Academia and the Evolving IT World-Thoughts from the CIO Office

Apurva Mehta, Interim Vice Provost Technology & CIO, University of Massachusetts Boston
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Apurva Mehta, Interim Vice Provost Technology & CIO, University of Massachusetts Boston

Apurva Mehta, Interim Vice Provost Technology & CIO, University of Massachusetts Boston

With over 17,000 students from over 45 countries walking through the university door, each one carrying a smartphone, a laptop and maybe a tablet, one wonders how much technology resources do academia have to provide to ensure that these ‘always’ connected students continue having access to the same capabilities they had at home, plus new ones that we offer as part of their education. In the university setting, there are computer labs, classrooms with computers, wireless access, printing services, kiosks, access to specialized academic software packages, and remote help desk services—just to name a few. They are all necessary front-end, client-facing services that we must offer today and in a safe and secure manner.

"One of the biggest challenges the CIO faces is finding and retaining cyber security professionals"

These services are not very different than what any service-oriented establishment – private or public – faces in offering an exceptional customer experience. However, there are some unique challenges that only a university has when providing a service to students and faculty, who are our customers. It’s not just about creating a satisfying experience, but rather an experience that enhances the delivery in an education and stimulates the desire to learn. How then do these 17,000 students learn today? Is governance relevant? How do some global IT issues such as security and the balance of privacy versus open collaboration play out in an academic environment? What is the return on investment as it relates to IT? All these questions present opportunities for the CIO office.

Clearly the environment in which students grew up has rapidly changed as well as their mental model towards learning. Given that, what does the CIO do, particularly a new one, to adapt to meet their needs? Do we look around us and make an educated guess? Do we form a committee or a governance committee with student representation? Or do we hire a consultant to tell us? These are not difficult questions or a tough decision. The hard part is formulating a plan that meets student needs in a timely and cost effective manner. Therefore, governance with student involvement is neither irrelevant nor considered as interference with innovation. A governance structure, which more and more IT departments now embrace, offers crucial interactions with an organization’s constituents. It is about proactively problem-solving and anticipating future needs. It’s not a layer of bureaucracy, if structured and managed properly. It is a valuable mechanism for planning and implementing efficiencies.

Did you know that it is said that Gen Z tend to shy away from technology—that’s correct, they prefer direct one-on-one interactions as opposed to meeting via social media. However, they use this technology to get instant answers. So, what systems do we, as CIOs, implement to meet Gen Z’s needs for instant answers? Can the CIO office afford to have a 24/7 shop? The answer may lie with our librarian friends who formed great collaborations and consortiums world-over that allow patrons to get questions answered around the clock. In reality, we do not need to look beyond our own backyard for solutions to these questions. It is clear: the library is successful in providing spontaneous results along with great customer service and experience. Let’s collaborate with that department closely – it is more efficient to understand their lessons learned and use a page from their playlist.

Efficiency is vital in any organization. Cost-savings and being cost effective are equally as important. We know that the cost of books and subscriptions is rising much faster than inflation. Do we begin to integrate eBooks which can save the student 5 percent to 30 percent, depending o n the field? Do we encourage faculty to use “open source” books. Some faculty, especially in public institutions will offer a PDF version of the book as they are cognizant of the cost of an education today. For example, tools such as publishers now allow the building of a text book—merging chapters from various sources into one package. There are lots of ways of reducing the cost. As leaders, we should encourage the use of technology to reduce costs.

Efficiencies, cost optimization, and customer service – these are all responsibilities inside the CIO office. There are also the external parts and influences which CIO office must also manage. Consider for example t he Internet. Educational institutions do not often make headlines regarding breaches. The news showcases large organizations with sophisticated security systems such as Target, Home Depot, JP Morgan Chase. The question then becomes: If they cannot keep their data secure, what chances do we have? Having critical security systems is on part of the equation. The other piece is the human factor, possessing talent with the right skills and know-how. Therefore, one of the biggest challenges the CIO faces is finding and retaining cyber security engineers/ professionals. Will a cloud-based collaboration or a multi-institution consortium be the solution to fill the talent gap?

How does research fit into the security concerns? Research and development to promote innovation is the foundation on which this great country has been built on. For any research to take place, the requirements for free access to resources is needed. How then does the CIO strike a balance between openness and security? Where does “research” end and illegal access begin? Do we invest in tools that monitor traffic and identify the person or persons not behaving properly—whether it is illegal downloading or distributing copyright content or accessing unauthorized sites and content across the net? Regardless, we as institutions must be more agile in all aspects of the business so we may offer our students and faculty an environment where they can flourish and feel safe at the same time.

In terms of the faculty, the members are the heart of the university. They are the ones to impart their knowledge and teach our students; perform and lead research activities; and most important, have the opportunity of making an impact on a student’s life. The CIO office is then the circulatory system enabling the heart to function optimally with investments of tools to enhance teaching and learning—whether that is an anchor learning management system supplemented with easy to use systems such as Blogs, Wiki’s, or the ability to add value by incorporating systems such as clickers, class-room-capture, and iTunes U. Our role is to facilitate so that the learning experience for the students is greatly strengthened cost effectively.

In closing, even prior to sitting in the CIO position, it is obvious that any amount of technology will be worthless without a talented and motivated team. Being in the CIO office underscores the human asset and its investment that much more. The dedicated staff members here are the eyes and ears for this office and the university’s technology needs. They are on the ground helping faculty, staff, and students for all IT related concerns. They are the instructional designers assisting faculty in richening their courses, the network engineers who design and maintain the flow of packets, the web and applications developers, and security engineers. They are the ones in touch with the community. As such, their input and feedback is critical in any organizational development or strategic planning session. This invaluable resource is organic and home-grown. Inc rafting a strategic plan to navigate into the future, no external entity could match or provide value-added insights as those who are in constant communication with every member of this organization. This perspective is not a new one for me. It is one that now takes on a different dimension by experiencing things from the inside.

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