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“I” for “Information”

As we look ahead to the next decade of higher ed IT in Canada, the impact of evolving technologies on teaching and learning becomes increasingly complex.

For insights into how the role of Provost – as the senior academic administrator on campus – plays into IT decision-making, we spoke to Dr. Alan Harrison, Provost and Vice-Principal, Academic, at Queen’s University and Dr. Jonathan Driver, Provost and Vice-President, Academic, at Simon Fraser University.

The Impact of Innovation on Teaching and Learning

Part of the mandate of a Provost is to ensure an optimal campus environment for teaching, learning and research. To this end, both Dr. Harrison and Dr. Driver agree that technology is helping to transform the definition of a university education – and how technology plays into it.

First, there’s the issue of how users are integrating technology into their lifestyles.

“When we polled our students, on average, they were carrying about two-and-a-half mobile devices each. They are increasingly expecting that they’ll be able to access information about their courses, and communicate with professors and other students, from anywhere at any time,” he said. “Although universities tend to have their schedules defined around particular hours and days, that really isn’t the life our students are leading. They’re hooked up 24/7. They’d like to be able to access course materials for 30 minutes when riding a bus somewhere, then another 30 minutes after dinner at home before they settle down to watch TV.”

Perhaps even more transformational is the impact technology is having on the meaning of information sharing, teaching and learning.

“We’re dealing with the broadening of what it means to have a university education,” Dr. Harrison said. “When I went to school, the focus was all content-based. But now, content is one of several facets – all of which are geared toward skill development. And those who tend to be inclined against this broadening are, themselves, content specialists.”

“It’s the idea that you don’t need to lecture to get information across,” Dr. Driver added. “They can be online and that frees up professors to do something different.”

The Consultation Process

As we’ve heard from many higher ed leaders, addressing IT services as an institution – involving all appropriate institutional leadership – is fundamental to the successful implementation and adoption of new IT products and services.

As Dr. Harrison explains, Queen’s has developed a technology-enabled consultation process that has helped the institution transform its approach to budgeting across all departments.

“The implementation of PeopleSoft allows us to do things we never could before, such as implement an activity-based budget model, because the data requirements for a model like that are quite significant,” he said. “We never would have been able to do that if we hadn’t migrated from our legacy system to PeopleSoft. I believe it’s a very important departure for Queen’s.”

“One of the huge benefits of that budget model is that it created a forum – the Provost’s Advisory Committee on the Budget – where all VP’s, Deans and a selection of shared service unit leaders, including our CIO [Bo Wandschneider], form a very broad, university-wide discussion at high level,” he added. “That committee was instrumental in putting together the new budget model. More importantly, each year, every major unit on campus brings forward a budget submission. For example, Bo presents the IT budget, and describes what he wants to do and the strategies behind it. As a result, we’ve been able to encourage expenditures on things people would have rejected in the past.”

Dr. Driver explains that at SFU, he and his colleagues undertake similarly broad consultation processes.

“We have a management and advisory structure that includes a committee on IT strategies, chaired jointly by our VP Academic and our VP Finance and Administration,” he said. “The CIO plays a major role on that committee – he sets the agenda and provides direction in terms of content. The committee includes users – Deans, faculty members and administrators – and under that committee, there is a set of functional committees on issues like research computing, administrative activity and learning technologies. They bring in people who are not necessarily experts, but know about the realities of usage to give the CIO and staff relevant advice.”

“You need to have people on your campus who are not only tech knowledgeable, but who also understand the learning process,” Dr. Driver added. “On our campus, we have an IT Services unit reporting to our CIO. We also have people in our Teaching and Learning Centre who are experts in learning technology. And we have faculty members in our Faculty of Education who do research into learning technologies. That combination of researchers and staff members who can translate research findings for professors across the academy is very important.”

SFU is now in the process of creating a taskforce on flexible education, with the mandate of thinking about disruptive aspects of technology, as well as how to manage and leverage them.

“While it is chaired by an academic, there is very good representation from our IT services people,” he explained. “It will also have Deans, professors, students, and staff from our Teaching and Learning Centre. We’re trying to ensure we get good input from all relevant stakeholder groups, rather than it being driven by a tech focus. That approach often reveals the things that fall well outside responsibility of the CIO / IT Services. For example, one issue is the question of physical space. As people access information online and work from home, what sort of space do we need to provide on campus to accommodate students, who will be working in different ways than before? Furthermore, what is the nature of a professor’s work in the 21st century? Do our policies make sense in terms of hours in the classroom or contact hours with students?”

“Evidence-Based Innovation”

According to Dr. Harrison, part of the rationale behind such far-reaching consultation is to bring increased academic rigour to IT-related decision-making on campus.

“Increasingly, we are talking about technological enhancements that are evidence-based,” Dr. Harrison said. “This concept goes back to Carl Wieman at UBC. He hoped for a day when we brought the same degree of scholarly rigour to learning and learning enablement, that we as academics bring to our research. Evidence-based innovation is precisely that. Let’s actually investigate this before we charge ahead. But of course, the challenge is the pace of change and the urgency to meet increasing demands on services.”

Success Stories

While technological innovation certainly poses its share of challenges to university leadership, it is worth noting that it also delivers as much – if not more – opportunity for growth, process improvement and enhanced teaching and learning experiences.

“One of our biggest recent successes was our new open-source learning management system, Canvas,” Dr. Driver said. “We completed incredibly extensive consultation, particularly with faculty members and to a lesser extent students, before we made the decision. Because we consulted so widely and implemented pilot projects, there has been record uptake of the system. We didn’t see it as a tech problem – rather, we saw it as a project about learning. We consulted Student Services, the library, our Teaching and Learning Centre, IT Services and our experts in the Faculty of Education. We really thought hard about what we’re trying to do as educators with the new software, and it’s been a huge success so far.”

At Queen’s, Dr. Harrison says IT has made a positive mark on a number of specific faculties.

“Our School of Business has really grown in stature and prominence over the last 20-to-25 years, and they use technology to deliver a variety of different programs to a variety of different audiences. They’ve done it wonderfully well,” Dr. Harrison said. “Our Faculty of Education, which is known for providing very valuable service to the teaching community, also went to the proprietary platform Desire2Learn. In those two instances, the technology was very important to each faculty’s ability to do what they wanted to do.”

“There are huge opportunities to use technology to enhance learning,” Dr. Driver added. “Having said that, there’s also a huge danger in the common belief that technology is going to make education cheaper to run. That’s a problem when people outside the academy look at education rather simplistically, as the transmission of information.”

“I” for “Information”

As technologies evolve, the amount of information available to users increases exponentially. The challenge then becomes figuring out how to use the information available to you to make life on campus better for all users.

“Mark Roman [CIO at the University of Saskatchewan] first made the point to me that the ‘I’ in CIO is for ‘information’ – and that information is what it’s all about,” Dr. Harrison said. “The technology is the enabling mechanism, but it’s all about information gathering and sharing. We have to ask the question, ‘How do we establish a reliable set of priorities that enable a limited amount of resources to be best utilized to the benefit of the entire institution?’ Technology becomes the enabler. The CIO really needs to be a deep generalist, in order to fully play that role – someone who can think about how IT is so centrally connected to everything within the university.”