I recently read the book “Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT,” by Martha Heller, who argues that technology is no longer just a supporting resource but is inextricably linked to an organization’s success.
To be effective, Heller writes, the technology leaders of today should think strategically about the needs of their organization. CIOs should try to anticipate new business needs and get out in front of them with IT-based solutions, instead of simply reacting as needs arise.
I agree wholeheartedly with Heller’s ideas, and that’s what our IT team has tried to do at Bridgewater State University.
In education, our core business is student success — and providing a top-notch experience for our students is our primary goal. As IT leaders in higher education, it’s critical that we understand our students’ needs and stay one step ahead of these needs. To do that, we should not only meet, but exceed their expectations for technology use.
Admittedly, that’s a tall order. Today’s students expect a lot. And they deserve a lot, given how much they are paying for their education.
The current generation of students is so plugged in. They are accustomed to handling almost any situation with the smart device in their pocket, from ordering food to finding directions to streaming live TV. When they come to college, they expect to have the same functionality they are used to in the rest of their lives. They expect that technology will be available to them all of the time, and that it will make their lives more convenient.
A strong and ubiquitous Wi-Fi signal should be a given, regardless of where students are on campus. That’s a challenge for higher-ed IT leaders when students are no longer arriving at college with two or three network-ready devices, but as many as five to seven devices each.
To support this expectation, we are nearly a year into a two-year plan to upgrade our entire network infrastructure — boosting our bandwidth from 10 gigabits per second to 40. When the project is finished, it should sustain us for at least the next five years.
An app that works
Having a mobile app that delivers a high-quality experience for students also is expected. We partnered with our Student Affairs department to create a mobile app a few years ago, and we’re quite proud of it. We surveyed our students to learn what they wanted in a mobile app, and we included students in the design, build, test, and release cycle.
Our app has a rating of 4-plus stars in both the Apple and Google Play stores, and we are constantly adding new features to stay ahead of students’ needs. For instance, a new feature we plan to offer this fall will enable them to add and drop courses through the app.
Beyond the lecture hall
And in an example of how we try to exceed our students’ expectations, later this year we plan to introduce a unique “Smart Parking” feature for our 7,000 students who commute. Using low-cost video cameras, we have shown that we can count cars as they enter or exit our commuter parking lots — and the app will tell students where there are spaces still available.
Our IT team has made life easier for our commuter students in two other significant ways as well: We have added learning pods and charging lockers to one of our commuter lounges as a pilot project this fall. The learning pods are self-contained units that give students more privacy as they work, and the charging lockers allow commuters to store and charge their mobile devices securely while they are on campus.
For our 4,000 residential students, we offer wireless printing from any device, as well as a separate network for wireless gaming. And starting this year, students will have access to Xfinity on Demand service through a partnership with Comcast. They’ll be able to live stream all their favorite TV shows using any smart device, with HBO and other premium channels included.
Enhanced support for learning
To enhance teaching and learning, we have added wireless projection in all of our classrooms and meeting spaces, so presenters don’t have to physically connect their device to the room’s projector. We also created something called a One Button Studio, where students and faculty can record a presentation without knowing anything about technology.
To remove barriers for students, we have begun using open educational resources (OER) in our courses, and we have loosened our device requirements. We now let students use whatever device they are most comfortable with, including a tablet or smart phone — and through a service called Cloud PC, students can access a virtual Windows desktop environment from anywhere they have internet service if they need to use software that is not supported on their personal device.
Another service we have added for the convenience of our students (as well as faculty) is live, 24-7 technical support. We recognize that students don’t learn from 9-5. Often, they are writing their papers at 2 a.m. — and if they have a technical problem, they should be able to get the support they need. So, we partnered with a call center to take support calls after hours.
We are constantly looking for new technology innovations that will enhance the college experience for our students. One of our latest discoveries is the Orah 4i 360-degree video camera, which makes creating immersive virtual reality experiences extremely easy. With most 360-degree cameras, you have to stitch the images together. The Orah 4i comes with its own stitching base, allowing you to go right from recording to editing the video — putting the power of immersive virtual reality in the hands of content creators.
Keeping ahead of demands
Meeting — and exceeding — our students’ expectations with technology requires understanding their perspective and knowing what they want. Our residential student support team annually surveys students about their experience, and we learn a lot from these surveys. We also take part in yearly student technology surveys through the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR), where we learn about the technologies that students are bringing to campus and what they expect from their experience with technology — and we can see trends in the data from year to year.
What’s more, we use TeamDynamix — a combined service and project management platform — to gain valuable insights that help us improve our students’ IT experiences. As an example, I can see which articles the students are using in our IT knowledge base, take their feedback and continuously enhance our output. We also track peak demand times and can staff accordingly.
Knowing what students want when they come to campus is key. But to ensure that our institutions remain competitive in the constant struggle for students, we also have to anticipate new needs and stay one step ahead of students’ expectations.
Campus IT leaders must “be the student” by adopting their students’ mindset and viewing the campus experience from their perspective. Doing this successfully is critical if we are to distinguish our institutions and deliver on the promise of an exceptional student experience.
Ray Lefebvre is vice president of information technology and CIO for Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. Before joining Bridgewater State in 2012, he was the director of applications development and enterprise reporting for the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He also has more than two decades of IT experience in the private sector.