As the New Year rings in, higher education leaders reflect on IT challenges they face.
Two university CIOs named seven top technology issues they have to tackle, including mobile support, decision-making and governance.
Network security is an ongoing challenge that won't go away anytime soon, said Marc Seybold, CIO at SUNY — The College at Old Westbury in New York.
Wireless was designed for suburban houses, which don't experience interference problems because they are located on adjacent plots of land. But interference is a problem on university campuses because they have pushed wireless beyond its original design. The underlying wireless technology should look more like the cell phone system does, Seybold said.
For a period of six months, Seybold tried an experiment on his network to address the interference problem. He turned off the 2.4 gigahertz radios and the wireless networking standards "b" and "g." He left only wireless networking standards "a" and "n" on, which both work on the 5 gigahertz spectrum.
The Wi-Fi network worked great. But three-quarters of faculty, staff and student devices on campus couldn't operate in the 5 gigahertz spectrum. People didn't understand why their devices couldn't connect and complained. So the university turned the other standards back on.
"There is existing technology that works better than what we have now if you're willing to turn off the port for legacy devices," Seybold said. "Truth is, that tends to be politically impractical, as we found out the hard way."
One of the biggest overarching problems is that many companies sell consumer mobile devices without thinking about how universities will support them, Seybold said.
For example, iPhones and Android phones with the Jelly Bean update come with Wi-Fi automatically turned on. On Android devices, if a user turns off Wi-Fi, the phone automatically turns it back on five minutes later.
Because Wi-Fi is automatically turned on, the hundreds or thousands of devices students bring on campus constantly ping the network to associate with an Internet Protocol (IP) address. The devices effectively jam the network and overload access points. Users consumed so many IP addresses that Seybold's team had to redo the wireless network.
In both enterprise and home environments, iPads in particular prove problematic. Using Verizon on his iPad, Seybold accesses MiFi, a wireless router that acts as a mobile Wi-Fi hotpot. But his device drops out of the network every 20 or 30 minutes. His other devices, including a tablet and a laptop, always stay connected. The problem stems not from the network, he contends, but from the device.
Technical challenges aside, IT decision-making and accountability often don't rest with the same person. And that's not good, Seybold said.
Before a breach, other types of administrators make enterprise decisions without regard for the CIO's advice. When a breach occurs, the breach lawsuit names the CIO.
"If you want to separate accountability from responsibility, how are we supposed to move forward from here?" Seybold asked.
After a breach occurred at his campus, he started a new procedure. Decision-makers now have to sign a paper saying they are accountable for any IT decision that could expose network vulnerabilities. No one has signed. Instead, they find another way to accomplish their goal.
As the availability of real-time information increases, current enterprise resource systems can't process it fast enough, said Alison Robinson, executive director and deputy CIO of support and enablement at the University of Maryland in College Park. When universities move to a more open architecture, they can enable real-time data streaming, which informs more agile university decisions.
An influx of data requires universities to identify information triggers that will prompt action, Seybold said. Otherwise, universities will swing like a pendulum as they react to one piece and then another.
Universities don't decide quickly how disruptive technology fits into their campuses. Instead, they form a committee, which produces a document two years later that is six months out of date, Seybold said.
By moving to a shorter response cycle as a culture, higher education can market to students effectively and maintain a lifelong relationship with them through tools like Salesforce.
“We are competing for the same students," Robinson said. "If you have someone who applies to your university and you are taking an excessive amount of time to let them know whether or not they qualified, somebody is going faster.”
A command-and-control model also poses a challenge for acting on information quickly. This model creates winners and losers, Robinson said.
Higher education and for-profit organizations need to adopt a model that looks like the brain, Seybold said. Each person operates like an individual neuron, firing off ideas. And collectively, the neurons establish a plan of action.
That's the best way to complete a goal, Robinson said.
“You just can’t be the sage on the stage anymore," Robinson said. "Whether you’re faculty or whether you are the CIO, you’re facilitating.”
Technology that is not designed for higher education does not fit easily into universities. And with a few exceptions, universities consume technology rather than creating it.
“Our challenge is that these technologies tend to be produced for specific environments," Seybold said. These scenarios may be quite different from a university environment, he added. "And so we wind up having to shoehorn them into our environments and cope with the fallout of that."
These are some hefty challenges to deal with. But CIOs have a positive outlook on the road ahead.
“We don’t have all the answers," Robinson said, "but it’s great that we have the opportunity to learn and grow and get from this experience what it’s going to mean for us.”
It only takes one group to make a key discovery that's valuable for everyone else, Seybold said. And universities are well known for sharing information and blazing trails in emerging technology.
"It is a great time to be in education or on the technology side because there is nothing that’s more stimulating and exciting than plowing a road, going where people haven’t been before, and having that rewarding feeling that the world’s at least a little bit better for what you did," Seybold said.