Partnership and Collaboration in Mission-Driven IT Projects

This article describes IT partnerships and collaborations on a mission-driven, in-progress project: the innovative development and rollout of My Degree Plan, a tool for mapping the path toward graduation for Fresno State students.

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A technology-based revolution underway in higher education is changing not only how our students learn but also how universities support and guide that learning journey to degree completion and the job market beyond. IT's role in this revolution depends both on a team's technical knowledge and skills and commitment to the institution's mission and to partnership and collaboration with people across the campus community. Lacking such a commitment, IT departments risk becoming little more than support staff who keep existing campus systems running.

For the past two years, I've worked as the chief information officer (CIO) at California State University in Fresno (Fresno State). Through this leadership role, which the university supports at the highest levels, my team and I are actively engaged in Fresno State's mission of empowering students for success, cross-campus collaborations, and collaborations with other universities and organizations. Currently, these collaborations focus on projects that support a mission common to Fresno State, the larger California State University System, and the state of California as a whole: to increase graduation rates among students.

Here, I describe our partnerships and collaborations on a mission-driven, in-progress project: the development and rollout of My Degree Plan, a tool for mapping the path toward graduation for Fresno State students. I also discuss collaboration approaches in general, our lessons learned so far, and how those lessons can strengthen our efforts on this and other projects as we move forward.

The My Degree Plan Project

My Degree Plan is a web-based tool hosted on the MyFresnoState portal. In phase 1, My Degree Plan only creates the proposed schedule for the student. In later phases, the tool should allow a student to press a few buttons to pre-enroll or enroll in the classes planned for the upcoming semester. The tool will load required courses based on a student's desired degree and degree progress report. The information it uses includes the student's major, courses taken, and degree requirements. A student can then use the interactive tool to drag-and-drop courses to create a mapping of the courses needed to graduate. We recommend that each student create a degree plan each semester and engage an advisor to discuss plan options for the upcoming year. So, for example, if a student cannot take a required class that is only offered in the fall semester, the student will want to use My Degree Plan to understand how future semesters will be affected by a one-year delay in taking a certain class.

Figure 1 links to a tutorial on creating a plan in My Degree Plan.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Tutorial on creating a plan

The idea for My Degree Plan emerged in 2015 when Fresno State partnered with EDUCAUSE and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success (iPASS) to better support student retention and graduation rates through integrated advising, degree planning, and early warning analytics. Academic Affairs, Student Affairs, and Technology Services collaborated in an effort to build a technology-infused ecosystem to support this next generation of student services, which can provide students with timely course corrections that should minimize delays in obtaining a degree. The iPASS leadership team meets monthly; it consists of the vice provost for Academic Affairs, the director for central advising services from Student Affairs, the associate vice president of the Office of Institutional Effectiveness, and the CIO. Together we bring together various groups of campus constituents to advance this important change effort in support of our students and their success.

As one of the executive sponsors of this project, I have a vested interest in ensuring that the project works — that is, that it will both help our students succeed and also meet our larger institutional goals (see the "Institutional Goals" box). So, my task is not only to ensure that the tool will ultimately be designed and executed well but also that the project has buy-in, funding, and support at all levels and benefits from collaboration, information sharing, and best practices in learning from other universities.

Institutional Goals

The most recent strategic plan for Fresno State includes the following high-level priorities, all of which the iPASS initiative supports.

  1. Enhance Teaching and Learning — increasing retention rates; increasing student success through increased graduation rates and reduced time to graduation
  2. Invest in Our People — increasing capacity, efficiency, and skills needed to support students
  3. Align and Grow Infrastructure — enhancing our ability to use technology; streamlining processes through technology; encouraging better use of data and analytics
  4. Partner with Community — providing more student graduates who will contribute back to society; with about 80 percent of Fresno State graduates staying in the area, more graduates means more future leaders for Central Valley

On-Campus Partnerships and Collaborations

IT projects developed and launched in isolation can compromise a project's relevance and value to students and the larger campus community. To ensure the best value, partnership and collaboration among the IT team, the highest levels of campus administration, and various project stakeholders is essential.

High-Level Support

Many components go into establishing high-level on-campus collaboration, and there is no one right formula or approach. How much support there is and how you obtain it depends almost largely on your campus culture.

At Fresno State, the CIO position is part of the president's cabinet; this tells our community that technology and technology-enabled processes are a key component in the future success of our campus and its students. The CIO also plays an important role in supporting technology and innovation in the California Central Valley. When a project or initiative of campus significance arises, I work with the president's chief of staff to propose a discussion with my cabinet colleagues to gather feedback and support.

Beyond the cabinet, I also seek support from deans and administrative leadership. These discussions may also go through campus consultation or shared decision-making bodies for feedback and recommendations. Having this broad, high-level support and understanding is essential because our campus moves best when it moves together, and our campus history shows that most efforts done in silos do not fare well.

Building these relationships involves helping people understand the vital role of IT in business process improvements as well as going out into the campus community and listening to people's needs and concerns and working to understand them. As CIO, I spent much of my first year at Fresno State focusing on this important relationship-building and building the trust needed to move projects and initiatives forward. Having a seat at the executive leadership table makes a difference in helping gain visibility and high-level support for initiatives.

It is also important to address potential conflicts related to shared governance and shared decision making in the academic, administrative, and technology worlds. As CIOs, we must help people understand why it is important to make decisions together, collaboratively and consultatively, particularly when it comes to technology.

Finally, it is essential that your IT team is in sync with your executive team, particularly when the goal is student success. If you just want to get a project done, you don't necessarily need that support. But if you want the project to be as successful as possible — meeting not just individual users' goals, but the goals of your larger institutions — it is crucial that your projects align with your IT team's strategic plan and that the campus leadership team supports that plan.

Stakeholder Involvement

Having established high-level project support, the next step is to work with the more immediate stakeholders: faculty, staff, administrators, and students. This type of partnership and collaboration is essential. Without working with the people who will actually use the tools — in this case with iPASS with faculty advisors, staff advisors, and students — it's really hard for a team to truly understand what its users need. We can try our best. We can use the Stanford Design School way of thinking, which includes empathizing with students, putting ourselves in their shoes, and thinking back many years ago to our time in college. That's part of the process, but to really validate and understand other peoples' perspectives, we need to ask them.

On this project, for example, we used Lean Process Improvement methodologies, such as flowchart diagrams, to identify key stakeholders. We then invited these campus constituents into conversations about needs within advising and planning, and then we asked them to engage in the work of process redesign. One core group of campus stakeholders included our central advising team, a number of associate deans, and some key administrative roles within Academic Affairs and Student Affairs. We met roughly once a month to discuss progress, participate in webinars to learn about best practices at other institutions, and participate in continuing education, such as change management theory.

Communications and Outreach

In terms of project outreach and rollout, for a project to succeed, marketing must be everyone's job. My Degree Plan involves people at all campus levels, from members of our EDUCAUSE-funded iPASS team to our leadership team, which includes people from Academic Affairs, Advising, and the Office of Institutional Effectiveness. Everyone participates in outreach, with various people focusing on different components.

In keeping with change management theory, we firmly believe that effective communication is a key component in the success of any initiative or project. Often, this means our job is to help people understand project status by offering regular updates. Other times, it means getting people involved, aligning priorities, or building a sense of urgency, which of course is also part of project communication.

IT must also reach out to the campus community, helping people with task-specific problems and basic or advanced training in the tool, depending on what each person or group needs. Different people have different levels of comfort with technology. IT must also remember to address the emotional factor involved when supporting people through technology changes.

Finally, change management stresses the importance of buy-in — that is, helping people understand a connection to a shared interest or mission and that they have a voice in projects and that our team is listening. Whether that voice affirms our work or criticizes it, we strive to reflect on what we hear and adjust accordingly as needed. So, whether it falls under the banner of marketing or just communications in general, project outreach is integral to our work.

Partnerships and Collaborations Beyond Campus Boundaries

Partnering and collaborating across your institution is essential to project success and to ensuring that your IT team's role supports larger institutional goals. However, you should also look for support for your projects beyond your campus boundaries.

State- and System-Level Support

In many states, high-level support for higher education IT projects starts with state-level goals and funding to achieve them. In California, for example, Governor Jerry Brown made it clear that supporting students, graduating them faster, and graduating more of them is an essential goal for the state's future. So, our high-level support starts with the governor and continues within the California State University system, which receives permanent and one-time state appropriations and then distributes this funding, based on student count, back to the 23 campuses.

Off-campus project support and collaborations can — and when possible, should — extend beyond goals and funding to actual hands-on learning and information sharing. Whether collaborating on projects with other universities that have developed similar tools, or seeking the support and input of organizations aiming to improve IT in education, many possibilities exist to collaborate and learn.

Partnering and Collaborating with External Peers and Organizations

Universities within the Cal State system often work collaboratively and share ideas. Currently, many of us are on the "student success journey" as a result of the system's Graduation Initiative 2025 aimed at improving graduation rates. At this point, we are all working on tools related to advising, early warning, risk prevention, and analytics. Although we have not yet begun working with any specific Cal State school on My Degree Plan, all schools are working together to develop and understand best practices of this and other tools that support student success.

Beyond the Cal State system, the Fresno State IT team eagerly networks and presents at conferences, answers questions, and learns from others. We strive to form productive relationships with other higher education teams across the country. In that sense, the EDUCAUSE iPASS grant has let us see and hear what other campuses are doing and which tools they use.

For example, we discovered many alternative degree-planning tools at other schools, both in use or in development. Each experience we study helps us better understand these tools and gather best practices. In fact, the tool itself has less importance than the overall process of developing it, learning about others' tools, and collaborating on our own campus and beyond. Tools are often interchangeable, but often what people learn in the development process helps any tool work well in the future.

Our Advising Office and Office of Institutional Effectiveness are working with Columbia University's Community College Research Center (CCRC) and MDRC to assess experiences with similar tools on other campuses to determine what My Degree Plan's success might look and how similar tools were rolled out. Right now, our involvement with this research is actually slowing down the rollout of My Degree Plan. On the one hand, we really want to get this tool out to all students, but will need a phased rollout to study control groups during the research phase; on the other hand, the research project is helping us determine advising changes and specific processes that support student success and, more narrowly, how we'll measure the tool's success in transforming how we advise students in reaching their educational goals.

Measuring Success

Because the My Degree Plan project is still in the early stages, we do not yet have many results regarding its success. Recent progress in advising efforts shows:

  • The creation and implementation of an advising toolkit has allowed advisors to have holistic advising sessions with their students, including discussions on coursework progress and challenges, review of My Degree Plan, major and/or career exploration, etc.
  • The use of a template for advisor reports has created a process to allow for consistent reporting campus-wide.
  • Creation of an online Blackboard Module for students to learn about the My Degree Plan tool helps advisors introduce students to the concepts.
  • Of the program students, 97 percent had at least one an advising contact compared to about only 38 percent of the control group.

We are also preparing ways to measure success in terms of both the tool itself and our process, including our collaborations.

Assessing the Tool

Fresno State's involvement in the CCRC/MDRC research project helps ensure that we not only know how to measure our success with My Degree Plan but also know when we hit or risk missing milestones. To achieve this, the project helped us aggregate our student population to decide which people to target first, how to measure their results, and thus how to measure the tool's effectiveness.

We are focusing on the freshman class: some will use the tool, while others will not. We'll measure the effectiveness of the tool's advice based on many different factors, including student participants' feelings about both using the tool and the value of the information it offers. We will also track these students over their time at Fresno State to see whether using the tool results in better retention, persistence, and so on. In effect, we will be measuring the results of transforming advising into a holistic/coaching relationship between advisor and student by leveraging technology. We hope this new form of advising will increase persistence, leading to increased retention and increased graduation rates; the tool is but one part of this larger approach.

Assessing Process, Partnerships, and Collaborations

At the most basic level, we measure the success of our process and on-campus partnerships and collaborations by support (at the higher levels), participation, and engagement among users and other immediate stakeholders. For example, if we invited 10 people to a meeting about the tool, how many showed up? Of those who showed up, how many were actively engaged? We can also measure perceived and real effectiveness, for which there are many assessment instruments available.  

We use change management theory as a lens because we understand that people, processes, and results are all integral. We can measure participation both in terms of quantity and of quality, based on the type of feedback we get and how often feedback occurs; this feedback might be offline, in meetings, or through e=mail discussions on a particular topic.

Lessons Learned

With IT projects, the team should reflect on and understand what worked — and what needs work — and why the project matters, both on the immediate user level and in terms of larger institutional goals. In our case, that means considering the project's impact on student success as well as on Fresno State's strategic plan. This commitment to continuous improvement is essential in elevating the value of IT on our campus.

It is always enlightening to ask: What went well? What could I have done more of, better, or differently? How might I have better led and coached my team? Although My Degree Plan is very much a project in progress, I have reflected on our lessons learned thus far, as follows.

Stakeholder Buy-In

Campus Technology recently issued its 2017 Annual Teaching with Technology Survey on technology use in higher education. The survey found that faculty members feel much more confident with technology now than indicated in previous surveys, although student confidence is slipping. Interestingly, we found that our experience with My Degree Plan did not reflect that confidence level. Our lesson? We could have done much better in our communication, outreach, and buy-in processes with faculty.

For My Degree Plan to succeed, faculty members must engage and be proactive in supporting students and use of the tool. However, we continue to hear that faculty members either don't want to do this or don't have time. The general attitude seems to be that they don't want to learn or get involved with "yet another learning system." This is true both of My Degree Plan and our GradesFirst tool, also vital to our efforts to support students and staff.

In contrast to this, our advisors have bought in completely. They see the essential importance of a tool like this to support student success. The tool also helps our planning and scheduling office know which courses to offer and to better predict course demand. Our administration and staff fully understand the tool's importance — in part because its effective use makes their jobs easier in immediate and tangible ways. We also hear testimonials from students attesting to the helpfulness of having such a tool and the information it provides to help inform decisions. Faculty, however, are concerned foremost with teaching and with students' success in their particular courses, so spending time on a tool that has not yet proven a high-impact practice is less obviously valuable. We must continue to build advocacy for the program by signing up faculty champions who will go out and garner more and more buy-in from their peers.

Tool Limitations

We are learning more about the tool's capabilities as the project goes on — and discovering some limitations. Although My Degree Plan is strong in terms of providing different roadmaps for students to consider, similar tools offer various advantages as well. It is difficult to assess what is the "best" tool for a particular campus because culture and academic and administrative policy and practice vary from campus to campus.

At this point, we plan to continue assessing the tool, with the possibility of swapping it out for a different tool if we find one that will better support our students and overall goals.

Conclusions

As CIOs and other leaders of IT organizations and teams, we must understand the value we want to provide through technology and information. I encourage all of you to engage in partnerships across your institutions and with other institutions and groups. Without people to serve and to help, our job is essentially minimized to fixing day-to-day glitches — making sure everything's working, that the lights are on, and that "the trains are running on time."

Nearly everything we do in and beyond the higher education space involves technology to some degree. To effectively lead our teams and ensure that this technology serves actual human needs in our communities, effective partnership and collaboration are imperative.

Acknowledgments

Fresno State's My Degree Plan and the larger body of iPASS work is truly a team effort among many on campus. I want to especially appreciate the iPASS leadership team, consisting of Dr. Dennis Nef, Dr. Angel Sanchez, and Ashley Fagundes, and my technology team, with efforts led by Robert Guinn and his enterprise applications team.


Orlando Leon is chief information officer at California State University in Fresno.

© 2017 Orlando Leon. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review online article is licensed under Creative Commons BY 4.0.