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Harnessing IT Service Providers as Important Strategic Partners

At Schreiner University (Texas), our team has applied the transformative power of technology to achieve our identifying motto “Learning by Heart”—a personalized, integrated education that prepares our students for meaningful work and purposeful lives in a changing global society. As our use of technology has evolved—from the pre-millenium years, when we dialed into the internet through six squealing modem connections, through present day, when we move confidently into today’s connected digital world—we have regularly tapped the expertise of technology specialists to help us work, teach, and learn more effectively.

In implementing new technology, an institution like ours must ask, “What are our priority needs?” before asking, “How do we do we make it happen?” We began to answer both of these questions in 2011 by consulting with the non-profit National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE). In collaboration with NITLE, we developed a multi-year plan outlining technology-related priorities and a clear roadmap that our administrators could then translate into concrete and actionable next steps.

We knew the critical evaluation of numerous possibilities would be vital to our success in this endeavor, so we prioritized the need to evaluate information and make decisions like any shrewd buyer in the technology marketplace.

Increase Performance and Scalability of Systems

Among the goals articulated in the NITLE plan was deploying a much-needed upgrade to our wireless infrastructure. Up to that point, we had been spending a significant amount of time addressing student concerns and maintaining the wireless hardware that serves our residence halls and campus-wide common areas.

Like most schools, we’ve also experienced a growing number of students bringing multiple devices back to school each semester—desktops, laptops, smartphones, tablets and smart TVs. After a comprehensive internal evaluation, we determined that the needs of Schreiner’s academic, administrative and residential communities had outgrown existing models of service delivery. Having to function as both service provider and technology strategist limited our ability in both roles. In order to meet increasingly diverse technological needs for the entire campus, our institution would be better served by asking IT to develop and execute an internal strategic vision for the University while leveraging the core competencies of third-party service providers to deploy network infrastructure, administration and support.

We then turned our efforts towards choosing the right vendor relationship, ultimately selecting Apogee, an Austin, Texas-based ResNet provider, to upgrade our campus network. Its new solution included all new hardware and wireless access points (expanded well beyond our previous allocation) along with 24/7 trouble desk and NOC support. Today, more than 90 percent of our campus enjoys strong wireless coverage, and we have quintupled the bandwidth available to students.

We chose to provide a two-tier system for our student residents—free basic service for regular users and an optional second tier for students who prefer faster speeds or additional device connections. This decision ensured that we were able to meet the needs of heavy network users, while cost recovering for the additional bandwidth without passing the cost on to the residents with basic bandwidth needs.

Our partnership with Apogee has yielded fast, reliable connections and provides responsive network conditions capable of scaling to meet demand. For example, when we ran a new pilot e-textbook program in the fall, our students simultaneously hit every available access point in one building, creating an enormous load on the system. Apogee responded by scaling capacity to our needs and immediately upgraded and increased our wireless access points.

In addition to ResNet management, we have been able to expand network services with the unified cloud application called Stoneware. By shifting services onto cloud storage, we have made network programs and services previously available only within the confines of our physical campus accessible everywhere. Now that we’ve been able to move “to the cloud” in a very affordable way, we plan to expand instructional services to virtual labs, allowing students to access production and analytic software programs that might otherwise be too expensive—and to provide that access anywhere, anytime and on any mobile device.

Boost University Efficiency and Staff Productivity by Outsourcing Non-Core Work

Administratively and academically, many functions which were formerly handled manually are now managed electronically. These include course management, payment, financial aid, admissions, registration, advising and advancement. We have implemented many, but not all, of the modules in our Jenzabar system and interfaced with other tools, such as financial packages software PowerFAIDS as well as the fundraising software Raiser’s Edge.

We’ve also recently partnered with AgileGrad to implement a degree audit and planning system. The driving force behind this initiative was to give students the ability to track their progress toward certain educational goals, to assist students in timely progress to graduation, and to encourage better institution planning for upcoming semesters. This tool also gives us deeper insight into trending data and patterns in our student’s choices, enabling administrators to make more informed decisions for curriculum and class forecasting. This addresses affordability issues and provides the university a way to achieve a priority that affects us all: decreased college costs through effective curriculum planning.

Evolve and Provide More Value to Students

At Schreiner, we are continuously refining our toolbox to maximize the learning value for our students and to support our faculty. Instead of acquiring and deploying digital teaching materials from disparate sources, we are researching a common e-textbook platform by participating in a trial with Courseload. Beyond investigating cost advantages, participating students and faculty can use a consistent set of tools for enhancing the learning environment, such as highlighting, annotating text, and collaborating with peers or instructors. Faculty can engage students directly in the course materials, posing and answering questions, linking to related material, supplementing with video, etc. Detailed analytics provide real-time feedback so faculty can make teaching adjustments and trigger early warning signals to guide remediation.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

Leveraging value and expertise from our vendor relationships has helped Schreiner achieve complex goals more quickly, with results that exceed what our in-house staffers could have achieved on our own. However, collaborations also come with costs that must be weighed against the benefits. Here are some of the best practices and lessons learned:

  • Tell the story repeatedly, illustrate the value, enlighten the unenlightened: We’ve found a need to educate when making the case internally. In particular, the most senior administrators and the governing board (who may lack technological expertise and who are bombarded on all sides by requests that surpass resources) need to appreciate the stakes of decisions being made (or not being made) and their strategic impact. When others understand better, they advocate better.
  • Adjust to the unique needs of every relationship: Every partnership is different and requires different levels of input, risk management and coordination. Apogee oversaw the entire process—providing project coordination between the teams, drawing up the plans and completing the installation. AgileGrad is a new product, so our database administrators worked very closely with their programmers to pinpoint bugs and make suggestions to improve the software functionality. They, in turn, were receptive to requests from us and helped us convert data to their required formats, etc. Our staff made a significant investment in time and effort—to the extent that other projects had to be tabled to meet implementation deadlines—but we believe the resulting benefits to students are well worth it.
  • Ask lots of questions: One common pitfall is that administrators sometimes fail to ask all of the right questions—a common challenge in the sales process despite best efforts. Too many times, the people promoting the sale will promise the world and let the tech support side of their business present the reality—a realization often occurring too late in the negotiation. We encourage fellow administrators to ask a broad range of questions. Don’t hesitate to admit ignorance in specific areas. Be honest with vendor partners, and share expectations and limitations in both staffing and funding.
  • Evaluate outcomes and measure performance: Accomplishing best practices is an ongoing process, and we continue to work to ensure that we make the best use of our tools and collaborate effectively to share information. We audited the way we use management software last summer and are currently revamping other processes to ensure that technological goals and related priorities are appropriately represented in planning and budgeting.

Institutions of higher education have a long history of partnering with others to accomplish necessary tasks. Whether the function be food service or campus maintenance, colleges have learned that specialized businesses can often perform specific jobs more efficiently and at lower cost. Why not take advantage of their technology expertise and free us from staffing, equipping and training to do a job beyond our core mission?

Tim Summerlin is president and Candice C. Scott is CIO at Schreiner University (Texas).

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