It may well be time to rethink campus technology.
We are long overdue for a review of campus technology solutions and how their fractured nature likely contributes to many of the other problems facing colleges and universities across the country. The technology solutions that operate modern campuses today exist in a bubble, sealed off from the natural evolution of everyday technology everywhere else but on a campus. In fact, the current core technologies at higher education institutions are largely antiquated systems that have been modernized, but not transformed.
This means that solutions that once started on ledgers, then migrated to floppies, then to server rooms, and now reside in the cloud—are essentially the same technologies that today’s students’ grandparents might have known.
This lack of foresight allows these core systems to evolve past the boundaries of their original roles, even though they are using the latest programming. The need to accommodate the resulting shortcomings has led to the emergence of layers of workarounds and peripheral solutions—along with the price tags that come with them.
There are even solutions reporting on solutions. This has become a very expensive cottage industry. At a time when higher education leaders should be looking for cheaper and more form-fitting hybrid solutions, we are still trying to soup-up old gas guzzlers.
Playing the Technology “Twister” Game
While CIO and academic technology offices spend much of their time stitching together all the systems necessary for reliability and compliance, there is no organization, association, or president’s council that is actively thinking about where and how the eventual consolidation, innovation, and evolution will come from.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that all this technology has yet to produce a unified student tool set to manage daily life on campus, integrate learning with the future job market, or mine academic paths taken by alumni and correlating them with their current careers and the courses they took as students.
In addition, instead of servicing students directly, multiple systems effectively spy on them and turn the results over to faculty and deans through yet other sets of solutions attached to the core technologies. This is the Twister game of campus technology.
In today’s world, if students are not at the center of their own lives from a technological perspective, it could be argued that the campus does not have a bona fide relationship with them. This likely contributes to retention and dropout rates, and should be the starting point for rebuilding and consolidating the campus tech stack—with students in the center.
The Stakes are High
The technology mismatch would be just an “academic” problem if the larger issues facing higher education as a whole were not so challenging, troubling, and present. These are problems not only for students, faculty, and administrators but are also critical economic problems that exist both regionally and nationally. Outside the campus tech bubble, the need for relevant, efficient, reliable, and easy-to-use services is what drives tech innovation—which in turn drives the economy.
Unless something hinders that process, new services will routinely remake and replace old solutions. While companies like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, and Tesla are remaking transportation, there is no effective threat or counterbalance to higher education that would cause such services to materialize. For now, the only threat is made up solely of students voting with their feet by not showing up in the first place or leaving without a degree.
The Barriers to Evolution
In their personal lives, most students and staff live on consumer, social, and other technologies that far exceed the quality and utility of campus technology. How long can this gap exist, and who will address it?
It could be argued that the evolution of campus technology is stalled because of four primary factors:
- Inertia, Narrow Perspectives, and Fatigue. There is no effective way to stop and start campus technology all over again. The incumbent technologies are needed daily, and the switching costs of money, time, and changing behavior are immense. Yet, the problems confronting these institutions are potentially life-threatening to their own survival and to cost containment.
- Governance, Authority, and Budgets. There is no effective, overall owner of the campus technology plant and equipment. Decisions on technology and data solutions are distributed to the silos responsible for the technology solution each programmatic or academic unit uses, with no single point of ownership.
- Lock In, Shut-out, and Lack of Dialogue. The incumbent campus technology companies and their investors spend tens of millions of dollars on marketing, wining and dining, and dismissing potential game-changing newcomers. Modern technology companies are beginning to see the campus as ripe for disruption, and corporate giants like Salesforce and Workday that manage integrations through modern APIs will eventually prevail.
- No Safe Space for Innovation. While many campuses shelter their students from disturbing points of view with “safe spaces,” there is no such space in the campus organization for technology solutions or to set up dialogues between campus users and developers. While it is common to employ expert panels and focus groups, that is a far cry from deploying pilots and constant feedback between builders and students.
If you wonder why there is no Elon Musk or Uber of education, it is simple. The cost of entry, slow adoption cycles, lack of a forum for discussion, and nowhere to experiment makes it difficult for a student-and-faculty centered solution to rise to prominence. So far, there is also little financial incentive for the private equity, venture, or large corporate funders to undertake this challenge.
Read our In-depth Guide to Technology
The Student Information System (SIS) is at the heart of the core technology problem on campus. This is the system of record that manages the official enrollment, program, course, grade, and transcript. It is controlled by the campus registrar’s office and while it has been modernized, the functions remain the same.
Many learners and worker-learners need broader credential solutions; they do not want the cumbersome task of chasing transcripts across multiple institutions. This problem will grow quickly and could be the lever for change at the student level, from students who learn in more than one place. Many institutions and start-ups are looking at how a person can hold multiple credentials in one place.
What is unfortunate about the SIS is that it should be, in today’s world, a multipurpose student data and identity system. It should and could easily “talk” to all the other systems on and off campus. It could function as a portal for each student, managing secure data flow through various systems on and off campus. Instead, it is an anvil of a doorstop in the digital era.
Student success solutions essentially look over the student’s digital shoulder (spy) and report back to the administration how they are doing by their grades, class attendance, and a variety of other factors. A modern SIS could do all these functions while also including the student centrally in the process.
The Learning Management System (LMS) is the other core campus system, acting as the nexus between student, faculty, programs, courses, content, assessments, and grades. Yet even the best, cloud-based of these are not data-wise.
In today’s technology platforms where thousands or millions of people are doing essentially the same thing, they and their interactions are deeply data-mined in real time. Outside the campus tech bubble, natural language processing (NLP), machine learning (ML), and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are doing the heavy lifting by sifting through data and interactions to look for patterns of success and failure, and areas for improvement.
In an effective modern LMS, the system would not simply be made of up of calendaring, content delivery, test-giving, grade-posting, or faculty-comments. It would be first and foremost a data reporting system that examined its functions in relationship to the overall success and failure pattern and trend mapping for each student. It would be able to do this across many campuses, providing invaluable data that would be linked with the cost of services.
Instead, currently this core system must rely on a whole class of analytic products that are either up-sells to the core platform or third-party solutions. This list of add-ons is growing, and many will be absorbed in the various LMS companies through acquisition, but not truly integrated into the code base.
The LMS only knows the student as a number from the SIS. The SIS does not know what the student is doing within the LMS except for what is reported as an official test score or grade. When an advisor looks at a student’s record, they are not looking at rich data that would help them advise well, or connect their advice to the world outside the campus bubble. These are giant workarounds to the way technology works elsewhere, routinely extracting data from all campus systems and delivering to end points.
The two core systems, SIS and LMS, and their attendant supplementary systems, Student Success and Analytics solutions, should have a healthy minute-by-minute dialogue via common APIs “talking to each other,” just as advising and counseling should. These could also connect with labor data and open jobs for graduates. Unfortunately, this is not the case with most of these solutions because they exist separately and are not “data-first” solutions.
A modern core solution should manage the “career fit” analysis; it should be part of what the modern core system looks like. Such a solution would change the nature of academic advising and career counseling, which are two sides of the same balance sheet and should be deeply linked.
The Cost of Technology Stalemate within the Bubble
As these problems are addressed by institutions of higher education, the solutions need to take into account how modern technology systems operate, and factor in how data science linked to identity can deliver on the promise of education as a platform for lifelong learning.
The cost of not looking for overall solutions that acknowledge the learner is clear:
Faster die-off of wonderful liberal arts institutions, the budget squeeze in the public systems, and the eventual push-in to the academic space by the large tech companies with little knowledge of the subtleties that need to be addressed with students and faculty.
What can be done?
There is no reason in today’s world to have so many technology work-arounds or so little consolidated data going to students, faculty and advisors. It is not too late to pole-vault beyond the technology-twister world of integration and standards, to consolidated campus tech systems.
In such a re-working, adapting some of the incumbent campus technologies and the publishers’ content lock-in could produce an actual ecosystem model for technology and data dialogue, with better and more universal data-sharing down to the individual student level. We need consistency from more central, cloud-based systems that know the students and their interactions, and rely on rich APIs rather than more ancient integrations and standards that are controlled by education technology vendors and publishers.
Click here to continue reading Part Two of Bursting the Campus Technology Bubble, where we explore possible solutions.
About the author:
Gordon Freedman is President of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation (www.NLET.org), a California-based 501(c)(3) non-profit committed to transforming 20th century education into 21st century learning and workforce development. Freedman founded NLET to create an organization that looks three to five years into the future, acting as a broad social, research and organizational platform for the alignment of education and training with the technology of the knowledge economy and youth culture. The nonprofit has received federal and foundation grants in partnerships with universities, community colleges, school districts and research institutes. Freedman also manages Knowledge Base, LLC, a consulting firm established in 1998 to provide services to institutions, publishers and education technology companies. Freedman formerly served as Vice President Global Education Strategy, Blackboard Inc, during its growth from 100 million dollar in annual revenue to an exit at 1.4 billion dollars. During his tenure, Freedman traveled to 19 countries examining learning models and policy strategies, launched the Blackboard Institute and provided thought leadership for the company globally.