Role of 'the Big Four Technologies' in Higher Education

By Keith A Cronk, CIO, Harding University

Keith A Cronk, CIO, Harding University

 “Raindrops keep fallin' on my head
Just like the guy whose feet are too big for his bed
Nothing seems to fit....”

Those lines from the B J Thomas song keep going around in my head as I think of the issues facing information systems and technology in higher education. The same 'big four' topics are confronting higher education CIOs and their departments, as confront other industries - big data, cloud, mobile and networking. With some of these topics though, it feels like 'our feet are too big for the bed'! For some time big data did not seem to fit in higher education.

However, big data is breaking into higher education institutions. It is intriguing that it has taken longer to be adopted in higher education than other industries, but over the last five to ten years, the need to wrangle all the tiny data that exists on campuses has become crucial. There are pulls and pushes for the big data. It is being pulled by the Departments of Education and the accreditation bodies who demand an ever increasing amount of data from the institutions. It is being pushed from the inside by stronger demands for data driven decision making, covering areas such as admissions, student success, financial performance and resource utilization.

Many institutions have stood on the sideline of big data for a long time, hoping that the wave would wash over them and dissipate away. However, it has not happened that way and now there is a real surge to implement big data in institutions of all sizes. The big data systems have a number of names, but the generic name of business intelligence (BI) systems is a good title for them. Many of the larger public institutions have led the way and there are great examples of the benefits these systems provide to those institutions. The smaller and medium size private institutions have been slower to embrace BI systems. BI systems can be expensive and will require more people. They require ongoing support and maintenance. But the value they bring is being understood and even sought after. 

It is very important though, that big data is not seen as a quick fix for a reporting issue. For big data to return the value it promises, it must be implemented with long term usage in mind. The allure of BI systems are the shiny dashboards and reports that can be easily manipulated to give wonderful insights into the reality of what is happening around and in the institution. However, if the data warehouse (the place from which the data in the dashboards is collected) is not correctly populated and maintained then there will be no integrity in the information the dashboard is showing. And then the real key, the extract, transform and load (ETL) must be rigorous. If the data warehouse is loaded with dubious data extracted from the various transaction based systems, then again the information in the dashboards and reports will have no integrity. In other words, when looking at big data and BI systems do not take short cuts for some short term win, do not be pushed into to have some hasty dashboard constructed just to satisfy an immediate request. It is an implementation that has to be managed with a long term stability perspective in mind.

There is a variety of BI systems available, including some well regarded cloud based systems. Many higher education institutions have been using cloud based systems for quite some time. The early adopters of Google Apps for Education have been serving their email, enterprise calendar and collaborative document tools from the cloud for many years now. While the actual operation of 'the cloud' is still cloaked in mystery and with a certain degree of suspicion, higher education institutions continue to push on strongly utilizing cloud based systems. Their biggest appeal is the removal of the overhead maintenance costs - no servers, no updates, no obsolescence, no infrastructure, and fewer maintenance people on campus. It is very appealing and compelling. The variety of systems being served from the cloud also makes it completely viable. A quick survey will reveal that all sorts of systems are being served from the cloud on the nation's campuses - email, document creation and sharing, learning management systems, BI systems, parking tickets, transcript requests and delivery, resource management, website hosting, content management systems and so forth. The cloud systems encompass the key strategic systems, not just stand alone systems. The doubts about security remain, especially after some very public breaches, but the adoption has not slowed. The hope and belief is that the security for all the data that is in the cloud will be robust enough to protect the information stored there by higher education institutions. But what if there is a breach of that data, who is culpable, the cloud provider or the institution?

However, the area which that should attract the most attention is learning with technology. Surely our efforts in higher education should be more focused on how we can bring better value to our students through improved and more cost effective learning. The digital networks are all but in place to allow this to surge ahead. The tools and techniques are maturing. Organizations like Quality Matters are providing higher education with taxonomy to build deeper, higher quality and more accessible learning environments using technology. However, the task that lies before higher education CIOs is not so much in wrestling with the technology. It is managing the changes the learning technology will bring to the learning. Changes in how, where, when and who in the delivery and receipt of higher learning are, and will be increasingly be disruptive. Will higher education be the same in 20 years as it is today? Definitely not! Will higher education institutions be able to attract students to their athletic fields, dormitories and classrooms in the same numbers in the future as we have in the past? If we can deliver higher quality learning, accepted qualifications without the social life and sense of college community at a lower cost, will it change the higher education scene in any way? Maybe will begin to feel even stronger the sense that our 'feet do not fit in the bed'.

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