The Top 10 IT Issues in Higher Ed for 2015

In a packed room at the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference, held Sept. 29 - Oct. 2 in Orlando, Fla., higher education leaders got a sneak peek at the top 10 IT issues they will have to face next year.

These issues highlight three major trends: "Inflection point," "from technical to business" and "the new normal."

The "inflection point" issues have finally reached a place where universities need to move from talk to action. Issues in the "from technical to business" trend highlight the increasing importance of technology in university business operations. And "the new normal" issues reflect that day-to-day operations are strategic.

This annual list comes out of an EDUCAUSE IT panel made up of higher education leaders who identify the top strategic priorities for their institutions. Once they come up with their initial list, the community gets to vote, and then it's published in the January/February issue of theEDUCAUSE Review. Here is the sneak peek.


1. Hiring and retaining qualified staff, and updating the knowledge and skills of existing technology staff (trend category: inflection point)

2. Optimizing the use of technology in teaching and learning in collaboration with academic leadership, including understanding the appropriate level of technology to use (trend category: from technical to business)

3. Developing IT funding models that sustain core services, support innovation and facilitate growth (trend category: from technical to business)

4. Improving student outcomes through an institutional approach that strategically leverages technology (trend category: from technical to business)

5. Demonstrating the business value of IT and how IT can help the institution achieve its goals (trend category: from technical to business)

6. Increasing the IT organization's capacity for managing change, despite differing community needs, priorities and abilities (trend category: inflection point)

7. Providing user support in the new normal -- an environment rich with mobile, online education, cloud and BYOD (trend category: the new normal)

8. Developing security policies for mobile, cloud and digital resources that work for most of the institutional community (trend category: the new normal)

9. Developing an enterprise IT architecture that can respond to changing conditions and new opportunities (trend category: inflection point)

10. Balancing agility, openness and security (trend category: inflection point)

In the EDUCAUSE session, CIOs, vice presidents and deans honed in on six issues in the first two trends: Inflection point and from technology to business.


Universities are getting hit hard with change from every direction and must play to their strengths as they respond to this change, said Robert Solis, vice president and CIO for the University of Massachusetts system.

Robert Solis, vice president and CIO of the University of Massachusetts system, speaks at the 2015 IT issues panel at EDUCAUSE. / Tanya Roscorla

"The pace of change, the amount of change, can clearly be overwhelming to all of us, so I think the only way to take it on is to really look at your organization and what it is you do," Solis said.

For universities to succeed in this area, it's important to have a team that's responsive to change and to build a positive culture where the team's work helps the university accomplish its mission, said Michael Bourque, vice president of information technology at Boston College in Massachusetts.

And that means employee hiring and retention plays a big role as universities compete for a scarce number of people. For example, IT security officers are hard to find, so growing your own officers becomes important, said Angela Neira, CIO of Pittsburg State University in Kansas. The university also recruits alumni, who already understand the university's mission because of their experience as students.

Once universities attract employees, it's important to keep them up to speed on technology changes and introduce change in a measured way so it's not overwhelming, said Mark I. Berman, CIO of Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y.


The role of IT must shift toward supporting and partnering with faculty as more technology is used for online and in-person classes.

"We need to transition from this idea of being back-office plumbers to being business partners," Bourque said.

Michael Bourque, vice president of information technology at Boston College, speaks at the top 10 technology issues panel at EDUCAUSE. / Tanya Roscorla


And that means outsourcing back-end technology to cloud service providers, and focusing time and resources on supporting the university community, Berman said. In this business relationship, higher education leaders shouldn't be scared that faculty are bringing technology ideas to IT. Instead, the technology team should be open to their ideas, and also suggest ways that technology can advance teaching and learning, said Paul Sherlock, CIO of the University of South Australia in Adelaide.

These business partnerships and other top issues ring true for universities in Canada and Australia. In Australia, Monash University has been focusing on business partnerships and trying to find the balance between ongoing operational costs and growth, said Lindsay John MacDonald, portfolio manager of education and student and education administration at the Clayton, Victoria university. In an interview after the session, he said it's necessary to fulfill maintenance requests to keep people happy, but more than half of the IT costs currently go toward operations, and that doesn't leave as much room for big transformational efforts.

"Probably the biggest thing we're finding with that business partnership is the need for transparency, relationship and trust so that they can start owning and driving the change," MacDonald said.

The challenge with these changes is that technology decisions are coming from a number of offices around campus, and IT has to figure out how to best work across the university on funding, continuity of services and technology support, said Karin Moyano Camihort, dean of online programs and academic initiatives at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts.


But figuring out how to work in this way, Camihort said, requires a balancing act between the need to maintain core technology services while having enough resources to innovate. This comes down to figuring out what to outsource and what to continue providing in-house in order to meet the needs of the community.

Funding is the one issue that has been on the top 10 list since its inception, and this is the third year that demonstrating the value of IT has been on the list, said Susan Grajek, vice president of data, research and analytics at EDUCAUSE.

Because IT touches so many parts of the university, it should be easy to show how important IT's service is to make the case for more funding. But universities tend to have trouble doing that, particularly when other organizations on campus can point out inefficiencies in IT that would save them more money if they were addressed, Sherlock said.

"As a community, we would say we're involved in everything the institution does, and yet we seem to struggle to demo the business value," Sherlock said.

Paul Sherlock, CIO of the University of South Australia, talks at the top 10 IT issues panel at EDUCAUSE. / Tanya Roscorla


While the amount of technology funding does stretch IT departments thin, it's also necessary to have these financial constraints because it forces universities to collaborate, consider shared cloud services and work on community-based clouds. And that's a good thing, said Tariq Al-idrissi, associate vice president of IT and CIO at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. In an interview after the session, he said that Canadian universities have worked together to share backup structures so they can be more efficient with the dollars they have.

"Lack of funding can actually inspire change and different ways of looking at things," Al-idrissi said.

This story was originally published by the Center for Digital Education

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