Indisputably, technology innovation has become one of higher education’s greatest enablers. For Emory & Henry College, Emory, Va., it is key to achieving part of our strategic plan—to enhance teaching, learning, and research, and to undertake facilities and technology projects that increase our competitiveness in student recruitment and overall campus experience. Technology also reduces the cost of fiscal management, and increases the productivity of administrators, faculty, and students. And, it lends us a competitive advantage, as this high-tech polish appeals to incoming students—generally digital natives who grew up with social media and instant access to oceans of information.
Ultimately, technology helps us get closer to our goal of delivering the optimal student living experience. Yet, for all that technology offers, many CBOs today (including myself) feel hesitant, maybe a little fearful, when it comes to adopting new IT initiatives. Small, private liberal arts colleges seem always strapped for resources—both time and money—so I’ve grappled with making the numbers work to deliver on our strategic plan, as well as on all the benefits that technology promises.
Two years into my tenure at Emory & Henry College, and a couple of major technological undertakings later, I’ve learned that there are numerous challenges to overcome—meeting students’ Wi-Fi expectations, keeping up with the rapidly evolving IT environment, and conquering overwhelmed IT support, to name just a few. However, implementing those innovative solutions can realize strategic and bottom-line results, influencing the overall success and competitiveness of the institution and future employability of students.
What’s Holding CBOs Back?
So, what is preventing some CBOs from innovating and instituting cutting-edge technology at their schools? It’s often the elephant in the room: a discomfort and lack of confidence in leading this type of project. Some don’t fully grasp technology’s role in advancing strategic goals, while others feel intimidated and ill-prepared to participate in conversations with the IT team. Hesitation may lead to delays in important IT upgrades that are critical to students, faculty, and staff.
In fact, technology is often the single area in which CBOs are underengaged. Partly due to lack of knowledge, some of us choose not to initiate conversations with the chief information officer and IT staff—plus we worry about expenses. And many IT departments, especially the smaller ones, are stretched too thin to address the myriad support issues arising from disparate, legacy systems while at the same time, trying to provide constituents with quick resolutions. Day-to-day support is a Herculean effort, leaving little, if any, time for strategic planning.
College and university leaders are not alone. According to a Hartman Executive Technology Survey (https://hartmanadvisors.com/), only eight percent of senior executives feel they are experts in making technology strategy decisions, while 29 percent admit to either needing assistance or having zero confidence in this area.
Twenty-five–year veteran, James Clotfelter, vice chancellor emeritus, information technology services, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, noted in an article in the EDUCAUSE Review ("The Long Tenure Approach," Oct. 17, 2016):
"We need to recognize that many non-IT people feel awkward dealing with IT issues. If these conversations aren’t handled properly, other senior officers can feel they’ve been talked down to, bulldozed into approving something, or just simply confused."
Nonetheless, everyone—CBOs, CFOs, and CIOs—needs to recognize that technology is hurtling ahead, rapidly redefining the future. We need to plan for and embrace it now—or we’ll be left behind, along with our institutions.
The Emory & Henry Experience
With more than 1,100 students and 100 staff, Emory & Henry College is a 180-year-old private co-educational liberal arts college.
In recent years, Emory & Henry has made it a strategic priority to deliver robust technology, such as frontline wireless; digital signage; IPTV (Internet protocol television); and mobile apps, such as LiveSafe, Bite, and REC*IT. The commitment has resulted in the college offering state-of-the-art technology in line with its high-level education.
It wasn’t always this way. Slow or unavailable network availability was becoming more and more problematic every year, and our small internal IT department was becoming overwhelmed. It wasn’t until the 2014–15 time frame that IT became a strategic priority, when the board of trustees learned that students were going home on weekends to get their homework done—because the college’s Internet access was so poor.
Not only that, they heard stories about prospective students trying to access Wi-Fi in the administration office parking lot, to no avail. The immediate result was that they no longer had interest in the school. And, we knew that we needed to take control of the situation.
These technology failures made it clear that we were falling woefully behind. We were in the "sub-basement" in terms of technology. While we were offering excellent education, our technology wasn’t at a comparable level.
When it comes to technology, we needed to ask ourselves: What do the best institutions look like from a student’s perspective? Basically, the expectation is that all devices will connect "automagically." Students can stream videos, use FaceTime, download large files and more, without slowdowns or disruptions. They have uninterrupted access, without constantly being prompted to re-enter credentials. And they can connect all their devices—gaming consoles, smart watches, printers, Apple TVs—in seconds, without having to scroll through dozens of other people’s devices, or call the help desk. At premier universities, Internet access, and Wi-Fi, are basic utilities, just like electricity. It just works—wherever, whenever—totally taken for granted.
So, we asked ourselves, how does Emory & Henry stack up? What impression are we making to students, parents, and prospective students visiting our campus? Keep in mind, this generation of digital natives does not suffer silently. If your Wi-Fi isn’t perfect, you’re going to hear about it. So is your boss. Most likely, so will the rest of the world.
Be Strategic and Drive Change
Part of our 2013–20 strategic plan was to undergo a deep planning and implementation overhaul of our technology to help enhance our teaching, learning, research, and overall campus experience. In other words, our goal was to upgrade from the basement to the penthouse.
I may be particularly passionate about the CBO’s role in technology implementation because of my background in planning and organizational skills gained in the private sector, along with 12 years of full-time college teaching experience.
I’ve learned to look five to 10 years down the road, as fast-moving technology drives a more productive, efficient teaching/learning environment in colleges. It’s one reason that investing in technology must be the baseline of any higher education budget process.
It’s helpful for higher education administrators to view a technology investment with an ROI mindset. For example, if we are losing prospective students because our technology infrastructure doesn’t meet their expectations, it’s going to cost us a certain amount of dollars. If we make this technology expenditure, we may more than recoup the investment with increased enrollment. Attracting and retaining students who might have otherwise left or never entered our university due to poor technology can add to those positive numbers.
Where to Begin?
In April 2015, executing on our strategic plan, the board approved funds for the overhaul of our technology infrastructure. Key to that overhaul was to boost Wi-Fi speed and student access. With the funding, we’d buy new hardware to increase speeds and improve performance and thus meet students’ expectations for wireless connectivity. Students would be able to stay on campus on weekends to do homework, prospects would have Wi-Fi access anywhere and could post on Facebook about their visit, and student blogs would no longer have a field day with negative comments on the Wi-Fi environment at Emory & Henry.
We met with local broadband vendors. The good news: We immediately increased Wi-Fi speeds. The bad news: Our nine-year-old access points and switches couldn’t handle the increased speeds. And so, after nearly 12 months, and more than $1 million spent on new hardware, we made no real progress, either in meeting student expectations or improving the student experience.
Our small IT department was doing the best it could to install a sophisticated wireless network on campus, but, nothing was working. The situation was becoming dire. The poor infrastructure was causing major recruitment and retention problems, which were affecting ROI. We knew we were losing around 35 to 50 students at midyear break alone, not to mention that our recruitment of prospective students was down.
At that point, the president, whose previous post was at Southwestern University, Georgetown, Texas, was referred to an outside consultant by his contacts at Southwestern. They had outsourced their network services to Apogee, a higher education managed-technology services provider, and suggested we consider doing it too.
By August 2016, when we signed the Apogee contract, our IT team had implemented only a portion of the infrastructure upgrade project. Fortunately, we had already purchased some of the correct equipment, which streamlined the conversion.
We focused first on the residential network (ResNet). This was critical to us, since students view campus Wi-Fi as a utility, not only in the classroom, but especially in the residence hall—as basic as electricity or running water. If the Wi-Fi in their residence hall isn’t fast and reliable, nothing else matters. With student attitudes extremely negative, our vendor instituted a dialogue with students before upgrading the ResNet system. It only took a few weeks to install the high-speed Wi-Fi in all 20 residence halls. And, to meet one of the requests from students, a gaming lounge was developed and installed last August.
Now, in just over a year, the major upgrades to the entire campus network have been completed and provide a full set of managed services that include:
- Cutting-edge Wi-Fi. The network provides speeds up to triple digits in academic, administrative, and residential space.
- A dedicated Campus Life Channel. This digital platform helps build community and foster student engagement in an efficient and updated way. We can now collect and curate all social media, videos, and flyers, and then display them via a dedicated channel across cable TV, IPTV, and on digital signs throughout campus.
- Popular apps for various purposes. For example, LiveSafe provides a mobile communications safety platform; Bite is a restaurant online ordering app; and REC*IT is a mobile platform that connects students to intramural sports, recreation, and fitness activities.
- Round-the-clock support. Support is available 24/7/365 from a Texas-based support center.
- Ongoing upgrades. These regular upgrades are designed to future-proof the campus.
Oh, the Pain Points
Along the way, of course, we experienced numerous challenges and obstacles, including the following:
- Meeting wireless connectivity expectations. The college’s Wi-Fi network was the biggest pain point when I first came on board. Equipment and wireless coverage were sorely in need of upgrading, and manpower was too stretched to provide needed round-the-clock support. We spent nearly a year—and close to $1.2 million—trying to meet expectations. By partnering with a managed provider, we now have one of the most technologically advanced networks of any campus in Virginia.
- Keeping up with the rapidly evolving IT environment. As technology advanced exponentially and IT responsibilities grew, our team size and institutional resources remained stagnant. As IT expectations increased and pressure built, it was nearly impossible to keep up with demand. Now, our outside provider keeps up with the latest in technology, enabling us to stay ahead of our IT needs. While Emory & Henry has not added or reduced its IT staff, our contract provides for an additional on-site person to monitor the system and to be immediately available for on-site issues. This allows our team to spend more time on its enterprise systems and its support.
As for cost, 75 percent of the Apogee cost is paid by a student technology fee. In FY 2017–18, we have had virtually no student complaints. No one is even complaining about the tech fee.
- Conquering overwhelmed IT support. Forgotten passwords, data loss, syncing of e-mail addresses, and difficulty accessing wireless networks were just some of the issues that flooded the IT support team in the time of BYOD (bring your own device). The five-person IT support department faces a tough job, not only solving these issues but getting the growing variety of devices online. With access to our new support center, students and faculty can reach support via phone, chat, text, and e-mail.
A World-Class Student Experience
We went from the basement to the penthouse in terms of technology. Our main goal was to be known as a "well-wired and Wi-Fied" school. We’ve achieved that and more. From online learning to live polling in classes to connecting an unlimited number of mobile devices, the new network infrastructure is boosting student and faculty satisfaction and enhancing the student experience.
What’s more, we now have a scalable, strategic infrastructure; ongoing reporting, analytics; and automatic upgrades. As technology continues to evolve to higher, more advanced attributes, we’re assured that we won’t become stale or fall behind.
Emory & Henry is reaping significant results: recruitment is improving, students now stay on campus on weekends to do homework, and there hasn’t been one student complaint about Wi-Fi. Add to that the ROI on students who might have left, or never enrolled at all due to poor technology, that has more than recouped costs. In the two years prior to the upgrade, the fall-to-spring retention of first-year students was 70 percent. That has already grown to 76 percent (or an additional 20 students), and the upgrade has just recently been completed. Over four years, this represents 80 additional students—and doesn’t account for increased enrollment that the improved student experience should generate.
Other measurable outcomes include:
- Substantial cost savings. The combination of adding a technology fee per student—$350 per year for undergraduate residents; and $250 per year for undergraduate commuters—and implementing new technology has brought down our institutional cost and helped avoid downtime and repairs. Rather than fixing old access points and fiber cables as they broke down, we now have new technology and little repair cost. Estimated savings are approximately $50,000 per year.
- Sound strategic and fiscal management. Our small IT staff is now able to support more effectively the classroom and administrative users in application areas. The college simply has more time to devote to technology users on campus now that we no longer worry about basic connectivity and broadband issues. And everyone can better focus on working toward their goals in the strategic plan, such as assessing the feasibility of adding more online educational opportunities and advancing progress on Web-based and mobile technologies.
- Minimized support calls. Prior to the upgrade, field calls from students were too many to count. We had issues with no or slow service in dorms, lost connectivity in common spaces like the library and food service areas, and even students who went home on weekends to get their homework done. We now average about 10 calls per month.
- Sufficient support for student residents, especially gamers. Users now have the option of ramping up to the speed required to support their gaming interest, without impacting service to other students. Things have been going so well that we just opened a gaming lounge in our Student Life Center.
- Satisfied board of trustees. Our trustees are ecstatic over the improved wireless and speed performance. They believe they can now begin creating a college brand around having state-of-the-art technology to go along with our state-of-the-art education.
To make all this possible—driving engagement, recruitment, and retention; increasing student and faculty productivity; lowering fiscal management costs; and meeting the institution’s strategic plans—we all need cutting-edge technology. Across higher education, universities are engaging in a "lifestyle arms race" to recruit students, and great technology is the key weapon in their arsenals. As CBOs, we must not hesitate to embrace the digital tools that keep our campuses in the running as strong competitors in student recruitment and retention.
RICK GAUMER is vice president of business and finance, Emory & Henry College, Emory, Va.