This year's EduComm Conference in Las Vegas saw the launch of the EduComm Institute's CIO-CFO Summit. The one-day event, sponsored by GovConnection in partnership with Cisco, preceded EduComm's opening reception and keynote at the Mirage.
Throughout the afternoon, a select group of CIOs and CFOs from public and private, two- and four-year institutions around the country listened as industry experts examined the vital role of information technology in how the campus of the not-too-distant future will operate.
The program was organized around the theme of "The Borderless Network"--with presentations centering on changing expectations and new challenges to higher education.
Nicole Engelbert, senior analyst for Datamonitor, examined the connection between changing student demands and how communications and services are delivered on campus.
"Five or 10 years from now, higher education may very well look extraordinarily different from what it does now," she said. "And the institutions that gamble and win on how that change is likely to be will navigate it very well. Those that wait and sit back and hope for the best will find themselves in very difficult positions a decade from now."
Driving that change in large part is the sour economy. The financial crisis is hitting the boiling point with endowment losses last year reaching 18.7 percent.
"We've seen some gains, but the pain will continue to linger," Engelbert said. "What does that mean for how higher education is paid for? It sounds like a horror story, but it may actually provide an opportunity to think about the financial model for higher education in a new and different way."
The great, long-term danger is that public support for higher education continues to decline as state and federal budgets are slashed. "That means the cost of higher ed for the student continues to spiral upwards," she said. "But the ironic part is that demand continues to grow and is even soaring at many institutions."
-Nicole Engelbert, Datamonitor
The student demographic has also changed dramatically, with the nontraditional student market becoming more prominent than ever. Many of them hold jobs and support families in addition to attending school, so their personal investment is much higher.
"Because these individuals have a much higher opportunity cost to attend your institution, they are going to expect more from a service perspective," Engelbert said. "Is your institution ready for their expectations?"
Improved service and agility will rule the day, she said. For institutions, that means catering to an anytime, anywhere, on-demand world.
"It's like the Netflix model," she said. "Services and courses will be delivered to students on their schedule. This is already available to them in most areas of their lives, except in higher education."
Students are also looking for hyper-personalization, and expect the delivery model to match their needs. They expect that the mythical, all-knowing student record actually exists, easily accessible anywhere on campus.
"They're probably thinking that a company like Dell, with an outsourced, offshore contact center in India, knows more information about them than when they go into the Bursar's office," she said. "But there is quite a gap in what they experience in a consumer market and what they experience on campus."
Finally, she said, students will want their schools to be able to change on a dime. "What you're doing today from an IT and services perspective is not what you're going to be doing five or 10 years from now - or even three months from now."
This fast-approaching future vision will require a very different approach to IT than what we currently have to meet these expectations.
"The new reality of technology is that it will be in a constant state of change," Engelbert said. "Is your institution prepared for an adoption curve that is measured in months as opposed to years?"
Just as services and communications are rapidly evolving, so too is education itself. Ian Temple, director of Global Education for Cisco Systems, said CIOs will lead the way in meeting the new challenges education presents.
"Learners are very different today," he said. "We all have stories about a child or a grandchild that is so technology-literate that it seems to be wired into them. The generation we're now servicing all grew up with the internet and a computer in their homes. They have a level of experience that we don't have."
And as technology continues to shrink the world in which we live, more students than ever are also being exposed to global education and career opportunities. "Universities are building a global presence to attract resources, funding, faculty, and students," Temple said.
"We see that learning is happening everywhere," he said. Whether it's the dining hall, the student lounge, or a campus green area, students and schools are increasingly taking learning outside the traditional classroom. Students are constantly online and learners need 24/7 mobile access to network resources. It's the CIO's task to facilitate and connect these learners.
-Allen Clingerman, GovConnection
With campus security a growing concern, the always-on environment of campus networks makes security a top IT issue. Temple said new technology enables even older analog cameras to be connected to a digital network.
"If you're investing in the IP network as a platform to enable learning, or help students access content in a mobile environment, you can also use it to create as safe and secure a campus as possible."
Today's students are also more environmentally conscious than in the past, and the push toward sustainable campuses means that IT has to find ways to conserve energy, share resources and reduce cost. Cloud computing through virtualization is a big step in that direction, he said.
With so many changes to education and operations based on technology advances, the role of the CIO has become more important than ever as a leader and advisor, Temple said.
"Students are changing and we are becoming one global economy. The education we deliver, therefore, must necessarily change," he said. "The network is the platform and the world, literally, is your classroom."
But is this "borderless network" a workable scenario? Allen Clingerman, technical solutions consultant from GovConnection, said it is.
"When you look at the goal of IT as a whole, it is to provide information technology as a service. But the challenges are dynamic and diverse," he said. "Students are asking for more and more access to services and technologies within your infrastructure, while we are all being asked to do more with less."
However, this is a goal that can be achieved with proper planning. The first step is assessment, which he said over-eager IT departments often skip by going straight to implementation.
-CIO-CFO Summit participant
"Before anything else you need to understand your environment and its current state, and you need to understand what implications a specific technology will bring to the environment."
The next step is to make sure that your design is sound and that it can support future changes. Only then should the IT project move toward implementation. Finally, the project must have ongoing management to address issues that come up and adapt to whatever the future holds.
The summit concluded with attendees sharing their concerns and comments in an open forum discussion with University Business editors. In response to the borderless network theme of the day, some expressed their frustrations that their local infrastructure wasn't able to deliver on that promise. From rural areas with a poor telecom presence to institutions that placed last in tech funding, CIOs and CFOs face enormous challenges in trying to provide the services that students demand.
It was also clear from attendees that when the opportunity to add technology does come up, the CIO takes his or her role as an advisor seriously. Just because a school can offer something new and different doesn't necessarily mean that it should.
"I'm a person who shoots down every technology idea that comes along, because I want them to tell me how it's going to change student learning outcomes," said one CIO. "If I can't justify it that way, then we're not going to put it on campus. It's not just for the sake of saying you have technology."
Still, bringing any new technology to campus requires getting buy-in from all constituents. One IT director said it all begins with presenting a business case to the CFO. "Getting consensus is hard work," he said. "You start with the CFO. You must build the business case and help them understand that we're actually working more efficiently, and this is why we're doing what we're doing." That step, he said, creates an ally that can help build consensus among a larger group of administrators before the proposal is taken to the president. "By that point you have a group that agrees that the project is a good one, and the president appreciates that its one less thing on his plate."