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"Take a Look Around": Reflections on EDUCAUSE 2018

min read

An attendee of the 2018 EDUCAUSE Annual Conference offers a summary of ideas, trends, and observations.

graphic of man with telescope floating in a hot air balloon that looks like a lightbulb
Credit: hand idea / Shutterstock © 2018

In 1965, Barry McGuire released a protest song called "Eve of Destruction," written by P. F. Sloan. McGuire boldly sang about timely political issues and warned that the world was near collapse:

This whole crazy world is just too frustratin'
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend
Ah, you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction

Before I left for the 2018 EDUCAUSE Annual Conference, I was feeling the same way about higher education information technology: exponentially growing demand from students, faculty, and staff for more and better systems; decreasing operating grants from governments; increasing instances of virulent social media criticism before facts are available; rapidly expanding legal and legislative constraints; and continuing, utter panic around IT security. It seemed to me that we were on the eve of destruction.

Quite honestly, this may be because I always feel a little overwhelmed after the first two months of the academic year. I look forward to the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference as my learning week. I put aside all the daily concerns of my job and spend a week immersed in understanding what my peers are doing—their successes and failures and struggles and triumphs. I meet with vendors and hear their promises for the future and sometimes their apologies for the past. Most importantly, I reconnect with colleagues and friends to share experiences and to commiserate about what keeps us up at night. I see the EDUCAUSE annual conference as a big group-therapy session.

Reflecting on this year's conference, I think it was the best one I have ever attended (I've been going since 2006). What made it so great? The EDUCAUSE staff, the excitement of the participants, the enthusiasm of the vendors, and the location: Denver was an excellent city for the event. Now that I have had a chance to assimilate everything I heard, I would like to share my thoughts on the EDUCAUSE 2018 conference from four different lenses: technology, process, people, and data.

Technology

There always seems to be some prevailing technological wind of change at the EDUCAUSE annual conference. Not this year. The "cloud" is yesterday's news. MOOCs are a simple fact of life. Even blockchain was met with a certain level of cynicism. But is this bad? As McGuire sang in "Eve of Destruction":

Ah, you may leave here, for four days in space
But when you return, it's the same old place

Our institutional technology may take us to the metaphorical moon, but in the end our jobs aren't about technology. Higher education institutions are concerned with teaching, learning, research, and community. The technology exists to deliver on these broader values.

I felt this displayed most emphatically in the 2019 EDUCAUSE Top 10 IT Issues, announced at the annual conference. Not one of these issues is about technology! Higher education IT professionals are worried about data, the student experience, security strategy, funding, and integrating technology—but not about specific technologies. My learning from this year's Top 10: technology is easy; creating value from technology is hard.

Process

Digital transformation is having a big impact on many institutions. We now even have an abbreviation for it: "Dx." Our Rx for process improvement is Dx! All kidding aside, there was excellent advice throughout EDUCAUSE 2018 about digital transformation approaches.

For example, Pennsylvania State University is rethinking the role of information technology at the institution as the first step in digital transformation. Look before you leap is a key takeaway. You need to be mindful and cautious. Like any other major change, Dx impacts your culture, your workforce, and your technology and vice versa: culture, workforce, and technology impact how you should approach Dx. After hearing multiple sessions on Dx, I realized that agile mindsets and agile process models are effective tools in implementing real digital transformations.

Sometimes clarity of language in Dx can smooth your path. Digital transformation is not "digitization"—that's just moving material from analog format to digital. "Digitalization" is using information technology to change your business model for the purpose of delivering greater learning experiences to your students, producing more valuable research, and more effectively engaging your community.

After listening to Casey Green talk about the results from the 2018 Campus Computing Survey, I think Dx is essential to our success. One key message: our clients (students, faculty, the campus community) prefer the things we buy over the things we do. That's scary, but the logic is clear; the service quality from our vendors is better because they have a lot more money than we do. As conference attendees heard from Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit, Instagram is a much better software experience than anything we can build internally. Higher education IT organizations simply don't have the money or people resources to compete with Instagram. Meanwhile, our clients' expectations are based on these kinds of systems.

It would seem logical that our most strategic digital transformations should focus on our biggest administrative systems (i.e., our ERPs). These systems are the most widely used on campus. Most institutions currently host these systems on campus. If our clients prefer what we buy over what we do, then moving ERPs to the cloud should be our highest priority. But it isn't. Despite some vendors' claims and all the hoopla in the past few years, colleges and universities are not stampeding their ERP systems into the cloud. According to the Campus Computing Survey data, less than 50 percent of CIOs are considering moving student, finance, and human resources systems to the cloud before 2023.

Why? Again, McGuire expresses this well:

Don't you understand, what I'm trying to say?
And can't you feel the fears I'm feeling today?
If the button is pushed, there's no running away

In other words, we're generally risk-averse in higher education. Despite the client service drawbacks of our current ERP systems, we want to manage risk carefully and not take any chances. Let someone else go first!

People

The 2018 EDUCAUSE Annual Conference was a clear realization of the EDUCAUSE and community commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). By the end of the conference, nearly 350 CIOs had signed the EDUCAUSE "CIO's Commitment on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion"—a commitment stating that we all "believe strongly in the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion and the benefits derived from working in diverse and inclusive environments."

On behalf of Simon Fraser University, I signed the document on October 23, 2018. But I know that signing isn't enough. Actions speak louder than words. We need to be mindful of the sentiment from the "Eve of Destruction":

I can't twist the truth, it knows no regulation
Handful of Senators don't pass legislation
And marches alone can't bring integration
When human respect is disintegratin'

We need to live this pledge and commit to making it real by showing human respect for everyone, everywhere. I was astounded during the conference opening keynote as Michele Norris talked about her Race Card Project. In six words, people were asked to describe their feelings about race. I was shocked by how six words can convey a lifetime of mistreatment:

"Black babies cost less to adopt."
"Lady, I don't want your purse."
"No word for what I am."

Norris's closing comment that summed up the project was also six words: "It's about people. It's about you." I might add: "DEI's about us. All of us."

These concepts lead us into other workforce issues that were interwoven throughout the conference. Workforce planning needs to be mindful of DEI while navigating Dx and attracting quality staff to higher education IT organizations. We are seeing dramatic difficulties in hiring people. Data from the Campus Computing Survey suggests an IT talent crisis on campus: nearly 80 percent of respondents said they are having a difficult time retaining IT talent because salaries and benefits are not competitive with off-campus job opportunities.

Some feel we may be able to address the coming staffing crunch with artificial intelligence (AI). But after hearing a number of sessions and conversations on the topic, I suspect our imaginations about the potential of AI exceeds the real-world applicability of the technology. There aren't many examples today in which AI is making significant inroads into our campus IT infrastructure. According to Green, the real impact will likely come indirectly from vendors who will embed AI into the products we buy.

In his closing keynote, Ohanian too was a little skeptical about the potential impact of AI. He suggested that if we could create a robot barber, it would be so intelligent that instead of cutting our hair, it would prefer to become our overlord.

Data

Data is threading its way throughout the fabric of the higher education IT blanket. Data issues affect almost everything we do. The failure to comprehensively address data issues is terrifying. As McGuire sang:

Take a look around you, boy, it's bound to scare you, boy

This year, five of the EDUCAUSE 2019 Top 10 IT Issues have data at their core. The Data–Enabled Institution (issue #6) refers to the need for institutions to provide data to facilitate decision-making. Data Management and Governance (issue #8) identifies the challenges involved with defining data domains and deciding who has the right to make data decisions in those domains. Digital Integrations (issue #5) recognizes data as the lifeblood of interoperability. Information Security Strategy is the #1 issue on the list, and its close cousin, Privacy (issue #3), appeared on the list for the first time. Security and privacy are two sides of the same coin. There is no point in creating privacy rules if your information security cannot protect your data; and there is no need for security if you have no data.

Interestingly, this emphasis on data is forcing us to go back to the first principles in information technology: we have to understand our data better before we can effectively do anything to protect it. That's easier said than done. Distributed decision-making around information technology has created data blocks throughout colleges and universities. Who has the right to make decisions and about which data? Which version of data located in multiple locations is the right version? Are we all using the same language to define our data? Data literacy and data fluency, as pointed out at the conference by IT staff from Oregon State University and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, are becoming more important than ever. Overcoming data denial is the first step.

Though embryonic, data privacy is an important concern. We all seem to be struggling with what it means to operate our information systems under a more stringent privacy regime. The emergence of GDPR in Europe was a common conversation this year at EDUCAUSE. The ongoing expansion of privacy awareness among our constituents and the potential for new and stronger privacy laws in California are changing our attitudes toward privacy. We are beginning to see value from legislated privacy protection, but more importantly, we are beginning to see growing acceptance that private data needs to be protected.

Those of us already operating in highly restricted privacy situations enviously watch the seemingly unending stream of new cloud technologies, which remain a forbidden fruit for us. Hopefully, as stronger privacy laws become more commonplace, cloud vendors will adapt their contracts and services to recognize a changing world.

Coming Home

After reflecting on all I learned at the 2018 EDUCAUSE Annual Conference, I've had a chance to put the pieces together. I returned to my campus renewed and mindful and recharged with hopefulness and ideas on how to rise above the infinite vortex of IT chaos. I've learned from EDUCAUSE Leadership Award Winner Richard Katz to "run until tackled." And I'm thinking that perhaps McGuire was wrong. Maybe this isn't the eve of destruction. Maybe this is the eve of construction. Take a look around: it may not scare you after all.


Mark Roman is Chief Information Officer at Simon Fraser University.

© 2018 Mark Roman. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License..