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5 technology strategy tips for higher education CIOs

Higher education technology strategy isn't a one-size-fits-all, especially now. Here we offer five approaches for CIOs to strengthen operational success across institutions.

Higher education CIOs face unique challenges when it comes to evaluating and selecting the technology infrastructure that drives student success while also enabling faculty and staff to do their jobs. In large public institutions where the student population rivals that of small cities, there's rarely a one-size-fits-all answer.

Consider the University of Tennessee. The Knoxville campus is spread over 900 acres with close to 300 buildings and with a student population just over 30,000, as well as 1,600 faculty members and 6,000 staff. As an IT team, we need to provide support and a level of service that meets the needs of every stakeholder and their technology platforms including Macs, PCs, Windows, Linux and all of the applications used daily.

Here we offer five approaches CIOs in higher education can take to effectively drive technology strategies and improve operational success across the institution.

1. Striking a balance to meet stakeholder needs

The challenge in such a diverse environment is to strike a balance between standardization and flexibility, costs and benefits and security and functionality. The IT team's goal is to give the campus community what it needs without opening the floodgates and losing control. Therefore, we've made decisions to support multiple platforms like Microsoft 365 and GSuite to accommodate different preferences.

We also incorporate stakeholder input into our purchasing process and bring groups together to evaluate potential tools. It takes time, but it's worth it when we're able to achieve broad buy-in for our decisions and high adoption of the new systems.

2. Fostering strong relationships helps streamline technology purchases

Building relationships of trust across the campus community is paramount. Each of the colleges and departments has a wide degree of latitude, but all software purchases need to go through the CIO's office. It's certainly preferable to make suggestions, offer recommendations and provide alternatives than to issue decrees on what to buy.

The IT team can also share information about what's already in use, which could help solve another department's problems. Taking the time to build those relationships, listen and answer questions makes the job of the CIO easier in the long run as people are more likely to adhere to our standards rather than acting independently or seeing IT as an obstacle to getting what they need.

This approach is particularly important to ensure new technology tools integrate seamlessly with the core systems, such as those for student information and learning management. Higher education CIOs need to make some careful decisions around those core systems of record, including HR, finance and student information. But we also need to realize that one system might not be the best for everything and can ultimately limit the technology strategy.

3. Extend core foundations with best-of-breed offerings

The IT team looks at core systems as a foundation and then evaluates their various modules against standalone offerings as long as they can integrate.

For example, to support alumni development and degree auditing, we went with different products than the module provided by the core system. While many core platforms offer degree audit functionality, it did not fit our needs as well as CollegeSource's best-of-breed product specifically designed for this purpose.

When it comes to reporting and analytics, the larger core systems vendors tend to be less inclined to interoperate with others, thus creating data silos around the institution. At UT, we aggregate data into a central repository, standardize it there and layer analytics systems on top. We clean the data from our various systems before it's analyzed. Then, rather than tie the data up in one reporting tool, we remain flexible and allow teams to choose the reporting and analytical tools that work best for their needs.

4. Training and support critical during times of uncertainty

While no one can say they were ready for the pandemic that sent our communities home, we can say we were prepared for the challenge. UT's learning management system was already well-established and we were using Zoom for several years prior for video conferencing and remote presentations. Getting those tools up and running for everyone wasn't as heavy a lift as it could have been, but we still had to train plenty of people who weren't as comfortable using them. 

Training and support take on an expanded role in unprecedented situations such as the pandemic and when new tools are released. When both happen together, the support teams need to be highly responsive and well-informed so they can help users quickly. UT has a service level agreement of 70% resolution on first calls to the help desk.

Help desk staff need to be knowledgeable and able to answer questions, therefore we don't roll out a new product to the campus community until the support staff are trained and ready.

Remote teaching requires an extra level of support for the classroom technology stack including cameras, audio conferencing and secure testing. Our dedicated staff at UT expanded their hours of service to faculty and students to ensure their experience in the classroom is enhanced by technology and not hampered by it.

5. Establish tight security controls

Another area where CIOs need to balance point products with centralized systems is security. For compliance and security purposes, we use two-factor authentication for single sign-on and multi-layered permissions. When we receive a purchase request, we evaluate whether there's a resolution already in place within our security controls.

We also do increased education with our constituents on how to protect personally identifiable information in compliance with the applicable regulations like FERPA. Additionally, we have a diverse endpoint landscape to protect a variety of mobile devices from threats.

My advice to higher education CIOs and technology leaders is to always listen with an open mind when it comes to best-of-breed offerings. It isn't necessary to rigidly lock in to only a few vendors. This approach is rapidly going by the wayside, especially with the proliferation of cloud applications for specific requirements. Stick to a set of guidelines around interoperability with the core systems and security practices that ensure compliance. This approach will provide the flexibility and functionality needed by the entire campus community.

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