Driving Innovation in the Education Industry
By Nathaniel Tucker, Director of IT, Lee University
The education industry can greatly benefit from cloud computing in the areas of customer service, performance, reliability, and decreased internal support costs.
At Lee University, we have embraced cloud computing for nearly all ancillary applications outside of our ERP. Shifting to this model has allowed us to essentially increase our technology human resources with professionals that are experts within a particular application suite eliminating the need for having internal experts. A direct result of this includes improved customer service for our constituents and that improved customer service is experience with better response times for support requests, enhanced performance for applications, and the assurance that those application services will always be available.
We continue to have internal monthly maintenance windows where we update our internal systems. This works well for us. However, with the dependence on vendors that provide cloud computing services, sometimes we experience maintenance for their systems at inconvenient times. This is the only negative factor that we’ve realized with cloud computing and most vendors that are focused on higher education have adjusted their maintenance windows to accommodate our needs.
Examining the Effective and Proactive Use of Data
We use the Microsoft Stack to deliver controlled access to data for the users. The same technology is used for business intelligence and data warehousing. We provide access to data via reports and dashboards that support operational goals of the institution. Tools are provided via the browser to report on real-time, near real-time and snap shots of data for our constituent user groups. We log the use of reporting data, but we don’t monitor its use for effectiveness at this point. We are engaged in a process to use the existing collected and new data for predictive analytics to support our on-going institutional goals. At the end of this project, we expect the predictive analytics will assist the institution in making strategic decisions.
Most of the technology companies in corporate America have adopted an organized innovation program in some form or fashion. Google always comes to mind when thinking about companies that are innovating and the benefits have paid off as we enjoy several applications that were a direct result of innovation days.
“The education industry can greatly benefit from cloud computing in the areas of customer service, performance, reliability, and decreased internal support costs”
Higher education institutions should follow this trend and can do so without feeling the weight of “non-work” time being a problem as we do more with less. Each institution is unique and has different needs. However, we all face the same issues. It is important to do something to keep with the trends and provide on-going training for employees so that they are not too far behind the curve.
At Lee University, we have created teams of individuals that perform similar duties and have created a physical environment that facilitates thinking outside of the box without walls/cubicles. We installed group offices and shared spaces that include monitors for code sharing/review or simple collaboration about projects and issues. Because of that, we have been able to deliver solutions to our constituents that the employees have felt a sense of pride about because it was a team effort. Over time, these small WINS have turned into larger WINS.
The market is evolving to the use of cloud computing and days of building everything from “scratch” are over for higher education. Coming from a true developer, this is a difficult hurdle for programmers/developers that “grew up” in the 80’s and 90’s.
However, it can be done if the shift is seen as a positive one that provides benefits for the employee and the constituent. It is a definite WIN/WIN.
The Changing Role of CIO and CTO
The shift for the CIO has been less technology focused and more focused on adding strategic value to the workplace; in our case the institution. The CTO’s role is focused more on implementing and maintaining the technology.
In higher education, the CTO has been the focus, but many institutions including Lee University have adopted the CIO role which sits on the cabinet and reports directly to the president in many cases. For Lee University, we have two IT Directors which essentially operate as the CTOs.
We generally don’t develop solutions from “scratch” and have adopted the use of frameworks for our development efforts. This approach has allowed us to focus our development efforts on the solution components that don’t exist and has fostered a rapid development environment. The advancements in frameworks have allowed this to become a reality for us, as most of our development is done in a web browser, in contrast to development 10 years ago.
Another example for rapid development includes our mobile app which is provided by our ERP vendor. It includes standard functionality that most students and employees will use such as course schedules and time entry. The framework for the mobile app is customizable and allows us to create our own “modules” and focus on the services that are unique to us. So, we are able to take advantage of the work already developed and use our development time more effectively.
Embracing the cloud computing offerings such as hosting email services in the cloud alleviates the stresses that come with hosting on-site. Again, time will be used for things that are unique to the institution.
We are familiar with “do more with less” initiatives. For Lee University, cyclical replacements for infrastructure and other technology equipment alleviates the budget concerns for “big-bang” purchases. Our budget doesn’t take a significant hit, unless there’s a need for expansion or growth in clients being serviced, because it is managed appropriately. We manage this through a mixture of direct purchases and/or lease programs. Staying off of the “bleed edge,” but still delivering relevant and stable services has allowed us to deliver technology solutions that our constituents have come to enjoy and expect.