indicators (KPIs) or other measures relating to productivity are very negatively associated with inappropriate external meddling into the internal affairs of “the Academy.” Counting Out The Scholars: The Case Against Performance Indicators in Higher Education by Bruneau and Savage (2002) exemplifies this position.

Nevertheless, many institutions are now utilizing technology far more effectively to measure and improve performance across a broad range of institutional functions, including academics.

2. Personalized Learning Environments (PLE)

The PLE concept is based on emerging research that has shown students to be more engaged and more academically successful when they use a range of technologies to construct their own online personalized environments rather than receiving instruction through traditional classroom lectures. Historically, institutions have provided a heavily prescribed environment with a fixed set of tools within a prescribed configuration with regard to teaching and learning. This represents a very rigid and inviolable approach that is based on a one-size-fits-all premise. But research has demonstrated that students learn very differently and that technology and collaboration are factors that improve student learning outcomes. Robust technologies that include private cloud provisioning, Web 2.0, social media and presence technology are now being integrated in a way that enables students to create their own personalized set of strategies and tools through flexible and configurable user interfaces. Clearly, this tech-intensive approach runs counter to a humanist approach that emphasizes lecturing scholars within physical classrooms. Yet student learning and retention is showing remarkable improvements by effective use of technologies such as PLEs. And in the end, as educators, what is our focus if not the best interests of our students?

3. Big Data Research in Educational Environments   

Data-driven research has made possible the detection of significant patterns in very large volumes of data. This approach, which has come to be known generally as Big Data, has contributed substantially to knowledge in such areas as defense, aerospace, health sciences, climate and clean energy. Institutions now have substantive academic and research programs dealing with Big Data and data-driven research.

For decades, institutions have sought effective ways to deal with issues such as improving student retention and graduation rates. Now, some institutions and educational organizations are beginning to use big data techniques in strengthening efforts to detect predictive variables and to improve educational outcomes in these and other areas. The amount of data that exists in transaction processing systems such as student systems is staggering. But it has been used in only rudimentary ways. Now, big data research is being used to identify and describe the relationships between large numbers of variables in order to create and optimize programs that will support educational outcomes.

Once again, there are those who would argue that this is a current version of Orwell’s 1984, and that there are things inherent to humans that shouldn’t be measured and that are not subject to technological improvement. Hippocrates and the evolution of modern surgery, among numerous other examples, might suggest otherwise.


Today, technology is being used in increasingly strategic and innovative ways to expand access to education, improve student learning outcomes, provide greater institutional effectiveness, and enable greater efficiencies that help keep the cost of college within reach of more students. While traditionalists may contend that technology detracts from the essence of humanism, there is abundant evidence to show that today’s students are doing quite well, as both learners and as people. That said, pragmatism is not a consideration for ideologues. And for that reason, there is a part of me that would very much like to see critics of technology try to run an entire institution “naked” today just for the entertainment value.