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Stable Priorities, Unstable Times

Chief information officers have for years said they care about training professors and students, but a new survey shows they have yet to figure out how.

October 1, 2014
 
Inside Higher Ed
Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen delivers a keynote speech during the 2014 Educause conference.

ORLANDO -- As the higher education IT community meets at the annual Educause conference in search the next big thing, a survey shows IT officials still place training and support for faculty, staff and students at the top of their priority lists.

The survey, by the Campus Computing Project, has tracked institutional trends in information technology since 1990. This year, it was presented amid more than 400 other sessions on faculty development, cybersecurity, competency-based education and myriad other topics presented during Educause -- the can’t-miss ed-tech event that brings together more than 7,300 people from over 50 countries to discuss the role of technology in higher education.

The survey this year attracted respondents from 470 institutions of every Carnegie classification, 70 percent of whom returned from last year’s edition.

Despite the ebbs and flows of recent ed-tech trends, the top institutional IT priorities have seen little change over the past few years. The top four priorities of the 2014 survey, chosen by about three-quarters of the chief information officers and other IT officials who responded to the survey, all relate to services such as helping faculty and students use technology in and outside the classroom and hiring capable IT staffers. Those priorities are consistent among all sectors of higher education, from community colleges to private research universities.

That stability, however, belies concerns that college and universities are unable to offer the right training to faculty, staff and students. IT officials’ evaluations of their own institutions’ IT infrastructure present almost a mirror image of their list of priorities. While 81.4 percent of respondents listed faculty development as their top priority, only 27.9 percent rated their existing training offerings as excellent (or a seven on a seven-point scale). At 12.8 percent, IT training for students drew the second-lowest share of respondents giving it an excellent rating.

Which issues are most important for IT officials, and how do they rate their existing IT infrastructure? View our interactive graphics.

IT support provides somewhat of an exception to that rule. It ranks as the third most important priority, but a majority of respondents, or 58.5 percent, also said their institutions provide excellent support services. Yet respondents also identified pockets of students who are not receiving sufficient support. Only 49 percent of institutions said they have a strategic plan to make their resources accessible to students with disabilities, and 81.1 percent of respondents rated IT support for those students less than excellent. That data comes at a time when advocacy groups for students with disabilities are fighting for new guidelines that would require institutions to make their digital resources accessible.

Kenneth C. (Casey) Green, who founded the Campus Computing Project (and who is also a blogger for Inside Higher Ed), called the the numbers about IT support and training “dismal.”

“If you look at those priorities ... and you look at the self-assessment on the part of the IT officers about key components of that in terms of enabling infrastructure, there’s a huge gap,” Green said in an interview. “I think it’s an issue of recognizing that training and user support is a critical part of the infrastructure. Even in good times, those resources are not adequately funded.

“It’s not a matter of just offering faculty training,” Green added, “Faculty often have a just-in-time need. Students have a just-in-time need.”

Instead of making faculty members take classes over the summer, or in place of teaching a course, some colleges and universities are moving to more of an on-demand model.

In a Tuesday morning session, representatives from the University of Tennessee presented their Online Instructor Toolkit, which includes a five-point list to guide faculty members through the process of creating an online course, from analysis to evaluation. As the university announces support for a new teaching application, be it Audacity or Google Apps for Education, staff members in the IT office will add a new section to the toolkit with resources on how to use the application.

“The toolkit was intended to be a growing resource, because as our services change ... we wanted our toolkit to change as well,” said Iryna P. Loboda, an instructional projects coordinator at the university.

Disruption, Disrupted

The recurring themes in the Campus Computing Survey provide a counterpoint to Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen, who opened the first full day of the conference with prediction about the disruptive powers of modular education.

“I worry about bubbles, and I worry that in this industry we may be facing a bubble at some point,” Christensen said. “I think the structure of higher education will likely change.”

Despite Christensen’s warnings, some of the recent trends threatening to upset the status quo of higher education have fizzled.

For example, the interest in massive open online courses has plummeted. Last year -- the peak year for MOOC interest as captured in the survey -- more than two-thirds of respondents were unsure if MOOCs could be monetized; this year, that number has shot up to 80.6 percent. After a majority of chief information officers last year said MOOCs presented a viable model for online education, that group is now in the minority everywhere but at private universities, the numbers tumbling between 10 to 15 percentage points across the board.

The declining interest in MOOCs has not affected how IT officials view outsourcing online education to an outside vendor. In fact, nearly half of respondents now view outsourcing as a viable strategy for launching or expanding online programs, and in the past year alone, large institutions such as the University of Florida have outsourced some of their online services to launch a major online push.

The transition to cloud computing is also taking longer than anticipated. Less than one-third of institutions, or 29 percent, said they have a strategic plan for moving to the cloud -- virtually unchanged from last year’s 27 percent.

“The fact that there’s such a significant minority that feel -- rightly or wrongly -- that we’re as secure on campus as other firms can be putting this stuff in the cloud ... becomes another speed bump in the process of moving to the cloud,” Green said. “The major IT vendors are still struggling with their message about moving to the cloud and showing folks that it’s there.”

While fewer than 10 percent of the surveyed institutions have moved their business management software to the cloud, the survey suggests colleges and university may be using their learning management systems to test the waters. Canvas, from Instructure, appears to have gained the most from that shift, as the survey pegs its share of the overall LMS market at 12.6 percent. Blackboard, which has seen many of its customers seek out new systems in recent years, still controls 40.4 percent of the market.

Even though a majority of institutions said cloud computing will help them reduce costs without sacrificing quality of their IT infrastructure, the survey does not predict a “mass movement” to the cloud by 2019. That stability extends to finances.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of not seeing the value added,” Green said. “These are risk-averse campuses, and very few are willing to take that ‘journey of Columbus’ off the edge of the world to see if the world is round or if there are ridges over there.”

Budget concerns are at the very least less of a roadblock to a transition to cloud computing than a few years ago. Slightly more IT offices reported to seeing their budgets cut during the 2013-2014 academic year, but on average, institutions cut less: 6.8 percent on average, compared to 9.6 percent one year ago.

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