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5 CIO focus areas for the next 5 years

At the Fall 2014 Member Meeting of CUCCIO (October 15 – 17 in Winnipeg), we’ll be exploring the future of higher ed IT in Canada. In lead-up to those discussions, we asked two member CIOs – Dwight Fischer, CIO at Dalhousie University and Tariq Al-Idrissi, CIO at Trent University – to provide their perspectives on the most important issues for CIOs to monitor and manage over the next several years.

In addition to highlighting important to-do’s, these gentlemen argue that the successful management of higher ed IT may require a re-envisioning of what the role of CIO means in the first place.

1. Data centre management

As Tariq explains, the CIO has traditionally been in charge of the data centre, system admins, power, renewal and all other considerations that come with building and managing IT infrastructure. But as Dwight elaborates, that needs to change.

“For any schools sitting on big data centres, it’s a matter of time before they need renewal,” Dwight says. “It could cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars to upgrade your data centres, but that’s an unsustainable model. Individual schools cannot sustain individual data centres – and why would you?  

“Software vendors are racing to provide cloud-based versions of their software, and there are opportunities to partner with other schools or large-scale providers of infrastructure as a service,” he continues. “It’s all forcing a change in our mentality away from the data centre model we have all grown. We’re shifting toward providing, provisioning, connecting and helping people use it – not writing software or maintaining infrastructure. The shift is starting to happen already as organizations are taking email, collaboration tools and learning management systems to cloud-hosted solutions.”

2. Network capacity and security

Canada’s higher ed institutions are seeing huge increases in network demand.

“There are more individuals with more devices, consuming more bandwidth. Plus, there are more inanimate objects being connected to our networks,” Dwight says. “We see this demand continuing to rise indefinitely, as something systemic but not unique to higher ed. Advances are moving so quickly that keeping pace with mobile demand results in exceeding campus network renewal budgets – if they even exist in the first place. You need to look at IT infrastructure the way you look at buildings, so that when you fund something, you’re thinking about how to renew it three, four or five years down the road.”

On top of managing capacity, ensuring network security is also crucial to any university, to keep users satisfied and operate as a responsible internet citizen.

“As far as a long-term approach to managing network security, we’re simply not there yet,” Tariq says. “We’ve always known university networks are more vulnerable than those of our private sector counterparts. We generally don’t control the number and type of devices that we allow on our networks. The question is: how do you balance security and still provide access?”

Dwight says the solution begins with clearly identifying the scope of the issue, which requires explaining to all interested parties what is at stake.

“We see more video instruction coming into classrooms via our networks. People are taking advantage of online resources in real-time. Our medical schools are working with medical dummies that interact on our networks, providing a learning experience for students with real-time feedback. And students in residence expect their networks to perform as they do at home,” he explains. “These aren’t extraordinary requests, but we have to come to grips with the fact that this is an evolving industry. Network advances and protocols are changing rapidly, and it’s a challenge to adapt given the explosive demand.”

3. Data analytics

Both Tariq and Dwight agree that firming our collective grip on data analytics will help us make wiser choices – both in IT specifically and as institutions generally.

“The competition for scarce students will become increasingly challenging,” Dwight says. “Those schools with a grip on analytics – around enrolments, retention, research and reporting – will have a significant advantage over those that don’t. Governments want to see more accountability and standardization across universities, and they want to see progress reported in a manner whereby everyone is using the same information.”

“Canada is the only industrialized country in the world where education is not nationally controlled,” Tariq adds. “Universities in the US have woken up a lot faster than we have because of the private nature of some of their institutions. But predictive analytics are key to our success here in Canada.

“We are lagging,” he continues. “Our data is decentralized and we all use different sets of analytics. There’s currently no way to run an information management strategy for a large university. We’re burdened by our past.”

4. Shared services

As a potential solution to the challenges that come with data centre consolidation, managing network capacity and security, and collecting and standardizing analytics, a number of Canadian PSE institutions are exploring the possibility of sharing IT services with one another.

“Institutions are clearly interested in shared services, but where do we start?” Dwight asks. “The only way to get interoperability between schools is to create improved standards, and there is no way to do this now – organizations all have unique environments because they’ve never had to share.”

“Bottom line, the traditional IT model no longer works,” Tariq adds. “The new model must include collaborations across PSE institutions on key services. We may also need to look at national organizations to broker some of these collaborations. We can’t sustain our current system alone, so we’re going to have to do it with other universities.”

5. Changing the value proposition of IT

It is clear that the higher ed IT landscape and the role of the university CIO in Canada are changing. To adapt, a rethinking of the role of CIO may need to occur – it’s what Tariq refers to as “changing the value proposition” of IT.

“I don’t see resource restrictions as necessarily bad,” Tariq says. “Sometimes they force rethinking, and that rethinking is important. A traditionalist might say our current challenges are insurmountable. But the type of CIO we need now is the one who asks: How do we transform ourselves to work within these new realities?”

“Does that require a fundamental restructuring of our offerings and organizations to meet the demands of where we are today?” Dwight asks. “Our IT teams now have to understand both the business and the technology, not just one or the other.” 

“The role of the CIO is not head geek – it’s a strategist,” Dwight adds. “One who should demonstrate those types of skills, having the ability to move around higher ed governance structures, but also develop new business models to lead them to new places. Traditionally, if the CIO has his or her head in the bits and bytes, they’re missing the picture.”

Both Dwight and Tariq identified the need for tomorrow’s CIOs to go “where the puck is going,” not where it’s been. If you spend too long rehashing the risks of moving your email system to the cloud, for example, you risk wasting time and being left behind.

What do you think are the most important focus areas for higher ed CIOs over the next five years? Have your voice heard – and hear what your peers have to say – at this month’s Member Meeting, October 15 to 17 at the University of Manitoba.

For more on “where the puck is going,” check out Dwight’s blog: Transform IT.

Research, discovery and learning on the move

CUCCIO and CANARIE announce another milestone in the transition of the Canadian Access Federation, with the launch of a robust information portal on the CANARIE website

Rebecca Graham new CIO at uGuelph

Rebecca Graham is the University of Guelph’s new CIO and chief librarian, a position formerly held by Mike Ridley.

Rebecca comes to Guelph from Harvard College Library (HCL) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she was the associate librarian for preservation, digitization and administrative services. In that capacity she oversaw all administrative services, managed a $90-million budget and 12 library buildings and led the effort to expand the library’s digitization of special collections, particularly in support of teaching and learning.

Previously Rebecca headed computing services and the digital library program at Johns Hopkins University, served in various capacities at the Digital Library Federation in Washington, D.C., and managed integrated systems at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Learning for its own sake: MOOCs at the University of Toronto

Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) are becoming increasingly prevalent on campuses across the country and throughout the world. Issues around online learning are receiving unprecedented media attention, and universities of all sizes are beginning to explore the potential of MOOCs, raising questions around the future of online learning as we know it.

At the University of Toronto, more than 740,000 users worldwide have registered for a MOOC. When surveyed, about 80 per cent of respondents  indicated that they took the course simply for enjoyment, while 30 per cent were seeking credentials for their CV. For insights into how this major Canadian university is integrating MOOCs into their academic offering, we spoke to Laurie Harrison, U of T’s Director of Online Learning Strategies.

CUCCIO: Let’s begin by defining our subject. What do MOOCs mean to the University of Toronto?

LH: When we began developing our first MOOCs, in addition to wanting to explore, evaluate and conduct research, we also wanted to open up and contribute to the online education community – sharing offerings from some of our great faculty members as part of our Open UToronto initiative. We never intended that our MOOCs would replace our degree offering, and we have not pursued the monetization of our MOOCs. That said, some materials developed for online learning are repurposed on campus.

We work with two different online learning partners – we began working with Coursera in July 2012 and edX in February 2013. We are one of just a few institutions who have partnered with both platforms. We did this intentionally because we wanted to explore them both and the pedagogies they enable. We have 13 MOOCs in various stages – some in development, some currently being offered and others that have already been offered.

CUCCIO: What are the benefits you hope to gain through MOOCs?

LH: For one, MOOCs provide a means of engaging our faculty, creating a community of practice focused on online course design, and the kinds of dialogues we are able to have with faculty and other leaders within the institution around the intersection of learning and technology. This isn’t to say online course design is new, but online learning at this scale is. Secondly, faculty members are often used to working independently, but the scope of these projects tends to involve educational, technical, resource and library staff – which creates an interesting team model. Third, developing the research and analytics component of MOOCs has also allowed us to ramp up our ability to work with big data.

CUCCIO: What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered so far?

LH: The most important challenge for us is around course design. We have developed a workshop model where we guide instructors through the process of determining their goals, as well as the skills, knowledge and attitudes they want their learners to develop. Then, based on what they identify, they are able to map out activities that will help them achieve their goals. We have found that, often, there is a limited awareness of the variety of activities you might undertake in a MOOC. Often, instructors consider just video quizzes or online multiple-choice tests. But our instructors identified a variety of goals, involving social interaction, engaging students, creating discussions, peer assessments and personalized assignments. As a result, we’ve become very creative with the types of activities we offer.

CUCCIO: One major concern around MOOCs is that the quality and legitimacy of university degrees may be jeopardized, if universities begin giving degrees based on MOOC credits. How do you respond to that?

LH: Our goals do not include granting credits or degrees to those who have completed our MOOCs. We want to provide high-quality MOOCs that support learning, and we do that by focusing on the design phase.

Much of the common perception of MOOCs is that people want to take them as an alternative to a degree course to get credit. But, from what we’ve observed, a lot of them just want to learn or connect with others in a particular community. So, not all of our MOOCs are based on existing courses, and you have to look at the goals of your instructors and learners to gauge success.

CUCCIO: How do you think the future of MOOCs will look?

MOOCs have put the intersection of technology and learning at centre stage. The attention it garnered through the media put it at the foreground, but lots of institutions were already having meaningful conversations around understanding the role and potential of online learning.

If you consider a typical hype cycle, I think we’re past the peak of the hype cycle now, and maybe even passed through the low point – the criticism. If you look at the phase of integration, what aspects are scalable and useful, and can fit into the needs of institutions, research programs, outreach programs, reaching people who might otherwise not have access to learning – the potential is huge. The media often focuses on the negative, but that’s not the conversation happening with folks working in the world of online learning. We see this as one dimension of long path of exploring and developing strategies for online learning.

We’ll be hosting a MOOC research symposium on April 28, with five presentations from various researchers from within the “MOOCosphere” as we call it. This aligns with our research mandate and various aspects of our mission.

MOOCs are excellent enablers of collaboration. No one stakeholder can carry a MOOC. You need to think about your goals, and that includes the goals of your instructors, program, institution and learners. And as we know, this isn’t unique to MOOCs. What you learn through MOOCs is certainly transferable.

For a full report on the first year of MOOC activity at U of T, click here.

To see U of T’s full MOOCs offering, click here for Coursera or click here for edX.