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."
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."
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