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Students' tech smarts pose challenge for college IT teams

Kids today. They’re a tech-savvy bunch. At least, that’s the popular notion.

“They’re very facile with their fingertips. Whenever I watch somebody type on an iPhone or read the newspaper on the iPhone, I’m always quite amazed at it,” said Robert Juckiewicz, vice president of IT at Hofstra University. “But they don’t have a very good understanding of anything underneath.”

So IT at the Hempstead, N.Y., school has a computing support center to help students work through issues they have with software or other technology. And it holds technology fairs where they can play with circuitry, learn about coding or dive into virtual reality with Google Cardboard, the low-cost, smartphone-enabled headset.

It’s a way to show students how technology could serve them in their careers, Juckiewicz said.

To today’s college students, born in the mid- to late 1990s, the staticky racket of a dial-up Internet connection is the sound of a long-ago era. They’ve looked to technology for entertainment, in video games and the iTunes store, and interactions with peers, through social media. Tech has played a part in their educations, too, with tablets and cloud-based software helping to form the way they see and understand the world. The challenge for college IT teams today is to cater to students’ proclivity for technology and even use it as a positive force in their educational development.

Using technology for good

And a challenge it is. Not all students know how mobile devices work, but most of them have one or more — and they expect to use them everywhere. For Juckiewicz, that frames tough questions for IT: How do you support thousands of different devices on campus at any given time? And how do you use those devices, and emerging technologies and software, for learning and teaching?

The IT team works to answer the first question, on networking and mobile infrastructure. For the second, it involves faculty, helping professors and lecturers use technology like smart devices to improve how they teach and, perhaps more important, how students learn.

“So what we struggle with in faculty computing and student computing is, how do you use all of this [technology]?” Juckiewicz said. “It’s great that you’ve got it, but who cares if it’s not doing something good?”

Students as teachers

For Eric Hawley, CIO at Utah State University, students’ knowledge of and familiarity with technology is very much a boon.

“In many ways students come in and they change the way we work,” he said. “They come in with different communication practices, different preferences.”

Hawley cited the school’s learning management system, which tracks and delivers coursework online, as an example. Students can choose how faculty and staff communicate with them, with assignments showing up in Google Calendar and announcements made over Twitter or Facebook.

For Hawley, that means giving students — plus faculty and staff and even IT units outside of his central IT department, what he calls “the edge” — flexible platforms, like Google Apps and, to work with. They handle all the complexity and integration of delivery formats.

“One of the great things about the technology is you sort of get this strange new mix-up,” Hawley said. “Everything is standardized, yet the edge can consume it in 15 different ways.”

For how college IT teams are handling shadow IT, read “University IT departments struggle to stay always open, always secure.”