EDUCAUSE’s national conference is always a barrage of information: thousands of Information technology professionals and college CIOs, a packed exhibit hall, myriad after-hours events, and more sessions than one IT team can possibly attend. In Denver this year, I was able to spend more time in sessions than the exhibit hall. I saw a broad scope of sessions related to everything from using technology for driving student success, leadership strategies for running a successful IT group, and how Reddit’s co-founder anticipates technology being an equalizer for global learning.
Apart from the sessions, EDUCAUSE is a great opportunity to chat with leaders in the Higher Education IT space and with other vendors creating solutions to address IT’s problems. Every year I’ve attended, I’ve come away with deeper understanding about how cutting-edge technologies such as Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, and others are disrupting the Higher Education space and leading to more productive learning opportunities. Yet regardless of the specific technologies I investigated, I saw some resounding themes throughout EDUCAUSE conversations: cultural strategies to drive change; budgetary challenges; data storage, privacy, and analysis to drive outcomes; personalizing the student experience; creating efficiencies in disparate systems; and increasing emphasis on diversity and inclusion.
Above all, discussions about cultural considerations and change management dominated conversations. With all the shiny new technology options on the Higher Education IT market, it can be easy for IT professionals to become excited about new technology for which the campus is not yet prepared. Regardless of the technology option being discussed, most sessions turned to questions such as “but how do you roll this out to faculty to make sure they’re effectively using these learning management systems” or as in a session about Johns Hopkins University’s Student Services Excellence Initiative, “if you’re talking about consolidating systems, what do you do with existing staff?” University leaders generally communicated that these conversations are not without growing pains, but that creating consensus among stakeholders and creating a definitive case for change management is necessary when innovating around technology.
Budgetary challenges were not always addressed directly, but every session about new technologies would inevitably pose the question “how much it costs?” With institutions strapped for funding, and many relying on unpredictable accrual-based accounting and enrollment as the main funding source, expensive technology solutions must be evaluated closely to ensure they are aligned with the institution’s strategic plan. This also ties into conversations around data; before investing in technologies, leaders will require data to prove effectiveness. In the “Virtual Holographic Simulation: Measuring Nursing Student Outcomes from Immersive Technology” session I attended at EDUCAUSE, for example, attendees asked about long-term studies for the effectiveness of VR for nursing simulations. The presenters from San Diego State had performed an in-depth short-term study on its effectiveness at SDSU, but admitted that the technology was new enough that long term effects had not been measured. Institutions such as Case Western are starting to measure this data but do not have definitive results yet. Still, the short-term study indicated that VR and other immersive technologies can address problems such as the shortage of nursing professionals due to limited financial resources and lack of available nursing simulations and clinical placements, especially in rural and low-income areas.
Data-driven decision making was a major topic but often combined with inefficient systems. While we have more and more data about student behaviors, the data tends to be siloed within different platforms. An ERP (enterprise resource planning) software might have some overlapping and some different data from the school’s LMS (learning management system), which may also be disparate from health and wellness records or the student organization attendance information. Different schools or colleges may also have redundant systems collecting the same types of information. IT leaders are wracking their brains to determine how to best use this data but must also keep student privacy at top-of-mind and determine how to be conscious stewards of student data while driving success. Many vendors are offering cloud storage or secure research storage options too, and IT leaders have a variety of options to choose for outsourcing any type of data storage or management.
Personalizing the student experience resounded throughout all the student-affairs related sessions. From admissions to alumni engagement, technology can drive a personalized student experience that will encourage students to be more engaged with their institutions. Loralyn Taylor discussed Ohio University’s strategy for using “nudging” to address logistical and psychological barriers for students or using gentle reminders to ensure students are staying on the right track to enrollment and retention. I was inspired by Georgia State’s Panther Retention Grants, a micro grant process for giving individual students emergency small amounts of funding to finish their degrees and avoid dropping out. As with many of the personalized techniques, Panther Retention Grants employ a complex system of data-driven algorithms to determine which students are most in need of micro grants.
Finally, speakers discussed challenges facing women and minorities in technology and the strategies leaders can employ to build diverse teams. The main interactive exhibit in the Denver Convention Center featured personal anecdotes about diversity in higher education. The session I attended on “Creating a More Inclusive Higher Ed Community” dispelled the “pipeline myth” that there aren’t enough minority candidates for hiring, discussed solutions for dealing with microaggressions on campus, and explored simple hiring strategies for removing unconscious bias. Again, building diversity ties back to the culture of the university and the team a leader hopes to create. A diverse team will lead to a broader range of ideas for problem solving, will contribute to the strategic goals of most universities to honor diversity on campus, and will better be able to serve students from all backgrounds.
While the technology options will change from year to year, I would expect all these resounding themes to remain prevalent in the years to come. We’re seeing data inform messaging and advertising in the consumer space, and it stands to reason that data will drive student outcomes in the Higher Education space too. Yet Higher Education has a reputation for being slow to change, so we’ll have to ensure there is a proper cultural fit for any paradigm shifts in the future. Based on my observations at EDUCAUSE 2018, personalizing the student experience to ensure every student feels supported at their college and university, and creating teams that reflect diverse opinions and a vibrant student body, will only become more important.