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March - 2011 - issue > Technology
Transforming Technology Trends to Provide Value Innovation for the Higher Education Sector
Rajesh Sinha
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Traditionally, the culture of ‘conservatism’ and the ‘governance’ or ‘independence’ of Universities has created high cost of sales. Each University has ended up building a unique architecture and level of experience and such complexity means services and processes have tended to be tailored/bespoke at every different institution and resulted in silo based approach often creating an over engineered environment that results into higher cost of ownership.

Now, more than ever before, the IT department in Higher Education sector is increasingly under pressure to explore how best to utilize the emerging trends in technology to lower costs and broaden student base.

In this article we take a look at some of the common challenges faced by the IT department of the Universities across the globe and how imbibing some of the recent technology trends can help mitigate some of the issues around data standards, governance and lack of interoperability.

Higher Education Sector – Typical IT Challenges
* Current IT landscape at many universities comprise of set of large, disparate, complex applications built on product stacks procured from multiple vendors that lack strategic business alignment or allow easy exchange of information, knowledge and collaboration both within & outside.
* New anti-terrorism legislations require Universities in many of the developed nations to be able to monitor international students who have obtained a Visa to attend an educational course. IT systems in Universities are not currently geared up for Identity Federation to prevent duplicating such checks every time students change universities.
* Given the proliferation of virtual learning environments and need for online learning options spanning across multiple time zones, there is increasing need for IT to provision for high availability systems to support 24 by 7 window.Also there is an ever-growing need to embrace newer technology channels that provide seamless and personalized experience for student and faculty interactions.
* A percentage of students fail to complete their studies each year. This is a waste of money/time for the student, the University and/or the funding body. If it were possible to identify students who are showing signs of ‘dropping out’ then remedial steps might be taken which could keep the student on their course. In order to do these, there needs to be a framework that allows systems of different universities to easily exchange student records and student information.
* Due to Funding cuts from federal sources (Government) there is a growing pressure on CIOs to provide an IT ecosystem that is efficient, effective and provide value for money. CIOs are also exploring greener alternatives to traditional data canters.

Usage of technology trends in Higher Education sector.
The current challenges faced by the Higher Education sector across necessitate standardizing of the processes around enterprise architecture, master data management and data governance.

The Higher Education consortium needs to create of a common framework for Enterprise Architecture based on concept of shared services and by adapting to some of the recent technology trends to scale up their offerings and provide a more interoperable environment.
The key focus areas for the Higher Education IT evangelists in coming years will be

1. Enterprise Architecture Assessment
In a recent interview, Dhana Kumarasamy, CIO, Fulcrum Worldwide, mentioned that “As a CIO, it is very important for me to align the IT infrastructure within my organization in a way that best promotes the business goals, while maximizing the benefit of IT dollars spent. I consider an Enterprise Architecture Assessment as a very important starting point towards this process of IT and business alignment. Every organization must conduct an EA assessment at least once in every 3 years to ensure that IT remains an enabler for business rather than a bottleneck”.

Likewise CIOs of Higher Education consortiums should take a cue from it and plan to conduct a holistic assessment of the enterprise architecture of the different universities within their domain to assess how well the current architecture is aligned with the needs and goals of the university and determine the current maturity level. This will provide a good insight into gaps against industry recommended standards and help formulate a roadmap and vision of a future state architecture with an end goal of lowering total cost of operation year over year.

2. Shared Services in Cloud
Cloud is a metaphor for provisioning of dynamically scalable and often virtualized resources as a service over the Internet. Investing in purchase-and-install software is falling by the wayside as institutions catch onto the value of using “cloud” applications that are housed (and accessed) online. Not only are these options more affordable and easier to implement, but they also include vast storage capacity that can be used for centralized data store to track student activity and conduct portfolio assessments across the student’s entire education career.

Universities should develop a framework of shared services in cloud to package student centric applications and information as a suite of interoperable and loosely coupled services, which promotes interoperability across multiple university domains.

3. iPad and tablet devices
Proliferation of new generation tablet devices like Apple’s iPad is increasingly replacing laptops and personal computers. There’s no doubt that students have become more mobile in terms of the technology they’re using, and universities now need to keep up with that trend. Universities will need to create alternative learning environments to web channels, in form of iPad/tablet apps or smartphone applications.

4. Web 2.0 and Portal
Online learning is on the upswing and will be most popular means in coming years for student education. Universities need to integrate sophisticated versions of virtual learning environment in its infrastructure to help students learn without face-to-face interaction with the faculty.

Recently Digant Shah, Director of Portal Practice for a Global IT Services company mentioned, “We are seeing an increasing trend from Higher Education providers of investment in Portal framework and Web 2.0 technology to provide personalized and seamless user experience for student and faculty interaction”
Universities need to build a strategy on unifying content and infrastructure and delivering it through Portal like framework. Few strategic features that universities need to focus on integrating in their Portal framework are:

* Identity Federation: help universities to identify a student with aim of providing personalized and seamless experience while moving across university domains.
* Content Management: provides ability for course administrators and faculties to create and publish information easily into a central portal.
* Ecommerce: help universities provide an online channel for providing a catalog of their services and courses for selection in real-time with options to remit tuitions & fees.
* Collaboration tools: promote increased collaboration and provide personalized interaction between students and faculties.
* BI & Analytics: track usage patterns and make informed business decision.

A sample architecture pattern combining few of the above principles has been published below. Universities that embrace emerging technology trends will gain competitive advantage over those that are slow to react to change.

The author is CEO, Fulcrum Worldwide
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