Central IT Support: Closing the Instructional Gap

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Determining how to align IT with an institution's instructional needs has become a high priority for CIOs, but where can they focus their attention to do the most good? Steps central IT can take include reaching out to faculty, building the instructional infrastructure, finding cost and performance efficiencies, and facilitating agile development for innovators.

Central IT Support: Closing the Instructional Gap 

Aligning information technology with the institution's instructional needs has become such a high priority for higher ed CIOs that instructional support questions ranked #1 and #3 in the EDUCAUSE Top 10 IT Issues in 2014, and #2 and #4 in 2015. In the world of higher education, why is meeting the needs of faculty and students such an immediate and pressing issue? Surely after decades of blooming IT usage at colleges and universities, IT staff understand the instructional uses of technology.

In fact, pressure on education itself is causing greater interest in IT on campuses. Administrators understand the business purposes of IT well, and higher education has used IT for business purposes for decades. The larger portion of most IT budgets supports business processes like billing and registration.

Pockets of interested faculty on every campus have investigated the uses of technology in teaching over those same decades, but they have been, if anything, pressured to keep their projects small. As Jeffrey Selingo’s recent book, College (Un)bound, points out, driven by ranking systems, the goal has often been to look like other schools in your bracket — but if possible slightly better.1 For an institution to have educational programs clearly different from other institutions in the same bracket would be counterproductive. By the criteria by which institutions judged themselves, by the criteria important to incoming students, and even by the criteria used by the U.S. News & World Report, any institution that looked like a wild outlier in some instructional way would have been judged wanting, because those scales assign relative rank.

The cost of higher education and its effect on the middle class has become a White House priority, if not a congressional one. The Broad and Gates foundations and the Obama administration would like to find an objective measure of the quality of education rather than the previous relative ones. So many revolutionary teaching and learning technologies come and go in the public eye, perhaps the time has come for revolutionary change in education.

Build a Bridge to the Instructional Side

It makes sense that CIOs want to position their departments to support their institutions in taking advantage of whatever technologies can help them achieve their mission and goals, incrementally or revolutionarily. But a cursory examination of teaching tools makes it unclear how central IT organizations can help the instructional mission.

A mid-size institution can acquire a learning management system (LMS) for a quarter of a million dollars or less; enterprise resource planning systems (ERPs) cost millions. Nothing else in the educational technology space is anywhere near as expensive as an LMS, except perhaps classrooms. Classrooms often fall under the purview of areas other than IT: the physical plant, libraries, events management, you name it. IT often puts in a computer or it doesn’t, and that’s the end of its involvement.

Asking how instructors want to use technology to teach quickly gets you down in the weeds. Faculty are interested in everything from duplicating the Khan Academy to using Twitter, but Twitter is a free commodity, and duplicating the Khan Academy would require expensive custom programming.

I’m sure most CIOs in higher ed stay informed about developments like flipped classrooms and hybrid teaching, but those are teaching models, not technologies, and it’s not always clear what role IT can or should play in facilitating them. It’s tough to imagine where CIOs might focus their attention to do the most good.

Let me offer a few ways to start reducing all that complexity so that you can build out instructional support in a sustainable way.

Build a Base of Technology Support

Most IT departments already feel comfortable with providing the basic infrastructure for instruction. This includes the following elements.

  • LMSs. Keeping the LMSs on campus at one (or as low as possible) delivers consistency and cost savings. Integrating the LMS with their ERP is a necessity for most institutions. At this point, LMS use generally far exceeds matriculated courses.

  • Interestingly, after years of little movement, this market has become interesting again. Not only has Blackboard Learn, the primary commercial product, added a number of new features to address the capabilities of Canvas, the company has purchased multiple smaller companies (including open-source Moodlerooms) and has put itself up for sale, while Instructure plans an IPO. Increasingly, other products have launched in this market, from big companies like Google and Macmillan to small products like Schoology. It’s a good time for an assessment of whether your LMS matches your faculty's wants and needs.

Beyond those basics, adding analytics to your LMS is one of the most revolutionary ways you can really use IT to help academics. Measuring time on task and seeing grade progression, although not new ways to improve academic success, are easier to set up and easier to use with the appropriate technology.

  • Classrooms. Holding classes in different ways requires different classrooms. Economies of scale result from designing flexible and multipurpose rooms. IT can have a role in everything from Wi-Fi density to iPad projection and facilitating student-centered uses of technology inside classrooms. Being involved in classroom design means being involved in all aspects of the room, not just the elements with a plug.
  • Media servers. Too expensive to implement well at every level of campus, media servers should be centralized both for security and for economies of scale. Integrating streaming and recording video with the LMS is ideal, and there are good tools for this; there are not good tools yet to integrate one streaming media service with every system where one wants to use video, like e-portfolios or assessment reporting products.

    They will arrive soon, though, with products like Zoom (videoconferencing) integrating with Kaltura (streaming media). Having an easy-to-use central service is critical for flipped, hybrid, and online course faculty, as well as any faculty member using video in face-to-face classes. Streaming video is crucial, but searchable media archives/digital asset management capabilities like those provided by Omeka have a huge number of possible uses and not enough resources going into making them broadly available on campuses.

  • Integration. For years we have asked LMS companies to provide better hooks to commodity communication tools, and increasingly we are seeing this. But secure integration requires upkeep, as the Heartbleed incident demonstrated. Students and faculty have become familiar with using LMSs, and learning should not always happen in public. Secure integrations that allow public discussion where the participants want it to be public and private discussion where the participants want it to be private will continue to be in demand for a long time. Allowing faculty to move as needed between public social media and private academic discussions is a good way to bring students into the traditional academic activity of research and learning on campuses.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to CIOs acting in new ways is political, but political boundaries are not insuperable. Every ERP deployment requires reviewing and changing workflows and procedures across every administrative department that they touch. EDUCAUSE members have a long history of leading collaborative discussion and development on their campuses. Perhaps some CIOs fear leading similar discussions among academic departments, given the seeming impossibility of determining anything that faculty should or should not do, which comes under the heading of academic freedom.

Offering efficient, reliable, centralized, integrated services does not impinge on anyone’s academic freedom. Centralizing the perhaps 80 percent of faculty needs that can be shared and thereby realizing economies of scale does not impinge on anyone’s academic freedom. Requiring that only these services be used might impinge on academic freedom, but few campuses have attempted to dictate such a thing. If a campus can decide as a community that cost savings are OK, then realizing such savings in an integrated way is a service central IT can render to that community.

As the pendulum swings back and forth between software convergence and divergence, it’s worth reminding all stakeholders that sometimes the one feature you feel is a make-or-break decision maker might disappear in future versions. Your IT people should help you have an eye for what is core and what is ancillary (and maybe temporary) as you plan for at least a five-to-seven-year lifecycle for any academic product you acquire.2

Example 1: Standard and Innovative Classroom Design

At Hofstra University I convened and headed the task force in 2005 that enacted agreed-upon standards for classroom technology. Those have been in use at Hofstra, with revisions, ever since. While IT people may shy away from classroom design, any student will encounter a learning technology for the first time in a classroom, and classroom design can profoundly affect how faculty teach. By standardizing, Hofstra reduced costs for parts and labor and also ensured that faculty could design classroom activities that didn’t depend on or change with room assignments.

At the same time, Hofstra has piloted many new technologies in classrooms, from clickers to wireless iOS projection, and continues to experiment with classroom design (including active learning classrooms). By running these pilots like any other IT pilot, with requirements gathering, support, and feedback gathering, IT support staff partner with faculty to find the tools they want to use where they want to use them, and get them into production just like computer hardware and software.

Example 2: Communicating Classroom Repair Status to Faculty

IT staff always seem to aim for many nines of uptime. Lesser service-level agreements (SLAs) don’t seem to have the same power over our imagination. But faculty can generally teach if they have students. What they can’t always do is conceive of an entirely new class plan when they hit the door of their classroom to find something broken.

Hofstra built a small custom program integrated in our faculty support center that runs in the event of a classroom technology outage that cannot be repaired in the two-hour SLA window. It pulls the names of faculty scheduled to teach in that room for the next 24 hours and lets them know of the problem. The support center also notifies faculty on completion of the repair. Again, IT helps, supports, and partners with faculty; in return IT receives a great deal of thanks and understanding.

Cost and Performance Efficiencies for Groups

CIOs can offer far more than just these "services for everybody." The next level up? Services for some. Just as departments like finance and human resources and financial aid have specialized applications, federal requirements, and processes, so do departments like physics, sociology, or art. Providing these in a cost-effective, secure, integrated way will become increasingly important.

License compliance has become a huge part of this process.

In addition, it’s often small companies or other academics who write the applications critical to these areas. Often they’re written by the faculty themselves. Hardening those applications and the hardware they run on will be a growth industry.

As pointed out in a February 2015 EDUCAUSE webinar on legal issues facing higher education technology professionals, the Harvard e-mail scandal produced a number of faculty who claimed that they would simply eschew Harvard systems altogether.3 Security for student data, much less research data, in such an environment becomes increasingly difficult. CIOs will need to recruit faculty to participate in their services in ways they often did not need to do with administrative departments in the 1990s and early 2000s. Offering to help them with discipline-specific products will add value to academic departments, which frequently pay those costs now with grant money and seldom meet the security standards that central IT would advise.

Example 3: Classroom Testing

I've drawn several of my examples from what Hofstra has done with classrooms partly because this work requires no academic changes, and faculty are unlikely to complain about better classroom service! But license compliance is something faculty tend not to want to know about; it can introduce barriers to using discipline-specific software that will not be licensed for an entire college or university.

The automated classroom testing software that our faculty support group developed integrates with software licensing information such that when it checks that a room is working properly, with the proper software installed, it also checks to make sure some products are not installed, and it checks for some products that should only be installed in that location. This greatly assists license compliance, with no further burden on faculty or students.

Example 4: Meeting a School’s Faculty Development Needs

I’ll cheat a little by combining several smaller projects under one example; there are multiple opportunities here.

Both department-specific software and instructional design goals tend to happen at the department or school level, not necessarily university-wide. Open communication channels with deans and chairs mean that faculty support staff have been able to run specific training workshops for specific schools’ goals in everything from offering more online courses to bootstrapping the faculty’s knowledge of basic computing in order to take them to a new level. Faculty support offers many types of faculty development programs, but when they can offer them for a whole department or school, around their specific goals, a huge jump in technology usage occurs that matches the participants' stated goals.

Agile Development for the Innovators

CIOs can support experimental efforts in teaching and learning at the very top of the pyramid. This has long been the purview of smaller schools with larger discretionary funding, like Bowdoin and Brown. But higher education institutions cannot afford to wait for other schools to find out what the 21st century university should be doing. We all need to contribute to this body of knowledge.

This doesn’t mean that every campus should reinvent the same wheel. If one campus develops a tool that potentially revolutionizes the teaching of a topic like writing — MIT’s Annotation Studio comes to mind — other institutions should not develop their own version of it. For example, Hofstra collaborates with the MIT team and runs an instance of their open-source product. Participating faculty give feedback to the MIT team, and their team comes to our campus to talk about the functioning of classes. The two universities have found this a productive way to share progress.

Higher education has always been more open to collaboration than corporations. (I have yet to meet a corporate partner who defines “collaboration” the way I do.) Aligning the work of central IT with instructional goals means that resources in all central IT departments will start to be allocated for this type of multi-campus collaboration. The open-source software model is important here. Corporate products will never provide everything faculty need for innovative education. Those players only appear when they see money to be made in a market. Higher ed must pilot and fail many products and many teaching models to find the ones that have the best effect for the students they serve. The initial experimentation should be supported by the higher education institutions themselves.

(That also means that there will be grouping in such development, because our two-year institutions may end up developing very different products and teaching models from our four-year publics, our four-year privates, our research institutions, and so on.)

Faculty need IT as partners because IT uses agile development. IT can bring requirements gathering, alpha and beta testing, piloting, and secure, cost-effective, production-level expansion to the table for any type of product adoption, even when IT does not write the software. Those are processes IT knows that faculty never think about. Faculty welcome the help in turning their clever ideas into a bigger idea and then maybe a campus-wide idea — and they need the help doing it. Otherwise, the explosive growth in shadow IT will dominate our teaching tools in the way it already encroaches on our business practices. Moreover, higher ed IT will forfeit any opportunity it has to really participate in developing the tools faculty need to teach in a revolutionary way.

In other words, higher ed IT will have taken itself out of the technology revolution in higher ed.

This situation is not analogous to the development of ERPs and might be my most controversial claim here. But this will be the most serious and long-lasting contribution by CIOs to the academic mission. Free-market forces simply don’t align well with the goals of education. Higher education is a big business and looks like an attractive market to corporate vendors, but vendors have little access to our faculty and our students, and they have no investment in learning per se. When a product becomes sufficiently scalable and central that a company can make money on it (like the LMS product space), we might well see growth in commercial offerings in that space. But to date, corporate offerings are far more likely to support the status quo in teaching, not innovation.

Columns like The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “ProfHacker” exist because innovative faculty have to hack their own solutions. They get together at venues like THATCamps and share their thoughts. If CIOs also attended and worked together to allot sufficient resources to boost the most broadly applicable products, they could become the engine that drove the growth and broad adoption of faculty-invented tools that let faculty teach the way they want to teach.

Whether that occurs will be critical to the future of higher education.


  1. Jeffrey J. Selingo, College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).
  2. For more information on this consultative role in a specifically academic setting, see Richard Holmgren and Gene Spencer, “The Changing Landscape of Library and Information Services: What Presidents, Provosts, and Finance Officers Need to Know,” CLIR Report 162, Council on Library and Information Resources, September 2014.
  3. Seth Gilbertson and Joseph Storch, speakers, and Marc Hoit, host, “Legal Issues for Higher Ed Technology Professionals: Spend an Hour with Lawyers to Prevent Spending Many Hours with Lawyers,” EDUCAUSE Live!, February 27, 2014. Gilbertson and Storch are associate counsels, Office of General Counsel, SUNY System Administration, and Hoit is vice chancellor and CIO for North Carolina State University.

Judith Tabron is director of Faculty and Student Computing Services at Hofstra University. Previously she was director of Academic Technology Services at Brandeis University and taught English at Slippery Rock University. She completed the Frye Leadership Institute in 2008 and was the founding information officer for the revived New York State chapter of the ACE Women's Network, for which she currently serves as the State Coordinator. Her PhD is in English and American Literature.

© 2015 Judith Tabron. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International.