From the Ground Up

U of Cincinnati is growing a Canopy of university-approved ed-tech tools after making quality control -- with faculty and student input -- part of how it governs information technology.

May 20, 2015

The University of Cincinnati is covering its campuses with a Canopy of software and hardware tools intended to benefit the entire institution.

Piece by piece, the university is building what it calls a learning ecosystem, known as Canopy. As the list of approved tools grows, Canopy could one day replace the university’s learning management system as the portal students access to view lectures, complete assignments, check grades and collaborate with others, administrators say.

The bear cat, the university’s mascot, “thrive[s] under the thick tree cover of the forest canopy,” the university writes on the website explaining Canopy. “In UC’s Canopy, Bearcats also thrive.”

With the ed-tech market booming and a new app or tool or product introduced seemingly on a daily basis, many faculty members struggle to determine which can live up to the ambitious marketing rhetoric. Colleges, on their end, struggle to figure out how to provide advice and which tools to support, as opposed to just tolerate.

Cincinnati is attempting to address that challenge internally. As part of a recently reshuffled IT governance structure, the university has built what effectively amounts to a quality-control process.

Faculty members at the university are free to use -- and are encouraged to experiment with -- whatever tools they want in their classrooms. For that tool to be approved as a part of Canopy, it needs to be vetted by five subcommittees (e-learning, IT managers, research and development, core services and shared infrastructure, and information security and compliance) before an IT council takes a final vote. The committees include administrators, faculty members, students and staffers.

“It takes more time in the end, but at least you know you’ve done the right thing,” said Anton C. Harfmann, the associate dean of academic technology and facilities, who chairs the core services and shared infrastructure subcommittee.

If approved, the university will provide support, which in some cases could save money. At one point, three different colleges were paying for access to, an online course portal. By purchasing one license to cover the entire institution, the university saved about 50 percent, Harfmann said.

The university puts every tool up for review through a framework known as the 6S Model -- six overarching issues, each beginning with the letter S, that the tool needs to address. The process begins with determining whether a tool fits the university’s overall strategy, and then, crucially, if the tool can be standardized to fit any use case. If those questions produce favorable answers, then the university moves on to examining how it can support, scale and sustain the tool, and finally, whether or not the tool is secure.

Not many tools have made it through the process so far -- the university views them as “complex decisions with long-term consequences,” said Christopher J. Edwards, assistant vice president for e-learning technology. Among those that have received approval are Blackboard Learn, the university’s learning management system, and Kaltura, an open-source video platform. This academic year the university is piloting Echo360, a lecture capture tool, for Canopy.

Some tools have useful functions but a limited audience, which is why the university represents the standardization stage of the 6S Model with a stop sign (see above), Edwards said. The e-learning subcommittee recently spent months testing products from various e-portfolio providers, for example. In the end, the subcommittee decided no single product could cover all the uses on campus. Instead of making one product an official part of Canopy, the university is letting individual departments use whichever product they feel best showcases work in their disciplines.

“The key notion about Canopy is we’re not trying to identify every educational technology out there,” said. “We’re being careful to look for tools that are independent, that are truly enterprisewide. We’re getting close to having that kind of ecosystem in place.”

Building 'The House'

Cincinnati is one of many universities wondering how best to structure itself to respond to the rapidly changing ed-tech landscape. IT leaders themselves consistently rank those issues -- change management, enterprise planning and technology in the classroom -- as some of the top challenges they face, according to research conducted by Educause, a higher education IT organization.

Cincinnati’s new governance structure, known as “the house,” debuted during the 2013-14 academic year, but the university’s efforts to promote the use of technology on campus date back decades.

When the university was reaccredited in 1999, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools found a “notable lack of planning for the use of information technology” both in administration and academics, “limited” support for faculty members and problems with outdated equipment that went “ignored.”

At the time, the university had a “very centralized” IT structure with a council that “told us what to do,” said Nelson Vincent, the university’s chief information officer. Now, it includes voices from all of campus and reports up to the president's cabinet. Only a few other university governance structures, including academics and budgeting, do the same, Vincent pointed out.

By 2009, Cincinnati had made some structural but ultimately “insufficient” improvements. The university responded by creating a blue-ribbon task force on the issue, which determined the university lagged behind peer institutions on the use of IT.

“A confluence of factors, including the rapid acceleration of new technologies impacting teaching, learning and research, a lack of strategic planning for academic information technology, historically insufficient funding for IT, and infrastructure, resource and governance limitations, had given rise to a growing dissatisfaction with the university’s current academic information technology framework and services and its ability to remain competitive,” the task force wrote in its report.

As one of its short-term goals, the task force therefore recommended the university create a new governance structure. It also found that students wanted to use technology in the classroom.

Edwards said the university is close to approving the tools that make up Canopy's foundation, and it will continue to work with departments to find tools that fit their disciplines. "Now it’s an exercise in deepening the integration between the products, creating training opportunities and robust documentation," he said.

Vincent, who first came to Cincinnati in 1988 as a doctoral student and was involved in both reaccreditation efforts, said the university has “come a long way” in the last decade and a half. The university still struggles to make sense of new platforms, he said, but it has grown more comfortable talking about the return on investment from investments in technology and whether that means increasing enrollments, boosting student engagement or reducing the time to degree completion.

“Before, it was a bright, shiny thing for IT-minded folks,” Vincent said. “Now it’s a conversation that affects everyone.”


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