How to make higher education technology investments that pay off

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Technology decision-makers and purchasers give advice on how to ensure fiscal responsibility when making tech investments for colleges and universities. It’s a blessing and a curse: As more needs and services are required by colleges and universities, more technology solutions are entering the market. But with so many options…

Technology decision-makers and purchasers give advice on how to ensure fiscal responsibility when making tech investments for colleges and universities.

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It’s a blessing and a curse: As more needs and services are required by colleges and universities, more technology solutions are entering the market. But with so many options available for practically every type of implementation, how can purchasers make the best decision possible?

According to higher education directors and deans, and industry CEOs, making the fiscally responsible, effective decision on technology purchases requires a combination of research, planning and foresight. Also, choosing the technology that allows for the most collaboration possible is always a wise choice.

Do the Research for Easier Adoption

By Arthur Paré, associate managing director, General Services at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center

We implemented Laserfiche enterprise content management in one department at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in the 1990s, and now the software is used to streamline a variety of processes campus-wide. The investment has paid off financially—we saw a return on the initial investment in Laserfiche within three years. In our organization, however, we look beyond dollars and cents to factors including time savings, improved user experience and convenience.

In order to make technology investments that provide long-term return, it’s critical to examine and quantify all of these factors holistically. Before purchasing Laserfiche, we worked closely with the purchasing department in order to conduct detailed assessment research so that we could clearly communicate the benefits to leadership and users—which would ultimately make adoption easier and faster.

Then we started with a business process that had a clearly defined problem. For TTUHSC, it was the purchase order process in the finance and administration department, which was time-intensive and inefficient due to a reliance on paper documents. Thanks to this anchor department and process, we had a proven example of how it worked and the measurable benefits. It also helped that the first process and department we worked with was highly visible across the organization—departments across TTUHSC used it and therefore were able to see the improvements.

From there, other departments are more likely to embrace the technology and create new ways to use it. We in higher education have a real advantage when implementing technology because our operators and users are all thinkers and innovators. We constantly have great ideas about how to do things differently at our disposal. We just need to make sure we provide our organizations with the right technology to bridge the gap between creative ideas and practical solutions.

Invest in Technology that Fosters Collaboration

By Otto Benavides, director of the Instructional Technology and Resource Center and Emeritus Associate Professor, Kremen School of Education and Human Development at California State University, Fresno.

The “modern” higher education institution doesn’t just offer courses, it teaches students how to work as a team, lead projects, be creative, and exposes them to the technology they will be using once they join the workforce.

I helped California State University, Fresno launch a “collaborative classrooms” initiative to ensure students, not professors, are the focus of instruction. Instead of the instructor standing at the front of the room and the students sitting in rows of desks, the collaborative classroom is structured to allow the instructor to act as a coach and puts students in charge of their learning.

Our desks are arranged in pods, each with their own Epson interactive projector, power ports and Mac Mini with MacBook Screen Share software so students can access and project content directly from their own devices during group work. Students can also annotate and edit their work on the projector, and then save and email their notes and annotations to their group members. The classrooms also have video cameras, green screens and cinema lights for video projects.

My advice for choosing the best tech investment is: 1) Choose technology that is flexible. You want tools that work for various instruction styles such as flipped instruction or BYOD. 2) Interact with other schools that have the technology you are considering via videoconference. Take tours, ask questions. 3) Provide appropriate staff training. 4) Choose technology that will be affordable to maintain. 5) Choose equipment that is simple and easy to use. I recommend Epson and Apple for these reasons. 6) Consider what will provide the best value for what you are trying to do. We initially considered flat panel screens for the pods but they were too expensive. We saw Epson’s short-throw interactive projectors at a conference and fell in love. They did exactly what we wanted.

Consider the Broader Benefits, or Lack Thereof, Before You Invest

By Mark Francis, CEO of Collabco

When selecting technology investments, higher education Institutions should consider the interoperability of their chosen technology solution. For example, they may have been looking to solve an immediate “specific” problem or need, but they need to make sure the solution they select is not too “specific” and is able to provide wider benefits to the institution. Understanding if a solution will connect or integrate with other platforms or systems is imperative to make sure the investment was not a waste. Institutions need to purchase technology that can have its functionality widened as needed. Spending time considering the core functionality and the wider capabilities possible in a technology may result in the institution ultimately choosing a different solution, but it will pay off if it is a solution that will help to address a number of needs and provide a greater level of value to a wider audience.

For example it may be better to select a student system that helps to address not just current student technology needs, but also the needs of staff, alumni and pre-applicants. By taking a look at the broader benefits a solution can provide, higher education institutions will ensure they are choosing tech investments that will pay off in the long run.

Collabco is the creator of myday, a student dashboard used to drive student engagement, participation and retention.

Invest in Flexible, Dynamic Spaces for the Future

By Kurt Shirkey, assistant director of Classroom Technology Support in the Site Planning & Support department at Salt Lake Community College

Higher education institutions are moving toward active learning environments that promote engagement and collaboration. The “modern’ institution has learning spaces that are flexible, dynamic and wireless. At Salt Lake Community College, we created “Flex Classrooms,” which use a combination of student-brought devices, mobile furniture, updated cabling and power ports, and interactive projectors. There is no “front” or “back” to the classroom. Instructors are implementing the flipped classroom model. Here is how we chose our tech investments:

1) Customer support. We chose Epson projectors because we wanted a solid partner that will help us if we run into technical problems. 2) Go wireless. We didn’t want a lot of wires and cables in the middle of the room. Our interactive projectors offer wireless connectivity and annotation features, which was exactly what we needed. 3) Flexible spaces. Fixed podiums and desks are relics of the past. The “modern” institution needs dynamic spaces where students and instructors can move things around to fit their needs. We replaced tablet armchairs and anchored workstations with wheeled chairs and tables and movable podiums. 4) Make it visually appealing. We replaced the tile floors of our classrooms with carpet, painted the walls bright colors and added lighting. 5) Support innovation. Our Flex Classrooms are laboratories new technology. If an instructor likes a tool, they can bring it to test out. It’s another way to make the classroom fit their needs, not the other way around. 6) Start small. Convert one classroom first and use feedback to tweak the design before incorporating it on a broader scale. Have your facilities staff, interior designers and IT department involved from the start. 7) Revise your model. In the first year, meet with faculty teaching in your rooms to get feedback on your technology design .Incorporate their best ideas into future models.

Kurt Shirkey heads SLCC’s “Flex Classrooms” initiative.

(Next page: Higher education technology investment tips 5-8)

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Invest in Technology that Makes Data Easy to Collect, Analyze, and Integrate

By Dr. W. Allen Richman, interim dean of Planning, Assessment and Institutional Research at Prince George’s Community College

In higher education, data is a key component of everything from graduation rates to accreditation. The “modern” higher education institution relies on data analysis to assist it in making programmatic changes that lead to better retention and graduation rates. Therefore I recommend higher education institutions invest in technology that allows them to easily access, manage and analyze their data – particularly assessment data. This technology must also allow institutions to integrate this data into the regular operations of the institution, rather than having it be, or appear to be, a separate set of work.

Prince George’s Community College launched a data initiative five years ago. The goal was to create a comprehensive assessment program that would tie courses to learning outcomes. It reorganized the Office of Planning, Assessment and Institutional Research to head this task. We spent 18 months mapping courses and aligning them to learning outcomes. We also adopted software called DataLink Connect, from Apperson, that allowed us to develop assessments and answer keys tied to each outcome. Also, make sure data collected integrates with the learning management system so educators don’t have to go into multiple places to review data. The data now helps us determine where we need to adjust instruction and how best to revise courses. Ultimately we hope this initiative will improve courses and graduation rates.

Regardless what technology an institution chooses, what is essential is that collecting, analyzing and acting on data become as much a part of the classroom as collecting, grading and providing feedback on term papers. If universities and colleges look for technology that will accomplish this, it will help to ensure student success.

Dr. Richman oversees academic assessment including the implementation of an institution-wide assessment system for the continuous improvement of courses, programs and the institution as a whole.

Pick Tech that’s Easy to Use and Versatile

By Jeremiah Proctor, director of Technical Services and Information Technology Services for John Brown University in Arkansas

The best tech to invest in is the technology that best fits the needs of your faculty and improves the faculty and student experience without requiring extensive training or preparation. You must find tech to excite and engage the faculty and students. I would also recommend investing in technology that promotes collaboration and group work. At John Brown University, collaboration and remote presentation in the classrooms have become primary focuses for both faculty and students.

In our classrooms at John Brown University, we chose Epson interactive projectors with Crestron DMPS control systems along with Dell OptiPlex 7440 AIO touchscreen computers and document cameras. We selected Epson’s interactive projectors because they are simple to use and versatile. I refer to them as a wall-sized iPad. Also, we can create a wonderful interactive whiteboard experience just by placing a piece of dry erase vinyl on the presentation decks of the document cameras. John Brown University has a theater space that we are able to still use as a traditional classroom by adopting this solution.

In addition to adding the technology, we equipped our classrooms with standard meeting chairs and small round tables around the room to make it easier to create groups for collaborative exercises. The groups use products like Crestron’s Air Media and Epson’s collaboration software which make sharing projects with the class easy.

We are pleased with our tech investments at John Brown University. By investing in technology that is versatile, easy to use and that promotes the collaborative atmosphere that is so critical in education today, you will set your university up for success well into the future.

Make Sure it’s Durable and Valuable to a Diversity of Users

By Christopher Gordon, assistant director of the Center for Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (CESTEM), University of North Carolina Wilmington

The University of North Carolina’s Center for Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (CESTEM) provides professional development opportunities for regional K-16 instructors and educational opportunities for regional K-12 students to improve the quality of pre-college STEM education. One way we do this is through our technology loan program, which allows teachers from 13 counties in the region to borrow various technologies, lab books, and more to use with their students.

When selecting technology for CESTEM and our institution, I am committed to choosing equipment that is easy to use, durable, and useful in a variety of settings by our diverse stakeholders. With CESTEM, teachers check out the equipment for two weeks—or longer if no one else has the equipment reserved after them—and then brings the equipment to their classrooms to engage students in hands-on, technology-enabled learning. Oftentimes, students also use the technology independently for their own science and engineering fair projects. Given this, it is important that the technology we loan out, such as Vernier sensors or Lego robotics kits, supports heavy use.

In choosing technology, it is also important to partner with companies that have an established record of success and that are focused on anticipating the future needs of its customers. Other key considerations of technology purchases include choosing technology that connects and works seamlessly with the other technology you already own or plan to own in the future; that is a good value; and, most importantly, that will enable you to accomplish your organization’s mission.

Start Small and Simple

By Linda Ding, Senior Education Program Strategist at Laserfiche

For institutions of higher education, the key to positioning a technology project for success is starting small and simple. Enterprise-level initiatives are, by nature, huge and complicated projects, and colleges and universities often find that they’ve underestimated the amount of research, resources, development and training necessary to complete them.

To prevent the premature death of a project and see results sooner, institutions should identify one clear business challenge in one department. Break down large undertakings into digestible processes—for instance, rather than using a new enterprise content management system to improve admissions as a whole, start by implementing electronic forms to automate application review.

Choose a key component that has clearly defined issues. If potential users of your new technology initiative are aware of and frustrated by a broken process, they are more likely to embrace change and help others to follow suit. This is a good way to build institutional knowledge as your initiative affects more and more departments or schools. Organizations see significant returns on technology investments once they build a community of practice—to share information, experiences and ideas—that often start with just a few champions.

Once an organization successfully deploys a technology initiative, it has proof of concept and can begin looking for other challenges that can be addressed by the same technology. This highlights another important factor: When purchasing technology, institutions should choose products that are flexible enough to address a variety of business problems—not just one. This will maximize the investment and enable organizations to scale up without requiring them to hire more IT specialists to support the products. Additionally, colleges and universities that are on the leading edge of technology and efficiency maintain strong relationships with their vendors to stay apprised of upgrades, new features and advancements.

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