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Digital tools to help campus administrators do their jobs (essay)

DeanHack: Digital Support for New Administrators

June 20, 2014

Assuming a new role as an academic leader? Congratulations! The year ahead will be full of excitement and new experiences. Undoubtedly, there are meetings, reports and deadlines in your future. You may also have ongoing matters within your regular faculty life to monitor: queries from research students or questions about  the courses you are still teaching. Events related to fund-raising or government relations may require you to make extensive travel plans and work while on the road. All in all, this is a perfect time to adopt technologies that can help you keep track of information, tasks and timelines.

Your faculty role has probably required you to employ software related to your teaching and scholarship (e.g., statistical packages, CAD software, video editing tools, learning management systems).  Similarly, your administrative role will demand familiarity with basic programs for writing documents, editing spreadsheets, assembling presentations, and handling voluminous email.  And if you will have a staff assistant, then a shared online calendar will help keep your schedule under control.  In what follows, I will assume that you are already adept at using these aids. 

This article discusses how specialized digital tools can assist you with challenges that commonly accompany administrative roles.

In most situations there are several software packages, websites or apps that could do the job. So I will focus on identifying the distinct facets of academic leadership that may call for different sorts of assistive software. To get you oriented, I will also mention specific programs that have served me well; most of these use cloud synchronization to work seamlessly across multiple devices (e.g., your computer and smartphone), which is especially useful if you are traveling. 

However, the choice of software can be very personal and will depend on your preferences, usage patterns, and even the hardware you employ (I am an unapologetic Apple enthusiast). You will need to discover which tools suit your particular needs. Along the way, I hope that knowing what kinds of challenges software can assist you with may be helpful.

Meeting notes:

As a leader, you will attend numerous meetings and conferences that direct torrents of information into your eyes, ears, or inbox.  Worse, you may frequently attend strings of consecutive meetings on radically different topics and only have time to follow up days later. Relying on memory for the details of each gathering and on paper folders to hold the ancillary documents may not suffice, especially if your role involves a great deal of travel. It can be invaluable to have an application that stores your own notes from those discussions together with the agenda, handouts, and links to any articles or websites that were mentioned during the discussions. 

I have found that Evernote enables me to gather information on each conference, discussion, or meeting series in one place that is visible on my computer or mobile device. I can also group related note sets together or tag notes with labels that let me track commonalities among meetings with different venues, participants, and timings.  Handwritten notes can be scanned in as JPEGs using Evernote’s camera function on your smartphone or tablet; alternatively, you can scan documents to PDF format (e.g., using TurboScan on a smartphone or tablet) and upload them into Evernote.  Moreover, Evernote has the capability for text and handwriting recognition, enabling you to search document contents directly.

Tracking deadlines:

As you oversee an expanding array of initiatives, you will need to follow multiple sets of overlapping milestones and deadlines.  Some will relate to actions you must take; your direct reports will be responsible for others.  Well before any deadline is reached, you may want progress reports on the matters you have delegated. Moreover, you will be tracking some items that are unique and others that recur at the same point in every semester or year.  Staying on top of all of this is made easier an application that can track multiple projects, note recurring deadlines, and accommodate notes or documents that describe the goals and status of each.

I currently use OmniFocus to track my deadlines, along with the agendas and outcomes of meetings within my college. It helps me monitor the state of conversations about many different projects (what’s the latest from the search committee? has the museum finished our display?) and makes it easy to remind myself when I should next ask for an update.

I also appreciate that the software allows me to sort the information in several ways (e.g., by project topic, responsible party, or timing of deadline). First thing in the morning, I want to know what is coming due; right before a meeting, I want to see all items related to its agenda or participants. With this software on my computer and smartphone, it is easier to maintain momentum on multiple projects and harder for items to fall through the cracks.

Travel itineraries:

Academic leadership positions often require significant travel. The more you travel, the more detail you suddenly need at your fingertips: flight times, hotel confirmations, mass transit maps, meeting locations, hosts’ phone numbers. A trip planning application can guide you through a multistop journey without worries about where you stashed the next piece of information or how you will reach the next point on your itinerary. You can literally have all of this detail on a smartphone, accessible as you walk through an airport terminal or sit on a bus. 

I enjoy the simplicity of using web-based Tripit and its associated smartphone application. Simply forward the email confirmations of your transportation or lodging reservations to the website to have them inserted into the plans for upcoming trips (the program can track plans for multiple trips simultaneously). Tripit also automatically inserts directions between adjacent locations in an itinerary (e.g., from airport to hotel).  When your plane lands or your train arrives, the phone app guides you to your next location or deftly supplies the phone number for your local contact. I recently used Tripit for a convoluted international trip and it helped me reach even quite remote locations, despite complications due to wrong-side-of-road driving and significant jet lag.

Collaboration tools: 

Administrative work often propels you into partnerships.  Since you may be traveling more than usual and since some partners may be at outside institutions, your collaborations will likely involve sharing documents or data with distant individuals. Rather than emailing large files to one another, you can put a common version into a folder on DropBox that is accessible only by you and your invited collaborators. Similarly, you may need to organize meetings across multiple locations or even time zones; a polling website such as Doodle can help you quickly deduce which times will garner the largest attendance.

These partnerships may also increase your need to participate in meetings or interviews remotely. Familiarizing yourself with video call tools like Skype (free internet calls or cheap calls to phones), FaceTime (standard on Apple devices), or Zoom (requires installation but is highly reliable) is a good idea. Some require you to create a “handle” or even put a few dollars into an account, but otherwise the setup is minimal. Earbuds with a built-in microphone will make it easier for you to hear what others in the conversation are saying. I prefer to use my phone or tablet for the teleconferencing screen and separately engage a nearby computer to take notes, update my to-do list, or contribute to collaborative editing of meeting minutes via Google Docs.

Password memories:

Between these software tools and the various institutional databases you will doubtless need to access, you may find that the passwords in your life are proliferating beyond your memory’s ability to cope.  This certainly happened to me!  Fortunately, there are applications that can encrypt and store your passwords, making them available to you on demand, provided that you remember one master password to unlock the application itself.  These applications operate on both desktop computers and mobile devices, making your passwords accessible wherever you are.

My personal favorite is 1Password, though I have also heard good things about LastPass (see also this comparison of multiple options for Mac). The application connects directly to my web browser so that whenever a website asks me to login, I can hit a button on the browser, enter the one master password, and then click to have my login data for the website in question entered automatically.  Whenever I create a new account on a website, 1Password gives me the opportunity to store the login information right away and can even generate a strong (hard-to-crack) password for me to use with the account. It gives me quick, secure access to credit card data (handy for online purchases or charitable donations) and any confidential notes I may care to write (drivers license numbers, frequent flyer details).  It also keeps a record of any changes I make to passwords over time. No more Post-Its in the top desk drawer!

Synchronicity:

Finally, you may find that you use both a desktop and a laptop computer – and perhaps a tablet or smartphone – in your administrative work.  Maintaining access to data and software across devices, keeping document versions consistently synchronized, and maintaining backup copies of all your user files will be of the utmost importance.  Since spare time will be at a premium, you will want these tasks to be completed in the background without your having to intervene. 

There are a variety of tools with overlapping capabilities ready to take over these tasks for you. For instance, DropBox not only enables you to freely share large files with collaborators, as mentioned earlier, but also can be used to synchronize user files or the data accessed by applications across multiple devices. The program SugarSync allows you to select files, folders, or file systems to continuously synchronize across computers and mobile devices, attaching small tags to filenames to indicate which are properly synched. CarbonCopyCloner can automatically make a “bootable” copy of your entire disk on an external drive each night; if your computer’s main disk drive fails you will be able to boot from the backup drive and access your files until you can get the broken drive repaired or replaced.

Finally, in thinking about how you will store, synchronize, back up, and share your files, be mindful of special security requirements that may be imposed by HIPAA or FERPA regulations. Your institution’s IT department can offer assistance in understanding what kinds of information or documents are impacted.

In summary, I have reviewed areas of your new life as an academic leader that may benefit from an infusion of technological support. To learn more about the constantly growing variety of tools available, consult your university’s IT department, read the technology column of your favorite news outlet, or search for online reviews of “productivity software” (here are some recent examples in Business Insider,  PCMag.com, TheNextWeb.com). If you have any favorite apps that make your administrative role easier and were not mentioned here, please share them via the comments section.

Bio

Elizabeth H. Simmons is dean of Lyman Briggs College and professor of physics at Michigan State University.

 

 

 

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