Using the cloud to deliver reliable IT services

Westmont has uploaded more than 3,000 audio and video files to iTunes U.

With a host of new technologies, thousands of lectures and lessons uploaded to iTunes University, and a newly refurbished library that caters to the needs of today’s college students, Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., is our eCampus of the Month for January.

The private, Christian liberal arts college with 1,300 undergraduate students has implemented predictive modeling and cloud-computing programs to save money and spend budgets efficiently, becoming a model for small schools looking for ways to survive the slumping economy.

Here, Reed Sheard, vice president of advancement and information technology, describes the school’s programs and its keys to success.

(Editor’s note: To nominate your college or university for our “eCampus of the Month” feature, and to read about past winners, go to:

How do you use technology to advance student learning?

A few of the technologies our students use are Meraki wireless (close to 100-percent 802.11n coverage over our 111-acre campus), Moodle LMS, and Google Apps.

Our classrooms are equipped with Sanyo projectors, and we have dual-boot (Mac and Windows) iMac labs around campus, including in the newly refurbished library, where there is a 27-station open lab and a 25-station instructional lab, three new MediaScape labs from Steelcase for computer-to-computer collaboration, and Walkstations from Steelcase with built-in desks for the kinesthetic learner.

We developed an iPhone app in-house that includes a searchable campus directory, calendars, a dining menu, a GPS-enabled shuttle map, live streaming of athletic events, and host of RSS feeds, among other goodies.

There is dedicated internet bandwidth in the residence halls, along with numerous dedicated technologies appropriate to specific departments, such as Finale music composing and notation software, HyperResearch Adobe Creative Suite, and many others.

We have extensively leveraged Apple’s iTunes U and have uploaded more than 3,000 audio and video files for student access over the past 18 months. Lastly, we have our college publication, The Westmont Magazine, available as a native iPad application.

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

Currently underway are numerous assessment projects led by the Dean of Assessment and Curriculum Effectiveness. Our initial project was to increase student attendance at the college library through innovative uses of technology in support of new student study spaces. The library has designed four unique study areas: (1) kinesthetic, (2) collaborative, (3) quiet, and (4) white noise or open areas.

To date, student usage of the library is up 390 percent from the previous academic year.

In addition, we have invested heavily in supplemental video materials in literature, economics, and business, along with executive leadership. Lastly, the IT department helped deploy a cloud-based library system that gives our students access to more than 3,000 libraries worldwide, along with 2.3 million eBooks—which dramatically increased the access to academic materials for our students.

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

We are focusing more and more on data accessibility. We have worked hard to expose the data in our ERP through the use of Cast Iron from IBM. This has allowed the college to creatively integrate data sources internally and in the cloud using business logic identified by the college.

In addition, we have deployed both and Business Objects to provide ready access to reports and aid in effective report writing. As data accessibility has improved, we have begun to explore predictive modeling to help drive decision making in College Advancement and other offices.

The use of best-of-breed technologies allows staff, faculty, and students to be more effective in their work. Leveraging the same data in multiple places enhances efficiency, decreases errors, and saves money. It also lends itself to a more cohesive, systematized approach in which data flows smoothly from one department to another.

How have you financed your technology initiatives?

We take advantage of several tools. For large and recurring purchases such as network and computer refreshes, we use leasing, which distributes our costs—allowing for a consistent cost from year to year, which also alleviates the hard capital impact that such purchases typically represent.

For one-off purchases, we use capital funds provided via the IT operating budget and occasionally the college capital funding reserve. This is typically for large, one-time purchases that have a broad community impact. The college also four years ago implemented a technology fee that all students are required to pay.

In addition, the college limits the number of vendors we procure products and services through in order to have broader impact with those vendors. We have found a much better economy of scale and applicability with this model over the Band-Aid approach of fixing a localized problem with a narrowly focused solution.

What ed-tech projects are you most proud of, and why?

We are most proud of the various cloud initiatives, because of the tremendous positive impact they have had on the college. In a little more than two years, we have deployed 13 cloud-based projects that have improved service, lowered costs, and allowed the existing IT staff to work on new innovative projects that hold real potential.

Our first project resulting from our cloud initiatives is a new alumni networking service that will help our alums for professional and personal reasons. In the next few months, we will be deploying a native iPhone, iPad, Android, and web portal for our alums that will enable interaction between LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and our own alumni directory and ERP information. The design was completely in-house.

The interface is incredibly intuitive, and the system takes your input and matches you to other alums by location, interests, major, year, and career, among other factors. For instance, you could ask the system to match you with alums who graduated in 2005, were on the soccer team, live in Portland, love hiking and watching Pixar films, who are looking for work as bookkeepers—and it would be able to do that.

Best of all, it allows the alums to reconnect with each other directly. We believe the application will generate or rekindle numerous relationships, which in turn will flow into renewed and stronger affinity for their alma mater.

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

Probably the single most significant challenge has been the lack of strong leadership within IT, coupled with the lack of executive support. Even though a central IT office existed, the lack of executive-level support and perhaps the misunderstanding of the core role of IT in the college environment created an environment for ongoing challenges.

Systems would go offline for days or even weeks, and the meager resources and undertrained staff were not be able to keep up with the burgeoning demands of the community. The staff worked incredibly hard but continued to be buffeted by ailing technology, lack of funding, and a philosophical disconnect about why technology was needed.

The effect of this cadre of problems was a deep mistrust and misunderstanding of IT by the community, leading to technology purchases that were not vetted by or discussed with IT, serving only to feed the loop of instability.

As technology became strategically more important, executive leadership began to lend financial and institutional support to the role of IT at the college. The result has been a dramatic increase in overall stability and more discussions regarding the strategic role of technology at Westmont.

This executive commitment led to the creation of our first CIO position three years ago. The CIO office now provides clear leadership and vision for technology on campus. IT is now appropriately funded, is represented at the executive table, and has worked to rebuild and enhance relationships across the campus community.

Today, we lead every major technology decision and are actively engaged in pursuing integrative opportunities and win-win-win scenarios across the campus.

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

Succinctly put, the cloud is the future. Like all technologies, it has its strengths and weaknesses—but the cloud effectively changed the rules so much so that a small liberal arts college was able to build a compelling and strategic future for IT.

The role of a successful IT department is to deliver both 24-7 services and new user-centric services in support of a school’s larger mission. I view some (not all) of IT’s role as a utility service—like water or electricity.

We forget how much we depend on these everyday utilities until we flip a light switch or turn on a faucet and it doesn’t work. In much the same way, many in our community do not think about technology until the network slows, phones don’t work as expected, or a critical service become unavailable.

To address the everyday realities, we chose early on to use the cloud. We use Salesforce for college advancement; Meraki for cloud-controlled wireless service; Google Apps for eMail, contacts, and calendaring; and iTunesU for our lectures, chapels, and special events.

Moving these services to the cloud has enabled us to retire worn-out infrastructure and replace it with services. A service-oriented architecture is quickly becoming prevalent in the industry, and the more we are able to move into the cloud the more dynamic, versatile, accessible, connectable, and valuable our data and services become.

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