Information systems/technology

Butler County, Lewis and Clark Community Colleges hacked

Butler County and Lewis and Clark Community Colleges are the most recent victims in a spate of ransomware attacks targeting higher ed institutions.

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Analysts, colleges question Blackboard's all-of-the-above strategy

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The education company wants to be a cutting-edge software provider and support colleges using older versions. Analysts and some colleges worry the company is stretching itself too thin.

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Colleges move to digital transcripts managed by outside firms

Use of e-transcripts catches on, opening the door to new uses for the student record.

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Market forecast predicts major growth within LMS industry

A new market forecast suggests learning management systems won't just survive for another five years -- they'll thrive.

As colleges prepare for major software upgrades, Kuali tries to woo them from from corporate vendors

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As colleges replace aging campus management software, billions will be spent. Can open-source Kuali save money, and gain traction against corporate competitors?

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MIT releases report on its role in the case against Internet activist Aaron Swartz

Six months after Aaron Swartz's suicide, report says MIT acted appropriately but missed opportunity to be leader on key legal and technology issues. Critics call it a whitewashing.

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Using data in a holistic way to support student success (opinion)

The truest measure of any technology’s value is the return the consumer gets on their investment. On behalf of their students, colleges and universities are today spending billions on new digital tools designed to propel the rapid shift to remote and online learning. But up to this point, the returns have fallen short.

According to a new survey, many students have begun to doubt the underlying value of a degree, with fewer than one in five responding that the learning experience is worth the cost. Today, professors, administrators and their private-sector technology partners need to find better ways to harness the range of new tools at our disposal to improve students’ learning and educational experiences in real time.

Never before have colleges and universities needed to demonstrate so clearly the value of what they provide students. That’s in no small part because higher education institutions now compete more directly with each other on educational efficacy. During the “sage on the stage” era, marketing materials and glossy brochures often highlighted campus life. That’s no longer the only salient criterion. Students are now more prone to judge professors and institutions on the basis of whether they will come away having attained knowledge and skills relevant for their long-term career success.

The good news is that, to a degree unavailable just a few years ago, technology and the data it generates hold the potential to empower instructors to give students feedback not only when a course is completed but also while they’re engaged in their studies, enabling them to glean more from the learning experience. But to maximize the return from those digital tools, those shaping and using technology need to think proactively, intentionally and creatively about how data are generated and how they are best integrated into instruction.

Using the Wisdom Gleaned From Data

Professors today are inundated with technology equipped with the potential to help them hone their craft. For example, if a technology can cull through quiz results to identify which concepts remain hazy in students’ minds, instructors can quickly discern which of their various lesson plans is most effective.

But perhaps more important, technological tools, if properly conceived and used, can now deliver small (personalized) data to help instructors flag students who are struggling to understand the coursework, stay engaged or maintain their motivation. For instance, online homework assignments should be able to reveal who is lost in the material without requiring instructors to invest hours analyzing individual submissions. The data generated from in-class activities like quizzes, polls and discussions should provide insights into student comprehension and levels of participation. Attendance records can pinpoint which students are buckling under their course load. And if all these varied and various data points are considered together, they should provide actionable information.

In other words, if created and collected conscientiously, data can help educators intervene in short order by helping them discern when to assign a tutor, recommend a remedial reading or simply invite a student to revisit a core concept during office hours.

But therein lies a challenge: when educators use multiple tech tools, they contend with the challenge of managing and understanding siloed, disaggregated data. As a result, instructors receive only fragments of the overall picture, leaving many to feel overwhelmed by multiple dashboards and reports. Unable to piece together all the different indicators, instructors struggle to glean real wisdom, let alone adjust to a student’s needs. In an environment where they compete directly with each other on how much students learn through their coursework, colleges and universities cannot afford that lost opportunity.

Taking a Holistic View of Student Performance

Some institutions have begun tackling this challenge with their outside technological partners. Braiding together disparate sources of student-centered data, they are collaboratively finding ways to produce holistic views of each student’s engagement and performance. What’s more, they’re almost immediately finding that a comprehensive data picture can quickly provide a profound value-add for administrators focused on bottom-line educational results.

Key to their progress, however, is the cooperative nature of the partnership. Neither university administrators nor their technological partners can do it alone. If they are going to serve students and instructors to the fullest degree, vendor partners need to produce reliable data, and institutions need to aggregate them.

Over the past few months, Top Hat and Unizin, a technology consortium of higher ed institutions, have collaboratively developed a rich data integration of Top Hat’s digital courseware platform into the Unizin Data Platform, or UDP. Using data standards, the integration combines data generated in Top Hat with the unified, commonly modeled teaching and learning data that the UDP aggregates from other learning tools, including learning management systems. Suddenly, instructors have had at their fingertips comprehensive data capable of pointing them to better educational interventions for each student. As Bart Pursel, Pennsylvania State University’s assistant director of teaching and learning with technology innovation, recently explained to us, the data integration project “gives professors a more complete picture of the student journey so that they can conduct timely and targeted outreach.” And that’s exactly the point.

When Penn State instructors and administrators first moved to remote teaching at the start of the pandemic, the university relied heavily on its learning management system. But in short order, administrators realized they wanted instructors to engage their students not only through the LMS, but before, during and after class, as well. So, they turned to Top Hat to help them build interactions and engagement directly into existing elements of each course -- lectures, digital textbooks, class discussions and more. The challenge, absent the partnerships between the university and Unizin, would have been weaving data from the various technological interventions together. By using the UDP, however, learning in Top Hat and the LMS could be captured with comprehensive data capable of painting complete portraits of individual student journeys, empowering instructors to adjust to each student’s successes and struggles.

The Top Hat-Unizin collaboration has enabled us to validate a number of hypotheses about how institutions, educators and technology companies can work most effectively to create, collect and use learning data that enables instructors to support better learner outcomes. They include:

  • Institutions must design their data strategies with actionable insights in mind. The purpose of an educational data strategy is to inform effective course design and instruction in the immediate term. There’s no sense collecting data that don’t bear on the meaningful decisions that instructors make when working to support individual student success and deliver personalized learning experiences at scale. Developing a strategy also clarifies what kind of learning data you require and why.
  • Vendors must focus on producing high-quality data designed to solve a problem. Partner vendors must think about generating data from the perspective of the needs of the instructor, instructional designer and other stakeholders. That is, they should view the data they generate with an eye toward improved teaching and learning experiences. Valuable data must be: 1) comprehensive, describing everything relevant to addressing a need or problem, 2) correct, accurately reflecting student performance and 3) complete. Vendors should also analyze and process data in a responsible way and ensure security and privacy are part of the design process.
  • Institutions and vendors must work together to guarantee students derive value from their education. The temptation when trying to derive wisdom from data is to ask at the outset what precise data are already available and then make do. That’s a mistake. Rather, institutions like Penn State and its partners, such as Unizin and Top Hat, should first define the problems they need to solve -- and only then should they begin to focus on how to create and leverage data toward that end.

Despite emerging concerns that higher education is not worth the cost, studies prove that college degrees will remain a key differentiator in the marketplace for tomorrow’s high-paying jobs. Technology is poised to help institutions of higher education deliver, but to take advantage of that opportunity, universities and their partners need to do more than collect data for long-term evaluation. By unlocking the power of digitized information to elevate learning experiences, administrators and educators can deliver meaningful value to learners. Together, they can keep students motivated and highlight how their learning journey will help them succeed beyond their college experience.

Cathy O’Bryan is CEO at Unizin, where she leads a consortium of higher education institutions that are dedicated to providing learning analytics at scale that can be used to improve the instructional and research missions of the academy. Bhavin Shah is chief technology officer at Top Hat and drives product innovation to support higher ed institutional leaders as they respond to the rapidly changing and evolving expectations of today’s students.

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New technology systems require new collaborations across many entrenched administrative silos (opinion)

The countless challenges and endless demands that higher education technology leaders have met since the pandemic began come with at least one major silver lining: they validated the urgent need to overhaul woefully outdated technology.

For years, chief information officers have been urging their institutional leaders to invest in modernizing core administrative platforms, with a particular emphasis on moving to cloud-based student information systems (SIS). Most are very old: 72 percent of higher education institutions in the United States still use on-premise legacy platforms selected more than 20 years ago.

Institutions relying on outdated technology are like cities with failing infrastructure -- they are an inefficient hassle for users to navigate. Students expect their learning environment to provide the same seamless digital experience they have elsewhere: personalized engagement and consistent 24-7 access to a range of services and resources across multiple access points, including mobile devices. Systems built two decades ago can’t do that.

The pandemic made everyone painfully aware that these limitations were major liabilities, as many institutions struggled to adapt to an all-remote environment. Students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, faced new barriers in shifting to online learning and accessing support services. Many either didn’t complete the spring 2020 semester or neglected to return in the fall.

The wake-up call came through loud and clear: by neglecting to modernize their technology, institutions lost crucial opportunities to connect students with the people and services they needed to succeed.

In response, top administrators are turning to technology leaders in droves, finally giving them the green light to lead their institutions through the complex process of selecting expensive cloud-based systems to help them transform the student digital experience and build hybrid campus models to better serve their learners.

But choosing the right systems is a massive change-management effort, demanding new collaborations across multiple entrenched administrative silos. Over the past 30 years, I’ve advised hundreds of institutions through their journeys to select and implement technology systems, and modern cloud-based SIS require administrators and their staffs to work more closely with their IT leadership than they ever have before.

Because these systems are fundamentally different from previous ones, it can be quite challenging for chief information officers and other technology leaders to garner the sustained commitment to change these projects require from administrators and staff members across a variety of functional teams. As institutions strive to redefine the student experience, here are three ways stakeholders can partner with their IT teams to bring about positive and transformative improvements with new technology.

No. 1: Commit to collaboration. Deans, faculty and department leaders must take the time to explain their needs and goals to their technology leaders before they begin considering their student system options. In recent years, many administrators have fallen into the trap of creating "shadow IT" challenges by purchasing technology without consulting their IT teams.

The result? It’s quite common to find an ad hoc patchwork of dozens -- often hundreds -- of tools and applications spread across various offices and systems that interact with students.

The bursar’s office might have a convenient online payment system, making it as easy for students to pay tuition with their mobile devices as it is to place an Amazon order. Meanwhile, an academic department could require students to collect and submit paper forms with handwritten signatures to waive a course requirement.

On the front end, these inconsistencies create a confusing maze for students to navigate. Behind the scenes, they are indicative of a tangled mess of one-off solutions selected in a vacuum by departments focused solely on their own needs.

CIOs and their teams are the technology experts with a bird's-eye view of their institution’s entire IT ecosystem. They understand how all the various systems need to fit together, along with related security vulnerabilities they may create. For new cloud-based systems to realize the promise of providing a seamless experience for students, IT leaders must be treated as true strategic partners. Administrators and departments have to make technology purchasing decisions in consultation with them, or they risk wasting time and money on solutions that won’t serve their needs.

No. 2: Compare costs in context. Prepare for sticker-price shock, because modern student systems are one of the most expensive investments an institution makes. A large public university could spend more than $100 million on a new system, and even small institutions can spend more than $5 million in the first five years.

Annual recurring costs for subscriptions, ongoing training, project management fees and other related expenses quickly add up. They also vary greatly depending on an institution’s size, the complexity of the implementation and the chosen vendor.

The many administrators involved in funding and approving cloud-based student systems will want to compare costs across vendors. But available pricing information can be very misleading, given how complicated it is to accurately assess true costs due to:

  • Timing. Pricing for the same systems can fluctuate wildly in a matter of months. Early in their product development cycles, vendors with unproven solutions may offer large pricing discounts as incentives for institutions to be early adopters.
  • Compatibility. Every new student system available has its own distinct technology, so implementation costs for similar-size institutions can vary drastically depending on how compatible the new technology is with existing systems.
  • Vendor assumptions. Price quotes from vendors may be overly optimistic about an institution’s internal resources and expertise. Staff members will probably need retraining, and data will require reorganizing. Those are significant add-on expenses that vendor quotes don’t include.

The bottom line is that the actual cost of a new cloud system is hard to determine without an understanding of how an institution’s specific combination of internal technology resources impacts the pricing.

IT leaders have the strategic expertise to evaluate these price quotes in the proper context and help stakeholders compare them evenly across various vendors. Rely on their guidance to minimize unforeseen expenses and issues down the road.

No. 3: Be reasonable about what you can get. Outdated student technology platforms are heavily customized, because campus technology teams are responsible for regularly operating, maintaining and updating these systems. Newer standardized student platforms shift those responsibilities to the vendor. This saves time and money, but only if the many departments that serve students are willing to work with their campus IT teams ahead of time to modify their operations internally.

It’s hard to overestimate how challenging it can be for administrators and staff to adapt to this new paradigm because it involves fundamental cultural changes in how they do their jobs. They are used to technology adapting to them, not the other way around. As one university CIO noted in a recent Twitter dialogue, developing student systems that can account for the inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies in how various institutions operate creates a “developer’s nightmare.”

In March 2020, however, we saw faculty and staff members overcome years of resistance to change in a matter of weeks. They gained a new appreciation of how vital remote learning technology tools and systems are to their core educational mission, and they worked closely with their technology leaders to ensure students could continue learning under exceptional circumstances.

Moving forward and improving the student experience through cloud-based systems will require an equal commitment to change across entire institutions. It will be challenging and time-consuming for years to come, but it is urgently necessary and certainly possible when institutions trust their IT experts as strategic partners throughout the process.

Vicki Tambellini is the CEO and founder of the Tambellini Group, an independent technology research and advisory firm dedicated exclusively to higher education. She advises hundreds of institutional technology leaders and was named female entrepreneur of the year by the Stevie Awards for Women in Business.

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Unraveling SolarWinds hack's fallout for higher ed

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Colleges and universities aren't confirming that they were hit by the massive SolarWinds cyberattack, but IT experts say the hack calls for bolstering cybersecurity for the future.

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Why colleges are prioritizing privacy

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Protecting the personal information of students and employees is a growing concern for colleges and universities, but where does the buck stop?

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