6) Talk to other institutions. No school on its own can hope to stay on top of the rapid developments in the tech world, so it’s important to tap the knowledge and experience of colleagues at other organizations. UW-Madison, for example, looks to a variety of outside groups including EDUCAUSE; the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, which comprises the Big Ten schools plus the University of Chicago; as well as various professional organizations that cover everything from networking to IT security.
“We keep in regular contact with them regarding best practices and issues,” said Rust. “We discuss what issues we’re seeing, plus we keep an ear toward what’s going on in the commercial sector.”
It’s a similar story at Fairfield University, which turns to sister schools in the Northeast Regional Computing Program (an associate of EDUCAUSE), as well as the 28 institutions in the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. “When I have questions about any service or software, I get immediate feedback from 27 of my peers, who may be a step ahead of us or a step behind,” said Francis. “We really rely on each other for these decisions.”
7) Conduct pilots. In this era of heightened service expectations and cost containment, no school can afford to put in a system that simply doesn’t cut it. “We don’t just plug-and-play and then stop using a system if people don’t like it—we don’t have that luxury,” said Rust. “Our audiences have extremely high expectations for reliability, security, integrity of data, and processes.”
Enter the pilot project. Pilots not only give schools a chance to test a system before they invest in it—but they also give IT a chance to work out any kinks. Fairfield University, for example, has just completed a cutting-edge classroom featuring mobile furniture, multiple whiteboards, and a projection system that can be controlled from any device. For now, teachers can only sign up to use the room for one-off trial classes, and must agree to provide feedback on the room’s performance.
“It’s something we can do upfront before we mirror this classroom across campus,” explained Francis. “We’re doing it in baby steps to find out what we’re doing right before we invest that money.”
A pilot project also helps introduce the product to the broader campus community in a non-threatening way. “Whenever I launch a project, I always run it as a pilot first,” said Raftery. “People are a little more forgiving because nothing works exactly the way you think it’s going to.”
8) Set goals and measure performance. The task of measuring IT performance is best divided into two spheres: technical infrastructure and public-facing systems. For the most part, the performance of technical infrastructure, such as networks or virtual servers, can be minutely monitored. Monitoring tools are available across the spectrum and often provide real-time visibility into the performance of IT systems. Given the availability of all this performance data, the decision to keep, upgrade, or replace a system can be calculated with a certain degree of precision.
Establishing metrics for public-facing systems, on the other hand, is far muddier. “It’s easier to monitor the network than it is to monitor a researcher’s satisfaction with the suite of software and other tools that we make available,” said Rust, who emphasized the importance of feedback to help gauge the performance of these systems. “When you start benchmarking an LMS, say, we may set a combination of more technical metrics—uptime and response time—and softer benchmarks including satisfaction with a particular system or set of tools.”
Given these “softer benchmarks,” the holy grail of calculating return on investment becomes a pipe dream. “Calculating ROI is almost impossible,” said Francis. “At the administration level, so much of it is intangible. Although we may identify a solution that saves a student time and possibly money, we never see those savings because it’s the student’s time and the student’s money.”
9) Train faculty and staff. Campus IT could install the best technology solution on the planet and it wouldn’t be worth a hill of beans if faculty and staff were unable or unwilling to use it. It’s also no secret that faculty training is one of the toughest tasks on campus—technology is simply not a faculty focus. While IT’s first responsibility is to implement solutions that are as intuitive as possible, that’s only the beginning.
“Many people in higher ed don’t focus enough on the training of faculty and staff on these new tools,” said Francis, who noted that recent ECAR surveys showed that Fairfield students felt faculty don’t have enough knowledge about the technology they’re using in class. “That was one of the biggest indicators that we need to focus more on training. We’re not going to roll something out unless we also have a bag of money to train our campus.”
10) Live with compromise. No matter how many surveys, product assessments, and requirement-gathering sessions are conducted, it’s impossible to meet every constituent need. A case-in-point is what happened at UW-Madison when it attempted to whittle down the number of e-mail/calendaring systems on campus from 30 to just 1. Among many faculty and students, Google was the hot favorite, according to Rust. But one of the key requirements was that all data be stored in domestic servers because of its often-sensitive nature. Some faculty and staff, said Rust, “didn’t really think about that, because they’re only thinking about what they might need in particular.”
Several other vendors were disqualified on the same grounds. Ultimately, UW-Madison decided to go with Microsoft Office 365. With IT caught between compliance regulations and myriad user preferences, it was the system that met the most campus needs.
“Regardless of how thorough you are in collecting requirements and getting input, there will be people who will not be satisfied with your solution,” said Rust. “You have to understand that, otherwise you’ll be constantly conflicted about whether your services are satisfactory or meeting the need.”
Andrew Barbour is an editorial freelancer with eCampus News.