Attracting, Supporting, and Retaining Senior Academic Technology Officers in Higher Education

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The role of the senior academic technology officer (SATO) is crucial in higher education. Those in this emerging profession need to take action to further define the role, mentor future SATOs, and advocate for its importance.

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Credit: Scott Ladzinski / EDUCAUSE © 2018

The six of us are part of a 15-member team called the Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA) Learning Technology Leadership (LTL) group.1 At a recent meeting, in April 2018, we all discussed how our roles as leaders are changing—and in some cases, changing dramatically—compared with just ten years ago. In recent years, we have reorganized our units and transitioned to leading a different suite of services. In part because of these changes, our campus partners often do not understand the competencies and expertise we bring to the table. In many cases, our organizational locations precede us, and partners predefine our knowledge and skill sets based on an org chart rather than on our skills and knowledge. Indeed, we often must advocate for what our team members can do in our area of expertise: the intersection of learning and technology.

Part of the confusion may be due to the fact that our job title itself varies widely. We have encountered many titles for those doing this work, including Senior Academic Technology Officer (SATO), Learning Technology Leader, Chief Academic Technology Officer (CATO), Director of Academic Technology, Associate Vice Provost for Learning Technology, and Senior Academic Technology Leader (SATL). In this article we chose to use the title Senior Academic Technology Officer (SATO), since there seems to be a trend in information technology to label senior-level IT positions with the word "officer" (e.g., Chief Data Officer, Chief Data Security Officer, Chief Usability Officer, Chief Information Officer).

We believe that the SATO role is crucial in higher education, and those of us in this emerging profession need to take action to define our role, advocate for its importance, mentor future SATOs, and collectively document and communicate through our professional organizations the need for and importance of our growing leadership role. To that end, we conducted a mini case study to investigate the research on the SATO role, document the evolution of our organizations and services over the last five years, list our top job responsibilities and key partners, describe the backgrounds that have prepared us for our work, and suggest recommendations for future SATO roles and academic technology organizations.

Insights from SATO Research

Once academic leaders come to know us, they value our knowledge and skill sets around institutional change management, evaluation practices, the pragmatic application of learning theory, academic policies, commitment to collaboration and partnerships, management of learning technology enterprise systems, and faculty development efforts. We also lead and manage a wide range of academic technology services and teams: our group members' units range from 18 to 100 full-time team members, as well as 2 to 20 part-time student hires.2

A national survey conducted by Michael Albright and John Nworie showed that only 10 percent of the 150 institutions surveyed had someone in an academic technology leadership role. As Nworie stated, this finding confirmed the "lack of sufficient representation of academic technology leaders in the upper corridors of power, where they can effectively advocate, sponsor or authorize and manage change in instructional technology related areas in [higher education]."3 We feel fortunate to be part of the BTAA LTL group and to work at higher education institutions that value the SATO role. We hope higher education leaders who currently have SATO roles or want to create these roles will find this article valuable as they work to retain these positions and attract additional strong candidates.

We conducted literature searches and discovered a small body of research describing the work we do.4 That research includes considerable variation in job descriptions, job titles (as noted above), and career paths, as well as where SATOs are situated within institutions. The literature also describes inadequate support for SATO professional development, as well as a lack of understanding by academic leaders about the role's broad and critical skill sets related to learning science, technology management, research into emerging technologies, policy development, change management practices, staff development, and leadership and management excellence.

Despite these variations and lack of understanding of the skill sets, researchers cite the increasing importance of the SATO role. Albright and Nworie, for example, go so far as to propose:

Each campus should have a senior academic technology officer (SATO) to provide strategic leadership and direction for academic technology applications, initiative, and support services across the broad spectrum of instructional technology functions; provide leadership in planning and policy related to curriculum development, e-learning, and other instructional technology initiatives that facilitate achievement of the institution's strategic goals; and build partnerships among campus academic support units to work collaboratively toward achievement of institutional goals that can be addressed through instructional technology. The SATO should assume an advocacy role on behalf of faculty and students in campus matters related to teaching and learning with technology and work closely with academic units to ensure that their needs are incorporated into academic technology plans. The position should also provide overall leadership and direction for the academic technology support staff to ensure the most effective use of human resources, with a strong emphasis on quality service.5

Although campus leaders increasingly recognize the importance of SATO skill sets in leveraging technology to help learners access and engage in lifelong learning, they often do not know where best to locate the position within institutions. For example, Tony Bates and Albert Sangrà note that while a SATO might report to a CIO, VP of administration, vice director for innovation and new technologies, or VP of academic affairs, they suggest that a SATO report to the VP of academic affairs, with an annual service contract to locate specialist staff in academic departments based on their annual academic plans.6 In contrast, Albright and Nworie advocate for SATOs to report through IT units, positing that "campus leadership for [technology-enhanced learning services] should never sit lower than one echelon below the CIO or two levels below if the CIO is not at the Vice President Level."7 Where SATO positions are located is often influenced by institutional culture and history. Those of us in the BTAA LTL group report to CIOs and believe that neat org charts are not as important as clear responsibilities and authority for the SATO position and the units we manage. The BTAA CIO sponsorship of the LTL group not only sends a signal to our campuses that the SATO role is important but also supports our professional growth.

Because of misunderstandings related to SATO skills, knowledge, job descriptions, organizational location, and career paths, SATOs may experience a lack of equivalent status with leaders of more established campus services when competing for institutional resources and access to C-suite decision-making groups.8 Furthermore, educational technologists—not only at the SATO level but at all levels—represent significant flight risks due to unclear career pathways and advancement:

Their frustrations can make them prone to moving into either academic or more mainstream academic-related/professional roles. . . . Previously, the institutional impact of an educational technologist defecting to a better contract or a more mainstream profession might have been easily absorbed. Now, given the centrality of ICT/TEL [information and communications technology / technology-enhanced learning] to flexible learning, we believe that the defection of explicit and tacit organizational knowledge . . . and established social networks represents a clear and present danger to many institutions' core services. The fragility of the increasing centrality of the role of educational technologist alongside its very uncertain career trajectories drives us to advocate that institutions investigate sustainable career structures for such personnel by establishing ongoing institutional services for ICT/TEL.9

The Changing Nature of Academic Technology Organizations: A Five-Year Snapshot

To gain an understanding of the changing nature of our institutions, we gathered org charts from academic technology organizations in the BTAA. Our plan was to compare org charts from five years ago with our current org charts to determine how our institutions are evolving to meet the needs of higher education. Not surprisingly, our respective institutions are structured in different ways, but we found considerable consistency in how they have evolved over the past five years.

In 2013, the institutions showed a consistent focus on instructional design, technology support for classrooms and student labs, management of learning management systems (LMSs), and faculty support for using LMSs. Faculty development across our institutions often included some type of partnership model with academic affairs (indeed, in the case of the University of Iowa, the Center for Teaching is part of the academic technology unit). Many of us provided IT training services to faculty, staff, and students using a combination of dedicated training staff and online training options. Many of our institutions also offered accessibility services for students; most of this work was done in collaboration with the disability student services offices.

Between 2013 and 2018, several reorganizations occurred to create greater efficiency and stronger reporting lines in and across our institutions. In 2018, many of the services described above remain important, but faculty engagement has expanded to provide a variety of services beyond just LMS use. This expanded engagement includes the following:

  • Faculty programs that provide support for active learning and the use of emerging technologies in the classroom
  • Greater emphasis on active learning spaces and on involving academic technology organizations in the overall design of these spaces (previously, their focus was primarily on providing AV services)
  • A clear increase in instructional design and development staff to support the expansion of online course offerings

Further, while there was little mention of learning analytics five years ago, several of our org charts now have dedicated learning analytics staff. In addition, most of our units are now responsible for managing learning technology tools and systems, including the LMS. One area that has fewer dedicated staff members than five years ago is IT training, likely due to the wide range of high-quality online training available to faculty, staff, and students. Figure 1 summarizes the changes over the past five years.

2013-2018 Organizational Trends. 5 red ribbons and 1 blue ribbon along a line. The red ribbons point up and the blue one points down: Red w/wrench icon: Learning Technology Tools and Systems. Red w/icon of 2 people at a table: Faculty Engagement. Red w/group at a table icon: Active Learning Spaces. Red w/icon of person in front of a monitor: Instructional Design and Development. Red w/magnifying glass on a grpah icon: Learning Analytics. Blue with icon of one larger person in front of a monitor and lines out to 3 smaller people. IT Training Staff.
Figure 1. Changes in services of academic technology organizations

The Top Responsibilities and Partners of the SATO

To understand the changing nature of the SATO role, we gathered 10 SATO job descriptions from BTAA members. As noted earlier, job titles vary. Many titles use the term "director"—including Senior Director and Executive Director—but the group also includes members with assistant vice president or chancellor roles. While some of our responsibilities vary, six appear most frequently and emphasize both the strategic and the operational importance of the SATO role:

  1. Establish the institution's academic technology vision and strategic direction
  2. Execute strategy and provide operational oversight, including fiscal management
  3. Manage and direct academic technology and teaching & learning team members
  4. Represent information technology within college/university academic leadership/governance for academic technology strategy, execution, and policy
  5. Act as the service portfolio owner for academic technology services
  6. Maintain awareness of industry trends and higher education peer practices in academic technology

It is the academic technology domain itself that varies the most at each of our institutions, and this accounts for much of the differences in the size of our academic technology organizations and the scope of SATO responsibilities. These responsibilities may include digital accessibility; training, consulting, and support; e-learning and related services; learning analytics; instructional design and development; management of learning technology tools and systems; learning spaces design and development; application development; research support; digital media; and innovation/emerging tech.

Added to the traditional purview of providing good academic technology support is a critical strategic role that requires the SATO to have strong partnerships with institutional leaders, the knowledge to help inform other leaders about where higher education and information technology are headed, and a vision of how academic technology can help the institution reach its goals. The SATO's key partners include academic leadership, the central IT organization, teaching and learning centers, libraries, and faculty—as well as consortia such as the BTAA LTL and Unizin.

Today's SATO sits at the table with campus academic leaders to create two- to five-year strategic plans for learning analytics, affordable content, and next-generation learning ecosystems. As the research describes,10 the SATO role is crucial due to its encompassing and collaborative nature: it includes a leadership role in the implementation of academic technology to facilitate achievement of the institution's strategic goals, an advocacy role on behalf of faculty and students, and a managerial/directorial role for academic technology staff.

The Typical Background of the SATO

Backgrounds for SATOs in higher education vary. However, when examining the backgrounds of the 15 senior academic technology officers in the BTAA, we found many similarities:

  • Education: 14 of the 15 have a master's degree, and 8 of those 14 have a PhD or EdD.
  • Fields of study: 7 of the 15 have degrees in education; the remaining 8 had degrees in various fields including biology, business, and English.
  • Time at institution: The average tenure at their home institutions is just over 11 years.
  • Time in SATO role: The average tenure in the SATO role is 5 years; some have been working in their current role for over 10 years, while one has been in the current role for only 1 year.

Most SATOs started their career in higher education working at the course level, supporting faculty with course redesign. As opportunities became available, they moved from working with faculty at the course level to taking on program redesign and collaborating with academic leaders. These opportunities allowed them to shift their focus from instructional design, student support, and faculty support to program design and evaluation, faculty development, and strategy setting. Eventually, taking on the leadership role in academic technologies changed their focus to planning overall academic technology strategy, leading and developing IT staff, and serving as strategic IT partners with academic leadership.

Many of the BTAA SATOs have spent the majority of their careers working in higher education. In fact, only 3 of the 15 have held leadership roles outside of higher education. In addition, many teach at their home campuses; some are past faculty members at other institutions, and 3 of the 15 hold faculty rank at their own institution.

Conclusion and Recommendations

With the continued advance of technology, particularly in the teaching and learning space, the importance of the SATO's role continues to grow in relation to the mission of colleges and universities around the globe. While the SATO role emerged 20–30 years ago as higher education institutions began to recognize the importance of academic technology, the role is still relatively unknown compared with other key institutional leadership positions (e.g., CIO and CFO). In fact, most higher education institutions still lack a SATO. We believe more institutions should establish a SATO position and leverage its key strategic role to address academic technology goals. Technology's accelerating impact on teaching and learning often requires institutional-level changes in services, organizations, and professional skills. SATOs provide strong knowledge and frameworks to implement these changes and to sunset or start new institutional services.

For example, emerging trends over just the past five years illustrate the expanding influence of academic technology organizations. Previously, these organizations focused on supporting the faculty adoption of LMSs, but this support has gradually expanded into broader and deeper faculty engagement to leverage other technologies that improve student experiences and outcomes. The SATO position has also evolved beyond supporting classroom technology and has moved into the design and adoption of active learning classrooms. Finally, SATOs have become key leaders in defining and using learning analytics at multiple levels in higher education institutions.

As the need for academic technology organizations grows in higher education, so too does the role of the SATO as a strategic voice in institutional leadership. To promote this, SATOs should seek ways to work together in three areas in the next few years:

  1. SATOs should collaborate to raise awareness of their role throughout higher education. We can start by documenting and sharing the commonalities of our roles and how they map to the vital strategic initiatives within our institutions. Beyond that, we can demonstrate how our team's impact has increased in relation to institutional goals over the past five years.
  2. SATOs should further develop opportunities to collaborate and share with our peers so that we can discover ways to increase our impact on campus. Some of us can take advantage of existing organizations such as the BTAA's LTL group or the Ivy League's Ivy Plus. By expanding these opportunities, we can create knowledge and talent networks that will greatly enhance the impact of SATOs across the board.
  3. SATOs can increase their impact throughout higher education by formalizing SATO career paths. While the background of current SATOs is varied, we can continue to identify commonalities and desired skills that make for successful SATOs. We can then leverage these efforts to better define our position and its impact within higher education to both create and support professional development, including training, workshops, support organizations, certifications, and mentorship programs. SATOs can also participate in EDUCAUSE offerings, such as the Leading Academic Transformation (LAT) community of practice or the Learning Technology Leadership program, to discuss the SATO role and career paths.

Higher education institutions continue to expand their capabilities with and adoption of academic technologies. As a result, the organizations that support this area are growing in strategic importance to the mission of the colleges and universities they serve. Existing SATOs should work collectively to create better visibility to other, more established leaders in higher education so that there is a better understanding of the SATO roles and skills. Likewise, organizations such as the BTAA LTL group should capitalize on their collaborative relationships to demonstrate to member and other institutions why SATOs belong at the top levels in higher education.


  1. The BTAA is devoted to effective collaboration among its research universities, and its CIOs and provosts have long sponsored and supported strategic learning technologies that support transformational pedagogies within the Big 10 institutions and across the country. To build on this work, in 2016 the CIOs formed the LTL group, which consists of 15 learning technology leaders from BTAA institutions. Our group's goal is to provide vision and strategy for leveraging academic technologies to support a collective teaching and learning mission. We also serve as campus representatives on cross-institutional consortia that impact institutional change.
  2. For example, see the "About DoIT Academic Technology" video, which offers an overview of the academic technology unit at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
  3. Michael Albright and John Nworie, "Rethinking Academic Technology Leadership in an Era of Change," EDUCAUSE Quarterly 31, no. 1 (January-March 2008); John Nworie, "Managing the Growing Complexity of Administration of Academic Technology in Higher Education," AACE Journal 17. no. 1, 2009. Nworie's work was the most recent survey we could find. Perhaps this article will highlight the need to conduct a similar survey in 2019.
  4. Kay A. Persichitte, "Leadership for Educational Technology Contexts in Tumultuous Higher Education Seas," TechTrends 57, no. 5 (September 2013); Simon Shurville, Tom Browne, and Marian Whitaker, "Accommodating the Newfound Strategic Importance of Educational Technologists within Higher Education: A Critical Literature Review," Campus-Wide Information Systems 26, no. 3 (2009); and Simon Shurville, Tom Browne, and Marian Whitaker, "An Appetite for Creative Destruction: Should the Role of Senior Academic Technology Officer be Modeled on a CIO or a CTO?" Campus-Wide Information Systems 27, no. 3 (2010).
  5. Albright and Nworie, "Rethinking Academic Technology Leadership."
  6. A. W. (Tony) Bates and Albert Sangrà, Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011).
  7. Albright and Nworie, "Rethinking Academic Technology Leadership."
  8. Shurville, Browne, and Whitaker, "Accommodating the Newfound Strategic Importance of Educational Technologists."
  9. Shurville, Browne, and Whitaker, "Accommodating the Newfound Strategic Importance of Educational Technologists."
  10. Albright and Nworie, "Rethinking Academic Technology Leadership."

Donalee Attardo is Senior Director of Academic Technology at the University of Minnesota.

Linda Jorn is Associate Vice Provost for Learning Technologies and DoIT Director of Academic Technology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Matthew Meyer is Executive Director for Academic Technology Solutions at the University of Chicago.

Anastasia (Stacy) Morrone is Associate Vice President for Learning Technologies at Indiana University.

Jennifer Sparrow is Senior Director for Teaching and Learning with Technology at Penn State.

Heath Tuttle is Assistant Vice Chancellor for IT at the University of Nebraska.

© 2018 Donalee Attardo, Linda Jorn, Matthew Meyer, Anastasia (Stacy) Morrone, Jennifer Sparrow, and Heath Tuttle