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The Big Three for IT: College IT Leaders Name their Top Priorities for 2016

What does information technology (IT) have to do with student success? Well, in the age of e-learning, hybrid courses, and digital tools that monitor students’ progress in courses and programs, quite a bit.

IT officers are no longer just ensuring that systems are user-friendly, but they are also interacting more with faculty and students to ensure student success. Members of EDUCAUSE, a community committed to highlighting how emerging trends and technologies may influence the evolution of IT in higher education, have named their top priorities for 2016, and students and their data are at the center. Conducted annually, the list captures survey results from over 300 IT and college leaders around the world who are working in a variety of postsecondary institutions from community colleges to four-year universities.

Ensuring secure data, leveraging technology for teaching, and using technology for student success, rose to the top this year as institutional must-dos, including for community colleges. These objectives come as no surprise as they are prerequisites for colleges to be able to participate fully in the age of big data, such as exploring how robust collection and analysis of student data can guide retention and completion efforts. Allocating institutional resources more effectively, pinpointing students who are in need of additional support, and making institutional accountability for student outcomes more transparent to both external and internal stakeholders are all ways colleges hope to make use of big data and technology to guarantee student success. However, the yellow brick road to effectively leverage educational technology and data to drive student achievement should be paved with, among other things, secure data and adopting technologies that facilitate student learning.

Secure Data

Information security, which ranked 10th in 2015, topped the list this year as a major priority for IT operations at colleges and universities. It’s almost impossible for any institution to be immune from security threats, let alone an institution of higher education. But IT leaders insist that institutions should be able to act proactively to secure student and institutional data, rather than reactively when a data breach has already taken place. This means that information security has to be viewed as everyone’s responsibility and will be achieved when all institutional departments and IT users (students, faculty, and staff) understand and promote good information security practices. As data becomes more important to how colleges, faculty, and staff understand what students experience, actively managing data security and privacy will legitimize the continued use of strategies that require robust collection, analysis, and use of student data.

One way an institution could work towards increased data security is to develop a training framework for information security awareness to educate all members of the campus community about threats and how to take action to protect institutional data. IT leaders are right to believe sharing the responsibility of ensuring that data is secure should be the new way of doing business as “IT has become embedded in every institutional activity and mission.”

Leverage Technology to Make Progress in Teaching and Learning and Student Success

The report notes that IT’s heightened profile on campuses is a result of delivering services that can be directly mapped to higher education’s most strategic priorities, like student success, affordability, excellence in research and teaching, and analytics. Technology is also increasingly being seen as a conduit to improve pedagogy and learning, and expand access to underserved populations.

With this in mind, coming in at number 2 and 3 were collaborating with faculty and academic leadership to understand, support, and optimize the use of technology in teaching and learning and to improve student outcomes. Compared to last year, education technology for teaching and learning and student success remained in the top 4 as institutional must-haves, with improving student outcomes becoming an even higher priority this year.

Perhaps contrary to popular belief, the report proposes that optimizing educational technology isn’t actually about the technology, but rather about understanding what facilitates learning, such as: strengthening relationships among faculty, students, and advisors, delivering relevant and engaging content, and helping students understand and focus on priorities. Then, all stakeholders—IT and academic leaders, advisors, and students—can come together to collaborate on solutions.

Imagine for example an institution committed to using educational technology to support teaching and learning wished to facilitate stronger campus relationships. A good place to start would be if the institution first implemented practices (starting with the inventions, not technologies) that strengthen relationships among and between faculty and students. After, all partners engaged in the student learning process could secure collective acknowledgment that strengthening relationships leads to better learning outcomes, deeper partnerships, and technology can facilitate these collaborations.

The report describes student success technologies on the other hand, as involving the use of data collection and analysis tools at all levels to predict student success, alert those who can intervene, and assess the effectiveness of interventions. Examples include early-alert technologies and academic planning tools like the ones used by Arizona State University and Valencia College.

In order for student success technologies to be harnessed fully, however, IT leaders advised that institutions set goals and determine how to measure success, include all stakeholders (faculty, students, advisors, academic leaders, IT managers) in the selection, implementation, and testing of the technologies to ensure that the solution will be feasible, affordable, and useful. Another good measure would be to adopt continuous improvement practices that allow colleges to assess success systematically, and use results to modify and reassess, always with a goal of improving student outcomes.

Use of student and institutional data and student success technologies is becoming widespread as pressure to make better use of limited resources and improve student outcomes becomes the new normal in higher education. If you can recall, Dorothy, travelling down the yellow brick road to meet the Wizard, faced challenges and colleges arguably will too. Using data and technology to drive student success, while no small feat, can’t be complete, at least not without critical feedback, without institutions having a plan for ensuring that student information and data are safe, and a plan for being intentional from the start that the technologies adopted facilitate learning. "