The Future Model of Higher Education IT

Change is coming to university IT departments around the country.

by / October 23, 2013 0
The University of Michigan is moving to a shared services model that it says represents the future for higher education IT.

ANAHEIM, Calif. — A shared services model has the potential to help university IT run more efficiently and focus more on teaching and learning technologies.

While companies have been using a shared services model for decades, higher education is fairly new to this model because universities tend to be more decentralized. And that was the case at the University of Michigan until recently.

For years, the university had no central CIO, and its19 schools and colleges handled their own IT. That meant the IT environment was fragmented, with 44 email services on the Ann Arbor campus, 131 storage services and 193 desktop support services, said Laura Patterson, who is now the CIO and associate vice president of Information and Technology Services. She shared the university's IT story in a session at EDUCAUSE on Oct. 16 and said that help desks and wireless networks numbered more than 100 each.

This technology situation meant that students and faculty in one college couldn't even get on the wireless network in another college. College deans influenced many of the IT decisions, and they were expected to provide the best services possible to attract students to their college. So if that meant setting up a better wireless network and only giving access to their students, that's what they did.

But then everything changed.

"Four years ago, some deans said, 'The changes occurring in higher ed are coming at us so fast, and we are not as an institution making the right investments to make the university continue to excel, particularly in teaching and learning,'" Patterson said.

Enter the NextGen Michigan program. The University of Michigan named Patterson as CIO and put in place a governance model for IT across the university. Patterson's team has launched a number of projects, including NextGen Michigan, a shared services model and IT rationalization. Together, these projects seek to make IT services more sustainable, cost-effective and aligned, according to the university's website.

Image from the University of Michigan

For example, the university is planning to consolidate and centralize commodity services like email, wireless networks and help desks. This will free up IT staff in the schools and colleges to work more with faculty on new projects. By focusing on teaching and learning tech-based initiatives at the school or college level, faculty innovations with technology could eventually be scaled up to the rest of the university.

This also is a cultural shift for universities in both staff and budget. Some IT staff members have left, and others have been asked to leave because they weren't willing to change, Patterson said.

The central IT department now lays open its budget, shares how much it costs to run services in the new shared services model, and compares those costs to what third parties could provide. If a company can provide the service more economically, then the university considers outsourcing it.

Being transparent about how much services cost and what it means is an important point that IT often misses, said audience member Thomas Bunton, director of network and operations services at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. In this case, University of Michigan IT as a whole has made it a point to be transparent.

Internally, the university plans to set up a number of ways that colleges pay for shared services. Every college will pay for commodity services, whether they use them or not. Other services will have toll fees, which will be based on how much a school or college uses the service.

Cloud computing will play a big role in the new strategy. For example, the university plans to move to Google for email, calendar and collaboration tools. It also started MiWorkspace, which packages services like end-user computing, network connectivity and storage. The university will have a shared internal cloud and virtualized servers as well.

University IT will no longer be in the "build" business, but in the "integrate" business, Patterson said. "Higher education as an industry is in a time of change, and we see this as a good thing," Patterson said. "As challenging as it is, it is an opportunity. And it is an opportunity that is IT enabled.

"We in this room and conference as IT leaders have the opportunity to change the model of IT so that we enable our institutions and our industry to emerge from this time of change even stronger and better than we are today."

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.