Stunning report: Great Recession still lording over campus IT

Massive Campus Computing Survey shows that most colleges and universities still undergoing budget cuts in the aftershocks of the struggling economy; angst against analytics.

Eight years after the beginning of the Great Recession, almost two-thirds (63 percent) of the CIOs and senior IT officers who participated in Campus Computing’s 2016 survey report that IT funding at their campus “has not fully recovered from the budget cuts experienced over the past four-six years.” And it’s this lack of recovery that’s currently affecting multiple IT issues, such as personnel, instruction, security…and a growing angst with analytics.

The Campus Computing Survey, which surveyed the IT departments of over 330 institutions, is an annual survey part of the Campus Computing Project—the largest continuing study of the role of computing, eLearning, and information technology in American higher education. The project’s national studies draw on qualitative and quantitative data aim to help inform campus IT leaders, college faculty and administrators, policy-makers, and others interested in a wide array of information technology planning and policy issues that affect colleges and universities.

The big takeaway from this year’s Campus Computing Survey? Budget cuts are still occurring in almost every type of institution across the country, and technology solutions that are receiving investments had better be worth the hype.

“Almost a third of public universities and BA/MA institutions, a quarter of private BA/MA colleges, a fifth of private universities, and more than two-fifths of community colleges experienced IT budget cuts for the 2016-2017 academic year,” highlighted the Campus Computing Survey. “Moreover, many campuses also suffered mid-year budget reductions for 2016/17, averaging 8 percent, which compounds the consequences of the annual budget cuts. Unfortunately, this has been the recurring cycle for a significant number of institutions across all sectors: an annual budget cut followed by a mid-year budget reduction.”

According to the survey, constantly thinking about budget affects many other of IT’s growing issues.

“At many institutions, the rising demand coupled with continuing budget cuts threaten to overwhelm the core IT infrastructure–mission critical instructional resources and administrative services,” says Kenneth C. Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project.

(Next page: 7 findings from the 2016 Campus Computing Survey)

1. Support is Not Enough to Counter the Lack of Budget

According to the survey results, although 90 percent of the survey participants report that senior leadership understands the value of institutional investments in IT infrastructure, resources, and services; and 84 percent report strong faculty support for technology to enhance teaching and instruction, this support has not been enough to stem the recurring budget cuts, especially within public and community colleges.

2. Student IT Fees are Bolstering the Budget

The survey data also highlights that, across all sectors, the majority of institutions add the student IT fees to the core campus IT budget rather than sequester these funds for new, supplemental services and resources intended to serve students. “Interestingly,” notes the report, “although private institutions are less likely than public colleges and universities to have a student technology fee, the student fees are higher in private institutions.”

3. Hiring and Retaining IT Personnel is the Top Priority

One of the top five IT campus priorities in recent surveys, personnel has moved to the top priority in fall 2016. According to the Campus Computing Survey, more than four-fifths (82 percent) of the survey participants identified “hiring/retaining qualified IT staff” as a “very important” campus IT priority over the next two-three years.

Also, a key factor affecting staffing is money: three-fourths (75 percent) of those surveyed agreed/strongly agreed that “we have a difficult time retaining IT talent because our salaries and benefits are not competitive with off-campus job opportunities.” The IT staffing problem can be particularly challenging in rural areas and small college towns, where the competition for a limited pool of IT talent may be intense and expensive, says the report.

In addition to IT staffing, the top five campus IT priorities for fall 2016 focus on instruction, IT security, user support services, and leveraging IT resources to advance the institutional priorities for student success and degree completion. Green says that this list has been fairly stable the past several years.

4. Big Belief in Digital Resources, Adaptive Technology

According to the Campus Computing Survey, 88 percent of survey respondents agree/strongly agree that “digital curricular resources provide a richer and more personalized learning experience than traditional print products.” And 96 percent of the 2016 survey participants believe that “adaptive learning technology has great potential to improve learning outcomes for students.”

5. Analytics Has Some Explaining to Do

“The public and campus conversations about the power and potential of Big Data and analytics notwithstanding,” explains the report, “this year’s survey provides evidence of ‘analytic angst’ across all sectors of American higher education: the survey data suggest the performance of analytics has fallen far short of the campus need and anticipated benefits.” According to the survey’s findings, less than a fifth of the survey participants assess recent campus investments in analytics as “very effective.”

Also, just 16 percent report that across their institution, most users are “very satisfied” with current analytic tools and resources.

“The campus angst with analytics should not be surprising,” notes Green. “As with so many new technologies in the consumer, corporate, and campus markets, the actual, implied, and inferred promises often fall short of initial performance.” Green notes the current disappointment with analytics on campus is not new. His 2011 and 2012 surveys of college presidents, chief academic officers, and CIOs all indicated that these senior campus officials did not assess the investment in analytics as “very effective.”

Green explains that  effectively using analytics is more than deployment, but rather, a combination of user training  and a major change in culture—a transition from using data as a weapon to using data and analytics as a resource. “The key question should be not what did we do wrong, but how can we do better, and how to the data and analytic tools show us the path ‘to better’ for our students,” he emphasizes.

6. Faculty Need Help

Even as respondents see great potential for instructional technologies and digital resources, four-fifths (81 percent) of CIOs and senior campus officials identify “assisting faculty with the instructional integration of information technology” as a “very important” institutional IT priority over the next two-three years.

7. Security is a Challenge for EVERY Sector

The Campus Computing Survey reveals that, in aggregate, more than two-fifths of the institutions participating in the survey experienced the loss of confidential data due to the theft of a device and hacks or attacks on campus networks in A/Y 2015/16.

Universities, in particular, appear to be attractive targets. A fourth of the surveyed campuses had experience with either spyware or ransomware this past year, as well as with a student security incident such as cyberbullying via social media. Security problems caused by employee malfeasance, often a reflection of stress, anger, or over-worked IT staff, were also problems for many institutions, especially universities.

For much more detailed information from the Campus Computing Survey, including methodology, data tables; as well as information on priorities over the next 2 to 3 years, priorities by sector, the digital technologies CIOs are most excited about, IT infrastructure rating, CIO assessments of digital resources for disabled users, CIO ratings on different technology effectiveness, challenged of effective user support, budget cuts versus budget gains, ERP expenditures, updating disaster plans, outsourcing services for online programs, cloud security and migration, open source implementation, use of video lecture capture, OER adoption, and the activation of mobile apps, check out the full findings here.

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