The Top 10 IT Issues from a Small College Perspective

Key Takeaways

  • The EDUCAUSE Top-Ten IT Issues represent an average of many opinions, leaving the question, What might an individual institution do to address the issues on the list?
  • The purchasing power of large institutions reaches well beyond the resources of all but the wealthiest small colleges, and relative staff sizes are also magnified by institution size.
  • Sharing ideas would have great impact and aid development of best practices for small colleges based on information not just from "small" institutions but also those with IT organizations that operate more like a small college than a large one.

Allan Chen is CIO of Menlo College, and Robert Paterson is vice president of Information Technology, Planning, and Research at Molloy College.

Each year, EDUCAUSE's Top-Ten IT Issues are meant to provide all higher education institutions with key strategic areas for focus and possibly concern. Whether a college already has a well-developed cloud strategy, online curriculum program, or leaders with a firm grasp on the power of analytics, invariably some areas highlighted by these issues deserve more attention and discussion. However, each institution might respond to these issues in different ways. Many small colleges, for example, have a decidedly different perspective on the issues.

From Aggregate to Individual Concerns

A wide range of institutions help create this list. In the end, the top-ten issues represent an average of many opinions across a diverse set of institutions. This raises the question "What might an individual institution do to address the issues on the list?" In particular, is this aggregate of topics relevant to small institutions? How can each adequately deal with items on the list? If not, what do small institutions do when one of these issues impacts their environment? How do they prioritize,   identify, and implement solutions?

However colleges choose to define "small," clearly one size does not fit all. Seeing one interpretation or general set of responses to a shared set of challenges fails to acknowledge the diversity of organizations and leaders in the field of higher education IT.

Small colleges interpret the issues in strikingly different ways. For instance, an effective cloud strategy is arguably more important at smaller institutions than larger ones, and should involve careful consideration. However, what services are or are not used might depend less on long-term vision than on short-term necessity. If a system is aging and we simply do not have the resources to even consider cloud vs. in-house, then the only option might be a cloud service. If we do not have the development staff to build a learning management system, then we turn to providers. Is this a cloud strategy or simply how things turned out in the process of addressing mission-critical needs? If the latter, then have we truly addressed a top-ten IT "issue" in a meaningful way?

Large vs. Small Higher Education Institutions

Scale will always be another challenge. The purchasing power of large institutions for products and services reaches well beyond the resources of all but the wealthiest small colleges. Relative staff size issues are also magnified. For example, maintaining industry-standard security policies is a challenge when a chief information security officer (CISO) position is not an option and the security function is relegated to .25 FTE of "the network guy."

Analytics can yield incredibly powerful insights, but it takes tremendous resources to truly interpret such large amounts of data. Those resources include both FTE staff positions and time. In many small schools the staff is in constant motion just to keep the data flowing.

The list of top IT issues is important to all of higher education, yet some of the issues might never get addressed on small-college campuses. In such a reactive environment are small colleges spending increasingly less time planning and more time just "getting by?" How do IT staff deal with the challenge of prioritization, which is different and in many cases arguably more difficult at smaller schools than larger ones? And are these issues more or less right for, and of strategic impact at, a small college?

Varying Perspectives on Solutions

There are virtually as many different options for addressing the top-ten issues as there are institutions, and we must not lose sight of these differences. We in higher education certainly must consider the prevailing landscape of challenges, but we must also recognize the differences in how we can and will take part in developing solutions.

So are there approaches to the top-ten list of IT issues that might benefit small institutions? Since these issues describe the present state of affairs, might there be a mechanism to help identify the relative importance of a particular issue to any one institution? The trends graph on the EDUCAUSE website demonstrates how certain topics are waxing and waning. For instance, the topic of staff development has occurred in various forms many times on these lists. What can a CIO at a small school do with that information? Based on this trend, should staff development have more or less priority than another issue?  Most importantly, do institutions actually do anything differently with staff development after the list is published?

Many potential options can address some of the questions raised above. Despite the difficulty in defining "small," there is without a doubt a group of colleges that identify themselves as such. An EDUCAUSE Top-Ten IT Issues survey parsed for these schools in particular might provide an interesting supplement to the original list. Perhaps, rather than providing raw numbers of how many votes were given to which topic as the top 10 list is developed, votes for topic by school size could be provided. This would allow schools of any size to see a larger and more detailed picture.

Sharing Ideas

A stronger effort to share ideas would have great impact. How do schools deal with staff shortages, for example? A collection of best practices for, say, finding a middle ground between cloud strategies by need vs. planning would be invaluable. This information can come both from institutions that are statistically small but also those with IT organizations that operate more like a small college than a large one.

The CIO community gets to some of this information through the efforts of individuals on the EDUCAUSE CIO listserv who raise questions and stimulate discussion. These efforts are sporadic, however, and depend on individuals' time and effort. Some of the analyses and additional survey suggested above might alleviate this dependency on the good nature of a few individuals and bring more voices into the discussion.

A variety of colleges might also benefit from information specific to their unique interests described in the reporting on top-ten IT concerns.  Examples would include HBCUs, community colleges, and online-only colleges. Addressing specific groups might require modifying the EDUCAUSE survey. This greater granularity of the information and the opportunity to learn from similar campuses could also support development of best practices by campus type. Although the EDUCAUSE Core Data Service provides much of this sorting ability, the EDUCAUSE Top-Ten IT Issues have greater public recognition and require less time investment by participants. Perhaps the two initiatives could integrate their data to provide guidance to different institutions throughout higher education based on their specific interests. Now that's an IT issue small colleges could champion.