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Three Keys to Keeping Pace with Technology Changes in Academia

The EvoLLLution | Three Keys to Keeping Pace with Technology Changes in Academia
Technological advances play an active role in transforming every industry, and higher education is not immune from these forces. IT leaders stand at the vanguard of pushing often change-averse organizations forward.
In Spring 2016, the University of Alabama implemented a dual authentication system in an attempt to improve security for campus systems. As Senior Information Officer for the College of Arts & Sciences, it fell to me to explain this new tool to the faculty and convince them it was a positive development. While some individuals were relatively pragmatic in accepting the new process, the majority were not. Rumors quickly spread among the faculty, including the panic-inducing possibility that the new application was actually a ploy for IT to access and erase all of the data on their personal phones. Most faculty wanted to know why we couldn’t leave things as they were—the old system had been working for decades, so why change it? After more than a year of persistent communication, instructional videos and compulsory use, dual authentication has finally become grudgingly accepted, just in time for our IT group to expand it across all university applications in its next phase and for me to share this happy news with our college personnel in the upcoming academic year.

At the University of Alabama (UA), we have seen many technological changes over the past decade. We went from a world where classroom technology was rare and laptops were the primary mobile device to a world where technology is found in almost every classroom. Over 90 percent of our faculty and staff have cell phones and at least one other mobile device (iPad, tablet, etc.), and people view wireless access as a basic necessity like electricity or plumbing. In the meantime, the IT department has evolved from a support team for telecommunications and basic computer installations to a one-stop shop for on-demand software, technology support, wireless access, cloud storage, and cyber security. These changes have also transformed the expectations that campuses have of their technology leaders, which include an increasing number of academic CIOs—a title that was rarely used before this century and certainly did not have the decision-making weight that it has now. As a result, today’s technology leaders have a great responsibility to work with their academic leaders to make sure that technology strategic plans are compatible with those of the wider university, and that they can realistically respond to anticipated changes in the upcoming years.

Here are some ways that technology leaders can keep pace with the ever-changing needs of their universities:

  1. Keep abreast of technology trends and changes

New technology is released throughout the year and there are always faculty who want to be among the early adopters. However, what is new and exciting today may not always be around in three to five years (remember 3D televisions?). Therefore, it is critical for technology leaders to not only keep track of new technologies, but to also evaluate what will likely be around and supportable in the future. It is also good to evaluate what is likely to be used by the faculty in the classrooms. When Apple TVs first came out, several departments expressed an interest in using them on the UA campus. As a result, key stakeholders in the technology groups across the university formed a committee to evaluate the cost, predicted usage, management and support structure for these devices, and developed a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis that has since been used to integrate Apple TVs into all classroom construction and renovation projects. For new technology where longevity is less certain, pilot labs and trial classrooms are excellent ways to assess faculty interest and usage in order to decide whether it is beneficial to launch such items campus-wide.

  1. Be aware of current technology needs on campus

The number of mobile devices continues to increase, more faculty are using videoconferencing to communicate for teaching and research purposes, and cloud storage is becoming more commonplace as faculty want to access their work across their various devices from multiple locations. At UA, we have seen the number of mobile devices used on campus double over the last six years, from 30,000 clients to almost 60,000. It’s safe to estimate that mobile device usage will continue to grow, further increasing demand on IT infrastructure. Our IT group at UA has already doubled the number of access ports on campus and developed a long-term, comprehensive plan to upgrade wireless infrastructure on campus. As more faculty rely on large-scale data transfer and backups, UA has responded by building redundancy into the campus wiring to protect against lost access, should any cables be accidentally severed during one of the many construction projects on campus, and by setting up a backup system in Atlanta, should the entire system go down during a routine upgrade or after a catastrophic disaster, such as the tornado that hit Tuscaloosa in April 2011.

In order to make sure that an institution’s needs are continuously met, it is important for technology leaders to anticipate and budget for growth. Updating infrastructure so it can support bandwidth requirements, negotiating with vendors to purchase campus-wide licenses, and installing redundant high-speed connections for high-volume users are all ways that institutions can provide various technology services while planning for future development. It is also important that technology leaders communicate these needs to the financial and administrative heads to portray a realistic view of required monetary support in the upcoming years. Once a system is in place and adopted by an institution, the expectation is that it will be there for the foreseeable future; therefore, it is best to treat technology programs as ongoing costs and not as one-time purchases.

  1. Remain ever-vigilant regarding security

As technology becomes more sophisticated, so do those who threaten its security. Ransomware and phishing attacks have become more prevalent and can sometimes be difficult to recognize by the unsuspecting user—and when you have 38,000 students and almost 2,000 faculty and staff accessing campus technology, as we do at UA, the chance of someone making a mistake increases exponentially. Although no one can be 100 percent secure, technology leaders can thwart the “bad guys” by requiring VPN connections for access to systems when off campus, implementing two-factor authentication, requiring password-resets and updating security monitoring systems on a regular basis. However, it is also important to educate your users so that they can help minimize the risk to your institution. Mandatory restrictions can prevent outsiders from gaining access to sensitive documents, but they won’t stop a staff member from emailing those documents to the outside world, effectively bypassing any security measures that have been carefully implemented. Therefore, it is important that technology leaders regularly communicate with the users at their institution to build awareness and encourage best practices and vigilance at all levels.

We live in a world where new mobile devices, software and other tools are released each year, and as technology leaders, we have a responsibility to keep our amenities current while maintaining the functionality of what we already have on hand. We manage the needs of those who want to be early adopters while coaxing others away from their archaic but familiar systems. We need to meet the challenge of making sure that our campus technology runs efficiently, and that our faculty, staff and students have the connectivity they need to do their work while simultaneously protecting them from those who may be trying to exploit sensitive data. All of these issues, combined with the constant pressures of increasing enrollment, students/employee retention and limited budgets, create a significant challenge. As we rapidly approach the next decade, IT leaders should keep in mind that technology is constantly changing, and the needs of their institution will advance accordingly. Only by staying aware of these changes, being willing to adapt, and working with our academic leaders can we ensure that our colleges and universities continue to evolve in a way that will benefit everyone in the years to come.

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