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Higher Ed IT Needs A Tech Boost To Encourage Innovation

on November 4, 2014

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Application demands on higher education IT teams are high. And with greater expectations from students and staff, alike, pressure to deliver innovative solutions will only continue to rise. Unfortunately, most IT teams are not set up to accommodate.

Run-Grow-TransformAccording to Gartner (and presented at the recent Educause conference), higher education institutions are less likely to focus their IT resources on strategic priorities. In fact, higher education institutions spend, on average, only 19% of time and resource on projects that grow and transform their respective schools.

In other words, higher education institutions are focused on keeping the lights on—and much more so than other industries. And while maintaining core systems may be the focus today, it doesn’t help the institution transform to meet future needs. But without additional resources, IT seems incapable of shifting their priorities.

It’s unlikely that budgets will change dramatically, especially if IT cannot show progress against strategic IT projects. Like Fred Brooks said in his book, The Mythical Man-Month, ‘Nine women can’t make a baby in one month.’ His point is simple: there is a point where you cannot continue to throw additional resource at a project – it just won’t impact time to delivery.

However, this principal is based on traditional development practices. By adjusting the way in which IT delivers on new projects, you can increase your output without increasing your team or budget. This new path ahead requires a holistic approach to the problem that brings together the right technology, process, and people to create a powerful multiplier.

It starts by recognizing the fundamental belief that your school is now in the software business. Technology is fast becoming an essential ingredient for success in the higher ed sector. And with that transition, IT has the opportunity to reinvent their department – and act as innovators on behalf of the school. Expect demands for additional applications in a variety of areas, including:

  • Administrative efficiency apps – for facilities management, career services, budgeting, admissions, registration,  research, and alumni development
  • Apps that integrate with and extend core systems – including Datatel, Ellucian, Oracle, Blackboard, and SAP
  • Online learning management apps – for online forums and video tutorials
  • Apps that improve student services and campus life – including course selection, campus transportation, local events and cafeteria updates

While this is an extensive list, it is possible for IT to deliver. Rapid application development (RAD) provides just this environment. With the right RAD platform, IT can build and deploy applications faster than ever before. These platforms work by abstracting away from code through the use of visual, model-driven development techniques. Modeling not only speeds development, it creates a visual language that extends development to more people.

RAD platforms extend the pool of potential developers by enabling those project participants that lack traditional coding expertise. By removing the complexity of code, more individuals can collaborate and build applications, making it possible for IT to progress multiple projects at the same time.

In addition to extending resources, rapid application development provides a host of features that increase development flexibility and facilitate stronger collaboration between stakeholders. Combined, RAD allows higher ed teams to rapidly build new apps while also accommodating frequent iterations.

The right mix – UPenn helps pave the way for its peers

When the University of Pennsylvania’s Quattrone Nanofabrication lab needed to improve its archaic scheduling, billing and analytical processes, it threw out several old programs and built a new, versatile business application using the Mendix App Platform. The lab’s engineers created a customized app from scratch that delivers the precise capabilities they need – including a unique new way to measure the health of each piece of equipment.

According to Noah Clay, Director, Nanofabrication at UPenn, “Traditional development and integration times would have been anywhere from six to 12 months. With Mendix, we were able to get our application up and running in just a few weeks.”

The new app saves a week of work each month by automating the reconciliation of invoices. Moreover, the lab now generates analytics on lab usage to allow for greater opportunities from more future grants.

Keeping pace with demand

Many higher ed IT teams are unable to keep pace with growing demand from their students, research labs, administrative departments and other stakeholders. The most common reason is a sole reliance on traditional code-based development methods.

Traditional development is often associated with long development cycles, frequent project delays, misunderstanding between IT and university stakeholders, and an ever-mounting backlog of ideas. These flaws make traditional development a poor option for innovative IT projects that require quick release and frequent update.

In a market challenged by rising tuition costs, limited staff bandwidth, and wavering student engagement, the status quo no longer suffices. IT has an opportunity to help transform the way in which higher education institutions operate. Despite being bogged down by maintenance, change is possible. Instead of limiting your development to a small group of specialists, expand your developer population through the use of visual modeling. Get started now.

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  • Isn’t it astounding that higher ed [in the US at least] is lagging behind in their use of technology? I guess low budgets could be a reason to shy away from big enterprise software , but with the cost of education growing so much – what gives? And how can you educate the next generation of information workers without practicing what you preach… Most institutions will have to make a decade long jump to modern application delivery standards if they really want to innovate and compete.

  • Eric, I don’t know that it’s quite astounding but certainly unfortunate. It’s probably a product of user-influence. For instance, if I’m trying to book a flight on American Airlines and there’s a failure on the page and I get booted, I’m likely to just find another airline. Whereas if I’m completing an online application to a school I have my heart set on, I’m probably going to wait and try another time or use another medium. There has been a captive audience for the universe of people being served and the sense of urgency has been very different. Because of this lack of immediate negative-feedback loop (resulting in measurable dollars lost) I think that IT has been relegated as a cost center for much longer than the private sector. This led to a lot of short-sighted decisions which now burdens teams with significant technical debt they need to work their way out of. Combine this with the highly distributed nature of IT in a university (each school, lab, etc. tend to have their own) and you are left with a complicated network of infrastructure to support.

    What I think will help dig out of the hole is abstraction. Whenever possible go as high up the technology ladder as possible (SaaS, aPaaS, PaaS, IaaS) so that you’re left managing as little technical debt as possible. The more abstracted you get, the larger the pool of resources who can contribute to solutions as well. This of course is met with some resistance as many developers feel threatened by the loss of control and what may feel like the marginalization of their present skill sets.

    I think the one thing that is fairly irrefutable is that something has to give 🙂