5 Higher Education CIOs: InformationWeek's Chiefs Of The Year

Learn how these CIOs in higher education drive critical change -- in an industry ripe for disruption.

Chris Murphy, Editor, InformationWeek

December 16, 2013

17 Min Read

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Dec. 16, 2013, digital issue of InformationWeek, distributed in an all-digital format (registration required).

Higher education must change. There's the obvious reason of tuition rising far faster than inflation and wages, raising student debt burdens and pricing out would-be students. But students also are changing -- they're demanding more mobility, remote learning options, and classrooms that combine face-to-face and digital teaching. Recognizing the critical need for IT leaders to anticipate and respond to these changes, InformationWeek chose five leading higher education CIOs as its 2013 Chiefs of the Year.

Carver Takes A Shared Services Approach To Solving Problems
By Chris Murphy

Curt Carver, CIO
University System of Georgia

The University System of Georgia (USG) had a problem. It can have a class overbooked at one of its 31 universities while the same class at other schools has empty seats. The universities offered a number of cross-campus classes via videoconferencing, but the registration process was a nightmare.

For students, overbooked classes and waiting lists can mean it takes longer to graduate, adding to their loan debt and delaying entry into the workforce. A few vendors sold software for this kind of cross-institution registration, but USG CIO Curt Carver thought those products were too complex and costly. "It was an elephant to kill a kangaroo problem," Carver told us, tapping an expression that sounds straight out of his 27-year career as a US Army officer.

Developers on Carver's team wrote custom code to handle cross-registration. The custom middleware integrated student information systems to create a total head count of registrants across USG universities. It also let students stay in their institution's interface -- if a student at Coastal Georgia registers for a course at the University of Georgia, it all looks like the Coastal Georgia system, with no need to register at or pay fees to another university.

Thousands of students are signing up for courses every semester through this remote registration system. Carver is exploring whether USG can sell the Intra-Georgia Registration Sharing System, or Ingress (not be confused with the open-source Ingres database), to other institutions.

Ingress reveals a lot about the environment in which Carver and his team are operating. First, universities must deliver learning in new, technology-based ways (including video) to keep up with the times. Second, the IT organization must find innovative ways to lower costs and squeeze more out of the university system's buildings and staffers as state funding shrinks and students struggle under the rising price of higher education. The USG Board of Regents decided a year ago to consolidate eight institutions into four to get to its current count of 31. Last month the board voted to merge Southern Poly into Kennesaw State. University IT teams "have to not only be agile, but we have to be entrepreneurial," Carver said. "The days when we're going to get big fat checks from the state, and then five years to build a wonderful system, those days are gone."

Shared Services
Carver studied computer science at West Point, served as an infantry communications officer in the 1980s, and eventually became the head of IT at West Point and later the vice dean for education. Your stereotype of a military man might conjure a my-way-or-the-highway type, but working with 31 independent-minded university CIOs means "my job is to sell services." He has put 100,000 miles on his car traveling among those universities over the past three years.

With Ingress, for example, "we had to convince not the CIO, we had to convince the provosts and academic departments and colleges that this was really the way to go." CIOs often have the option whether or not to use a shared service, and 22 of the 31 universities use or are implementing Ingress. Carver takes the same approach with shared datacenter services, which his central group offers via a private cloud. USG also has centralized operation of its Desire2Learn learning management system, used by 300,000 students statewide.

USG institutions can pursue technology contracts on their own, but Carver looks for cases where 3-5 universities are looking to buy the same product and can consolidate their buying or centralize the service. That approach not only reduces costs, but it also helps with staff shortages in some areas, such as database administration and analytics. The central IT organization's vision statement ends with this: "If our customers could choose anyone to provide them IT services, they would choose us." Says Carver: "I just care that we don't solve commodity problems 31 different ways."

He sees two big drivers for change in higher education: lowering costs ("we're pricing it out of reach of segments of our society") and improving performance. Improving performance is hard -- the university system's goal is to graduate 250,000 more students over the next 10 years while maintaining quality standards.

But even as IT teams across the Georgia system power up remote learning models and online courses and help the state consolidate campuses, Carver keeps the faith that a community of professors and students remains essential to higher education. "If education is only about content, then we would not have colleges and universities. We just would've taken that technical innovation called books and solved this whole problem."

Early Plots Her Own Course On MOOCs
By David F. Carr

Loretta Early, CIO
University of Oklahoma

The University of Oklahoma (OU) is embracing massively open online courses (MOOCs) on its own terms -- creating them under its own brand, rather than joining the stampede to providers like Coursera or edX. CIO Loretta Early said partnering with a local startup provided a way to merge online course strategy with the university's economic development mission while letting OU influence the platform design.

The fruit of that partnership is Janux, a MOOC platform introduced in October with the startup NextThought. "It was a leadership decision that we'd do better to work with a local startup, with a physical presence on our research campus, than another company."

One of OU's innovations is making the courses available for free to the general public through Janux while also making them available to enrolled students for credit through its Ozone student portal or for a fee to those who want to take the online courses for credit. Janux launched with six courses, including "Understanding the Global Community," "Law and Justice," "General Chemistry," and "Social Statistics." By the spring of 2014, OU plans to have 20 courses online, which it maintains is the most any university has offered in its first year of doing so. The scale of the venture remains relatively small, though -- about 5,000 signups, including international students.

The platform's design encourages students to share notes and collaborate. A sidebar on every page, for every course module, lets students see whether their contacts are online, start a chat, or annotate the page (for example, to highlight a point that will be on the test). "We're really looking at social learning and incorporating that into open courseware and open content."

OU won a 2013 InformationWeek 500 Business Innovation Award for its work with open educational resources, such as free OpenStax College textbooks. Even before Janux, it had published video of many of its courses on iTunes University. And Early's leadership in higher education goes beyond OU. This year, she chaired the conference program for Educause, a professional development organization for higher education IT leaders. The conference used the umbrella term "connected learning" to refer to all the new forms of online and social learning, including MOOCs.

"We're recognizing that this isn't a fad," Early said. "We have to challenge our institutions to figure out what the implications are and what will be the policy changes institutions will need to grapple with."

After years of heads-down work on backend financial and student data management systems, IT leaders are challenged to "bring value forward" and make data and applications more visible to students, parents, and faculty members. One example is applying analytics to gradebook data, "so we reap or harvest value out of that information that can be useful to the student." For example, as the university homes in on the factors that lead to student success, advisers should be better equipped to intervene with students at risk of failing or dropping out.

The biggest challenge for Early and other higher ed tech leaders is that upheaval and opportunity are occurring at a time of new state and federal mandates, "many of them unfunded." Her job involves complying with new demands without new resources. For example, to stay compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, OU must ensure that course videos are closed-captioned. Automated transcription doesn't always work (particularly in courses with specialized vocabularies), so that captioning requires expensive and time-consuming manual transcription. Another example is a new federal requirement for additional IT security and monitoring for any Department of Defense research program, regardless of classification.

"There are few problems more people, time, and money can't solve," Early said, "yet those are things that are very constrained today."

Young Combines Tech And Finance Roles In Pursuit Of Better Student Experience
By Chris Murphy

Joanna Young, CIO
University of New Hampshire

There's only one way to describe students' appetite for Internet bandwidth: "It's insatiable," said University of New Hampshire CIO Joanna Young. UNH sees bandwidth demand increasing 30% or more per semester, with hard-wired use dropping and WiFi soaring.

As student mobile devices, online video, data-intensive research, and, yes, online gaming in the dorms soak up ever more bandwidth, UNH is one of a handful of organizations testing TV white space for wireless access. The conversion to digital TV freed up that spectrum, allowing for what the FCC has called "super WiFi" hotspots.

Young is executive sponsor of a broadband research effort led by UNH that's testing ways to improve broadband access and pursue grants to extend bandwidth into rural areas. The university has one dorm trying out TV white space today, and UNH's Broadband Center of Excellence is helping test it at several New Hampshire libraries. Such hotspots might be a cheaper solution to the last-mile problem for broadband, especially in rural communities. "We're not called the Granite State for nothing," Young said. "Any time you have to get into the ground, it's very expensive."

Young came to UNH as CIO in 2009 after 20 years in private industry, nearly five of them as CIO of Liberty Mutual Group. At UNH, she's trying to apply the cost-saving automation and business practices of the private sector to areas where they make sense in higher education. "We have to figure out ways to make" higher education "more accessible without sacrificing quality."

One tactic is implementing a Salesforce.com CRM platform, which UNH is using for processes such as reaching out to would-be students and tracking them from interested to applicant to admitted. UNH, "has really been relying on high touch in that process," as many other universities have. "That's certainly good and fine, but it's not very scalable."

Young treads carefully around the issue of cost cutting, emphasizing automation for simple tasks such as processing a student transferring from a community college or switching majors within UNH, so that counselors can help people with more complicated issues. But she's also practical about the need for a business focus. "When I use the word sales, a lot of people flinch. But that's what it is."

She wears two hats -- one as CIO, the other as associate vice president for finance, a role she has held since fall 2011. When she was asked to fill the interim role, she asked to do it for at least a year to make it meaningful. In that role (which the university made permanent this fall), she helps the executive team make investment decisions, including technology ones.

For today's students, technology is inseparable from the college experience. Everything they need to know -- from when's the next bus to what's for lunch at the dining hall to what their class schedule is -- they expect to get not just online but via smartphone. "In their expectations around time to response and time to resolution, their framework is the Amazon.com timeframe."

Young, a UNH alumna, said she was drawn to the university's CIO role because of the diverse experience it offered. The IT team is expanding broadband access, implementing CRM, building mobile apps for students, and helping researchers who are working on everything from rockets to lobsters gather data. The university environment is behind the private sector in the use of some enterprise software, but "higher ed has an opportunity to do some leapfrogging."

Kellen Serves Up 'K Scores' To Spot Dropout Risks Early
By Doug Henschen

Vince Kellen
Senior vice provost and CIO
University of Kentucky

Vince Kellen started his career as a journalist at a local newspaper outside Chicago, and he still has a knack for reporting the facts. The senior vice provost and CIO at the University of Kentucky (UK) shares an unvarnished account of the school's IT successes: It's ahead on mobility and analytics but hasn't done enough to improve its graduation rate and the percentage of courses offered online.

Kellen can be objective in part because this isn't his first stint as a major university's CIO. He came to UK in 2009 after leading IT at DePaul University for five years. He previously spent a dozen years in commercial business and IT consulting roles. He cut his teeth on mobile technology and analytics in the late 1990s, and he oversaw a PeopleSoft deployment back in that application's heyday. Now he is leading an SAP shop that's pioneering new applications with the Hana in-memory platform.

When he arrived at UK, Kellen quickly identified mobility as a priority. He rolled out a first generation of apps less than a year after joining the school. Built on a framework from Blackboard, the apps let students look up, register, and pay for courses; check maps and locations; look up people and buildings; check athletic schedules; catch up on university news; and, of course, check grades. "Students have been heavy mobile phone users for some time, but most universities haven't adjusted quickly as student behavior has changed."

UK's first-generation mobile platform gained nearly 100% student adoption, but he pushed for a second generation with faster performance, greater native capabilities for iOS and Android, and growing HTML5 capabilities. "We made the change because we wanted a consumer-grade experience. Students compare our apps to Apple's applications and the best Android applications, not mobile apps from other universities."

SAP's Hana in-memory database capabilities figure in delivering faster performance, and Kellen said the university's new platform, which uses internally developed middleware and native iOS and Android apps, also provides a better sense of what students are using than the Blackboard framework. With better access to mobile data and clickstreams, UK can analyze which parts of mobile apps are being used and which aren't and how frequently students use those apps.

Student Dropout Warnings
Analytics is a critical area where Kellen draws on his experience, and he's focused most intently on how to keep students in school. Like other schools, UK is drawing on historical data and obvious leading-edge data (such as grades) to identify struggling students. But the school has also developed the K Score to predict and take action to prevent dropouts.

Loosely modeled after Klout Scores, the K Score measures student engagement with the university, as indicated by interactions with the campus learning management system, academic alerts from faculty and advisers, and other interactions with the university. The more frequently students login to visit web pages, check syllabuses, download and turn in homework assignments, and collaborate online with classmates, the higher their K Scores rise. Students can access K Scores (and a graphic comparing it with their peers) on their mobile phones.

"The K Score isn't going to affect all students, but we think it will give some students some clues to their status," Kellen said. "It's certainly helpful to us because it helps us categorize students according to their involvement." Low or falling scores can trigger guidance counselors to intervene before bad grades show up and lead students to think about leaving. "Our graduation rate is around 60%, and we'd like to get it to around 70%. What we're trying to do is get insight into students to help our advisers and colleges begin to manage that."

In addition to these student-facing projects, Kellen is whipping UK's IT infrastructure into shape. The school has spent three years streamlining and standardizing network and server architecture to move toward a private-cloud deployment. He expects "some on-premises and lots of off-premises workloads," which he hopes can let the school avoid a costly renovation of an aging datacenter.

Wishon Puts Analytics At Heart Of 'Reengineering' Efforts
By Alex Kane Rudansky

Gordon Wishon, CIO
Arizona State University

Whether or not you call this a market bubble in higher education, college prices continue to rise much faster than inflation, costing students and their families hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases. But with online and other cheaper alternatives emerging, traditional colleges and universities are under pressure like never before to prove their value.

"There are increased calls for accountability, particularly for public institutions," said Arizona State University (ASU) CIO Gordon Wishon. "Citizens, legislatures, and boards that oversee public universities are all calling for increased accountability by the institution for the high and increasing cost of a college education."

Wishon's mission is to use technology to improve the quality of education while decreasing its cost, saving the university money along the way.

A cornerstone of that effort is a suite of applications ASU has rolled out over the past five years to collect and analyze student data and present the results, not only to each student, but also to key faculty members and administrators. The goal is to improve student performance and raise graduation and retention rates. "We needed a system that allowed us to not only leverage the data we had about students and what made a student successful, but also to reengineer the processes that allowed us to intervene when a student struggled."

The custom-developed eAdvisor system, which includes more than 30 apps, integrates more than just test scores. It also populates data from third-party sources, including:

  • The Blackboard learning management platform, which lets students manage their courses, monitor their grades, access assignments, and communicate with their professors and other students

  • The PeopleSoft application, which tracks payroll for both students and staff members

  • The campus bookstore -- to see if a student has purchased the required textbooks

In the future, ASU plans to collect location data to track when students enter and exit their dorm, the cafeteria, and the library, among other places.

The eAdvisor system applies analytics to the data and delivers dashboards to students, their faculty advisers, and administrators through a custom portal built on the open-source Drupal platform.

A Tool For Change
Administrators also use eAdvisor to reorganize certain degree programs by identifying challenging required courses and placing them at the beginning of the program. If a student struggles with those courses, administrators can raise a flag and schedule an intervention.

The system lets students keep track of their progress while keeping faculty and administrators in the loop. When a student's performance falls or the student consistently misses class, the system notifies faculty members and administrators. "We're re-examining all internal processes that the institution uses to service students' needs and reengineering those to remove barriers to success."

Since ASU launched eAdvisor five years ago, its first-year student retention rate has increased by about seven percentage points. The system has had a financial impact, as well; ASU generates $1 million of additional tuition revenue for every percentage point increase in the retention rate. "It has a very real impact on the institution's budget. That's good for students and helps us to better fund a higher-quality educational experience and provide greater stability in funding."

Download InformationWeek's full Dec. 16, 2013, digital issue.

About the Author(s)

Chris Murphy

Editor, InformationWeek

Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek and co-chair of the InformationWeek Conference. He has been covering technology leadership and CIO strategy issues for InformationWeek since 1999. Before that, he was editor of the Budapest Business Journal, a business newspaper in Hungary; and a daily newspaper reporter in Michigan, where he covered everything from crime to the car industry. Murphy studied economics and journalism at Michigan State University, has an M.B.A. from the University of Virginia, and has passed the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exams.

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