Higher-Education CIOs Weigh In on 2015 Priorities

Customer experience, big data, ‘the business of education’ is in the spotlight for 2015 at colleges and universities.

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The calendar flipping over into 2015 doesn't mean a new academic year for most American college and university students, but it does mean a new beginning for higher-education CIOs.

We asked four CIOs about what they're looking forward to in the new year, what changes are in store on their campuses, and how they see the role of the higher-ed CIO evolving.

Customer Experience on Campus

IT will continue to play a major role across campus in making the university experience better for customers, CIOs say. By “customers” they mean faculty, staff and students of the university, and even prospective students.

When the Administrative Information Technology Services department at the University of Illinois redid its strategic plan in 2012, the No. 1 priority was to save time.

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"Not save time for an IT person or a central administrator. It's to save time for someone in a department, a faculty member or a student," says CIO Michael H. Hites. "You can back up every decision with 'I'm going to save somebody's time in the future.' If not, you probably shouldn't be doing that."

That's one way colleges and universities will remain competitive, says Lisa Davis, CIO of Georgetown University. "We need to be competitive with our technology and the services we offer our students, faculty and our stakeholders that we support.”

[Related: IT Skills Gap is Really an Education Gap ]

In 2012, Georgetown enacted the Technology Modernization Initiative, which Davis calls a "living document" of an IT modernization strategy that will last roughly five years.

Those changes have included going from zero mobile presence to engaging 37,000 faculty, students and alumni via a mobile platform; modernizing core applications, like switching from antiquated calendar and email apps to a Google-based platform; expanding online education offerings; and partnering with Xerox to allow Georgetown University members to print from their computers or phones to one of 15 locations across campus.

At the University of Kansas, the IT focus has also been on making campus life easier. "From a CIO's perspective, I need to ensure my colleagues and my partners and my supervisors are successful in what they do," says CIO Bob Lim. "More often than not, they don't want to deal with the technology side. Their problems are how do I increase our enrollment? How do I increase our research scholars? How do we recruit our faculty? How do we retain top staff? How do we ensure our students are graduating? How do we ensure they're graduating and finding a job?"

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Part of those answers is to make the technology end of the university more nimble, which means consolidation. KU has recently consolidated 19 of 22 large units across campus, which has helped IT address their needs together.

One example: The university was using about a half-dozen different lecture-capture solutions. Which one was used depended on the building in which the faculty member taught -- and sometimes that same faculty member would use more than one system. Now, one system is used across campus.

The University of Kansas also changed the onboarding process after finding that faculty weren't productive in their first few weeks on campus after being hired. So now, instead of waiting for different departments to get those faculty what they need, like parking passes and even pens, faculty come onto campus with things like keys and parking passes and pens in advance.

"They're happy and productive people," says Lim.

Big Data Helps Target Promising Students

Gerry McCartney, CIO at Purdue University, says that big data will play a bigger role across the university in 2015, including in recruitment. "We're moving toward a model where we're talking to potential students much earlier in the cycle," he says. So instead of making first contact in 11th grade, colleges and universities are doing that when students are in eighth or ninth.

Purdue wants to harness big data to help the university zero in on students who would be a good fit versus only answering "those who knock on the door," McCartney says, and then supply those students with the tools to chose the right major and to stay in school through graduation. For example, Purdue is about to roll out a tool that will use data to help academic advisers to identify students who are at higher risk for dropping out.

"The whole point is using data to help drive better decisions for both the institution and, in this case, the students," he says. "It's not different from any other way that companies use big data."

[Related: University CIO Helps Boost Graduation Rates With Analytics ]

Georgetown is working on tying its big data together in what Davis calls a "data transformation effort," which includes how the university thinks about data, how to use it to make better decisions, and even where that data is sitting.

The university has 10 to 12 of what she calls data silos, but "data is everywhere, and not just in our core and structure. Data is sitting in spreadsheets," she says, and in unstructured data like social media. IT is working to harness that data together so the university can see what the true student experience is.

CIOs Bring Bigger Business Value

Hites has been in a C-suite position since 2000. "The perception of what the CIO does has changed radically," he says. "It's moved from focused on the nuts and bolts of infrastructure technology to then how does IT enable the business of education."

Lim also expects CIOs and IT departments to become closer partners with other stakeholders in their university communities, more than they ever have before.

"How do we partner with our university community and help address some of their concerns and some of their business and institution process and institution needs? Those are the things we're looking at," says Lim. "How do we as an organization redefine to be more nimble and agile to meet the needs of our customers?"

The role of the CIO has changed dramatically, says McCartney, and will continue to evolve. "The stakes have gotten higher, and more is expected," he says. "You're supposed to bring business value."

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