IT Forum Perspectives

How IT plays a part in the future of higher education

by Laura Whitaker

Laura Whitaker, Practice Manager
IT Forum

Given the headlines about how imperiled higher education may (or may not) be, it was great to be a part of EDUCAUSE’s summit last week, where CIOs and their teams clearly relished the opportunity to meet with peers and talk about the issues that will challenge us going forward.

After attending the summit, I wanted to share a quick observation about three fundamental capabilities for our sector's success—two that were explicitly discussed at EDUCAUSE and a third that I project will be necessary to support higher education.

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1. Standards

Should we be using standardized IT metrics, platforms for publishing content, units of measurement for credentialing, and methods for delivering certain IT services? If not, why not? We've talked for a while now about dividing IT services into "commodity" versus "core," and moving the commodity activities to a centralized or even outsourced provisioning model. A CIO who standardizes and offloads those activities can spend his or her time managing and supporting assets that are core to the institution's mission and differentiation.

Peeking into the world of data governance, we see institutions foundering in the starting blocks as they attempt to standardize a data definition. In a world where objective scorecards may serve as colleges' funding and marketing mechanisms, there’s little upside in hanging onto an idiosyncratic metric or process. Standards also help us respond to the call to "make it easy"—whether to transfer credits, register for classes, or assess performance.


2. Modularity

Long understood as a tenet of IT activities (object-oriented programming, configuration management databases), this is a capability that enables flexibility. Unbundling an institution's full (cross-subsidized) offering is at the extreme end of the spectrum, but there are paths toward understanding the modules.

Eric Denna, CIO at University of Maryland, referenced the Business Model Canvas as a useful framework to breaking down where an institution's value truly lies. If you’re ready to think about a value proposition as a sum of many parts, you can prioritize options for process improvements, program offerings, and capacity investments. If you’re not ready, you become vulnerable to disruption.

Modularity—a theme highlighted in Clayton Christensen's general session address—also underpins models for competency-based learning approaches, open-source teaching repositories (for example, Unizin), and collective impact across institutions (as described in SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher’s address).


3. Agility

This brings us to where IT will need to be to support our institutions’ missions. Agility—not just the programming methodology, but the innate ability to respond flexibly and quickly—is enabled by standards and modularity. The term was not in the spotlight at EDUCAUSE and I did not encounter it in panels, constituent groups, or presentations, but it's clearly on the horizon, as the (aptly-named) Horizon report confirms.

What’s promising is that IT by its very nature is well-positioned to support improvement in all three areas, and we look forward to contributing to these conversations as our research progresses. Stay tuned for more observations from EDUCAUSE panels, sessions, and discussions in future posts.

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