eCampus of the Month: Lone Star College is a shining example of ed-tech innovation

Lone Star recently won a grant from the Gates Foundation.

With more than 95,000 full-credit and continuing education students for fall 2011, Lone Star College is the largest and fastest-growing community college system in Texas. Lone Star College is recognized globally for its student success and innovation, with faculty grants that encourage ed-tech innovation and international programs for students among its many achievements.

Shah Ardalan serves as the system’s chief information officer and recently was named chief executive officer of its newest college, LSC-University Park. Here, he describes the system’s ed-tech accomplishments and its keys to success.

How do you use technology to advance student learning?

Our mission is to increase access to affordable, high-quality education. We built a team to get us in the game and used technology to win the race—with a heavy investment in innovation.

We’ve standardized technology in classrooms across six colleges and their satellite centers, and more than 16,000 computers and laptops are on a lifecycle program based on industry best practices.

Mission-critical applications are running on a 93-percent virtualized, highly available (99.999%) infrastructure. Students enjoy virtualized desktops, full wireless coverage, and mobile applications. All of this has been implemented with a sharp focus on providing more support to students’ success.

e.Republic’s Center for Digital Education has named Lone Star College as the second-place winner in the large college category in its seventh annual Digital Community College Survey.

This award recognizes colleges that provide a high level of service to their faculty, students, and communities. It considers technology integration into college curriculum and campus life, distance education, technology training for faculty and students, campus security alerts, use of Web 2.0 social and collaborative capabilities, online tutoring and advising services, and mobile device use as key indicators of success.

This is the first year Lone Star has been recognized, and our goal is to be in first place in 2012.

To foster innovation, the Office of Technology Services budgets and offers $500,000 annually to pioneering faculty and staff in the development, deployment, or implementation of new and emerging technologies into teaching and learning.

This innovation grant was mentioned when the Chronicle of Higher Education reported Lone Star as one of the “Top 100 Places to Work For.”

The results speak for themselves: Whether nursing students are practicing resuscitation of a child in distress using a SIM baby, or English as a Second Language students are viewing their language lessons from home via cloud computing, or students in geoscience courses gain real-world skills using state-of-the-art remote sensing and GIS software in their lab activities and research projects, Lone Star’s integration of technology into instruction dramatically affects student learning.

Have you noticed an increase in student performance and/or motivation? If so, how?

Our students are achieving their goals more than ever. They are kept informed via digital signage, our web portal, and QR codes, and they collaborate with faculty using WebEx and telepresence technology.

Students vote with their feet, and Lone Star is one of the fastest-growing institutions of higher education in the country. Students realize the value of our education, and their success translates into matriculation at universities like Rice, the University of Texas, Texas A&M, Stanford, Berkley, and the like. We are among the top 10 producers of associate degrees in the country and also a top 10 producer of associate degrees by Hispanic students.

Recently, Lone Star received one of only four national “Completion By Design” grants funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and we serve as its managing partner. Among many differentiating factors was our track record in strong student support.

All instructional technology projects selected for funding at Lone Star must describe expected learning outcomes and the measurements used to track them. We employ the traditional metrics of academic achievement and student retention, but it’s the more qualitative feedback from students I enjoy most.

One past project involved the use of iPads at the bedside for nursing students in clinical training. In their final presentation to our board of trustees on the success of the project, the faculty explained an “unanticipated” benefit: Students learned how to socialize with patients through the use of technology. The iPads gave them something interesting to talk about and helped connect the students and patients more quickly.

How do you use technology to streamline administration and aid in decision-making?

Touted by Oracle as “best in class,” Lone Star College recently implemented the largest PeopleSoft footprint in higher education in a record-breaking 18 months.

This “Business Transformation” project resulted in operational best practices: automating tasks that were formerly labor-intensive, “going green” by eliminating paper-based processes, and giving faculty, staff, and students 24-7 access to information and services through self-service tools. The new system also provides Lone Star with scores of new and improved features, including a financial forecasting tool that supports statistical modeling and multiple forecasting scenarios that are critical in times of shrinking budgets and increased accountabilities.

Score cards, Key Performance Indicators, and real-time dashboards are used for scheduling, space allocation, budget planning, and more.


How have you financed your ed-tech initiatives?

Lone Star anticipated the current financial crisis and didn’t just plan for survival; we were determined to thrive. We turned this perfect storm into an alignment of stars and acquired the best technology and brightest talent.

We kept showing a return on investment to faculty, student, administration, and the board throughout the year, not just when we needed additional funding. This, and the fact that we kept delivering on every promise, helped us actually increase our budget.

Like most colleges, Lone Star assesses a fee to help fund tech-related costs. However, reflecting our commitment to provide students with an affordable education by keeping tuition and fees low, the Office of Technology Services also actively pursues innovative funding strategies. I am a Harvard-trained negotiator and put these skills into practice almost every day.

For instance, I timed our ERP software and consulting services purchase with the last days of the vendor’s fiscal year and saved another $6M over the already negotiated prices. Lone Star also saves millions each year by standardizing equipment and software across the system and leveraging our buying power with vendors.

What project are you most proud of, and why?

In 2009, we implemented a “Virtualization First” strategy. At the same time, a seamless move to federated identity management expanded our flexibility.

As a result, we expanded availability beyond our two main data centers and linked in our 16 instructional server rooms to create a dynamic private cloud that allows us to move services seamlessly between sites.

This created a foundation that enabled Lone Star to use cloud services as a strategic advantage. This development quickly moved Lone Star from less than 5-percent virtualization to 93 percent, with $600,000 in CAPEX savings and an additional $800,000 in cost avoidance on our ERP project. Today, we also support 10 hybrid cloud services with others being finalized regularly. In the words of our Chancellor, Dr. Carpenter, “Speed wins,” and this cloud strategy gives us the speed needed to win.

The time to market is exciting, but my proudest moments are when I see how all these technologies actually make a difference in the lives of our students, when we exceed faculty expectations, and when everyone praises my team not only on what they did, but how they did it.

What have been your biggest ed-tech challenges, and how have you overcome these?

 Technology doesn’t have to be as challenging as some make it. The first thing we did at Lone Star was to build a partnership with faculty based on mutual respect and trust.

We paid close attention to principles of change management and also created an Executive Client Relations position. My team and I are active members of almost every project and process on campus. Lone Star is an incredibly agile, inventive institution that breaks ground continually, and I am fortunate to participate in many of its strategic initiatives. From international offerings in Vietnam or Brazil to a National Hispanic Achievement initiative, and now to overseeing Lone Star’s sixth college, I enjoy helping drive innovation.

But innovation necessarily produces change, and change has a profound and real impact on people. The Office of Technology Services maintains a “human touch” with our customers, including the adoption of an innovative 3x3x3 communication strategy and use of contemporary change management techniques.

Specific to lecture halls, what faculty and students want is reliable, applicable, dependable technology that we can support. We make it easy for them to use what they want and then support them to explore other innovative ways—their way.

A key to our success is that we listen. I listen to faculty, staff, and students a number of ways, including Open Forums at each of our six campuses twice a year, semi-annual web-based surveys, and cross-functional advisory councils that advise me on technology-related initiatives.

I listen to my staff and regularly challenge them on how to address the impact change has on our customers. I listen to my peers, both within Lone Star and at other organizations. I listen to trusted vendors and partners within the community. I relentlessly pursue excellence in communications and change management.

What’s your best ed-tech advice to colleagues?

The main challenge is not about technology, but about transitioning technologists into thinkers. The best technology is the easiest to use. “Build it and they will come” is not as simple in this field. I reward people with passion to exceed expectations. All of my IT leaders are constantly challenged to plan for the future—not to survive, but to “change the rules.”

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eCampus News Staff

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