The Benefits of Deep Academic Experience for CIOs

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Along with IT knowledge, today's CIOs need deep understanding of faculty challenges and the student experience.

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Credit: MJGraphics / Shutterstock © 2018

In describing higher education, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's book, Academically Adrift,1 offers a distressing — and, in my view, distressingly accurate — perspective on how and why we (and more importantly, our students) are academically unmoored in these changing times and have indeed lost our way. Reading that book and pondering the state of education today led me to reflect on the CIO's role and how it can help institutions navigate the dramatic changes we face and the challenges to teaching and research that result. So, what are these challenges, and which CIO qualities can best help institutions maneuver successfully through them? Following are a few ideas to inspire thought and discussion.

The Shifting Academic Landscape

Today, learning pedagogy is changing rapidly and drastically. Indeed, it seems as if the sand is shifting beneath our collective feet. These pedagogical transformations include everything from flipped classrooms to cocurricular engagement to student success platforms and the use of big data to partition students into different risk portfolios linked with advising, alerts, and interventions.

The research environment is also evolving rapidly through the use of high-performance and high-throughput computers and instruments capable of generating and analyzing massive data sets. These changes are in turn giving rise to needs — for ubiquitous and comprehensive Wi-Fi coverage; for ways to store, transport, analyze, and preserve big data; for the increasing difficulties of conforming to federal compliance mandates; and so on. Complexity abounds!

All of these activities have been occurring and evolving while IT has permeated almost every area of the institution. Hardly any new initiative arises that doesn't contain an IT component, whether it be data, analytics, a new module, a new system, a more user-friendly UI, or an application. Thus, while dealing with the changes in the activities themselves, institutions must simultaneously expand their IT infrastructure and security, their networks and virtual machines, their business intelligence, their data and application management, and their relationship with the cloud.

As if all that weren't enough, they must expand the scope of how IT supports the institution and its goals, through learning-technology interoperability, electronic course materials (including e-texts and adaptive learning platforms), and other approaches. The change and expansion on our campuses today is both deep and broad; as a result, it requires that higher ed CIOs have a much more intimate and comprehensive knowledge of the working innards of the academy.

CIO Leadership Amid Dramatic Change

For CIOs, each of these tech-related developments requires deeper involvement in and greater knowledge of the activities unfolding across the institution. This is particularly true in relation to faculty and how they teach and perform research, what they see as successful stratagems and why, and where they identify their greatest points of pain.

In my observation of many very successful CIOs, those with "boots on the ground" experiences in classrooms and research labs often possess insights and perspectives into what and how students behave, perform, and learn that is essential to the job. (The sidebar, "Efforts Off-Campus: National Initiatives," explores how CIO involvement broader initiatives focused on improving student success can bring addition benefits to the campus community.) Further, there are few substitutes for the experiences of scrabbling for external funding, managing grants and graduate students, and producing results and authoring papers in peer-reviewed journals; all offer insight into the faculty workload and stress, and how best to support faculty to help them achieve success both in teaching and their own research.

Efforts Off-Campus: National Initiatives

Today, a bevy of CIOs are involved in targeted grants for improving student success, including the following:

Beyond grants, CIOs are also engaged in activities to influence the broader education landscape. For example, Colorado State University (CSU) joined Unizin, a collaborative of leading research institutions aimed at sharing services, experiences, and advice about incorporating new education technologies into their existing pedagogies. CSU joined in the hope of regaining some control over learning-space developments, with the overall goal of encouraging vendors to do what institutions want and need, rather than what they think we want and need. The most significant Unizin initiative underway is development of its Learning Analytics service, which will automate precourse and incourse predictive analytics using intermixed SIS and Canvas data to provide dashboards of student risk, and automate alerts and interventions.

A CIO with these experiences helps ensure that the institution's focus remains steadfastly on support of faculty, research, and teaching. Typically, these experiences are found in CIOs with advanced degrees who have teaching and research experiences in higher ed. Having that experience in a STEM discipline can further serve higher ed's mission to meet the significant need for more and better STEM graduates.

My own experiences in teaching, research, and administration offer anecdotal evidence here. After earning my PhD in mechanical engineering with a focus on energy systems from University of California at Berkeley, I spent 20 very enjoyable years teaching in CSU's Mechanical Engineering Department. In addition to teaching, I conducted externally funded research; served as the chair of the engineering science major (a part-time administrative academic position); and spent 15 months at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory engaged in supercomputing. In 1986, I "fell into" the job of coordinator of supercomputing at CSU, serving in the position for more than 10 years while still working in the ME Department. I also served as director of the Westnet regional network — one of the original National Science Foundation regional networks — that deployed the internet in six states (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming), first to institutions of higher education, then to commercial and later private sites. These activities gave me a relatively unique background and are likely why, in 1997, CSU's VP for research and IT chose me to oversee Academic Computing and Networking Services.

Despite my years in the academy, my early focus in central IT was, like many others in that position, on "the next best thing in IT" — that is, the next best network, system, and, to a lesser extent, services. As I've matured, however, and further allowed my diverse experiences to influence my new role, I've realized that the focus should always have been on "the next best thing at CSU." This is a crucial emphasis given the drastic changes in our environments over the past two decades. Today's CIO is responsible for IT, but also for buttressing the learning and research environments in a way that best serves the institution's overall mission and goals.

Finding Our Footing

After being "academically adrift" for more than a decade, higher education is on the cusp of addressing some of its more significant challenges. Among these are getting students to invest the time needed to succeed in their courses; learning how to most effectively flip courses and classrooms; utilizing the science of learning to improve learning; and implementing high-impact practices to enhance learning.

CIOs are well positioned to help higher education navigate this new territory. The deeper their understanding of the people and the institutions they serve, the more CIOs can contribute to their stabilization amid continued expansion. They can, for example, give their direct reports much more responsibility in delivering services. In so doing, staff members come to better understand and appreciate that their responsibility is to deliver services to real people, not just "run IT boxes." CIOs also can use experiences and insights gained in their own academic adventures to interact more closely with administrative support departments, the faculty council, and faculty members.

Further, and most importantly, CIOs with this deeper understanding benefit students by focusing on outputs (learning and research productivity) rather than inputs (operating IT systems), as well as by understanding the pressures on faculty members and their needs for better systems, interfaces, and information for decision making. Finally, for those CIOs or aspiring CIOs who may have little "boots on the ground" experience, pursuing it now — whether through a formal doctoral program or by taking courses at your own institution — can enrich both your life and the insights and knowledge you can offer on the job.


  1. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Patrick J. Burns is Vice President for IT and Dean of Libraries at Colorado State University.

© 2018 Patrick J. Burns. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.