Higher Education IT

Educause Review Review – “A Transformative Period: Is Higher Education IT Having an Identity Crisis?”

Disclaimer:  I realize my comments might be taken as criticism of other CIOs or of the intent of the writers of Educause Review. First, that’s not at all my goal.  My goal is to say that perhaps the time for us to discuss the “still changing” role of the CIO is past.  And should be past.  But saying this doesn’t mean that I necessarily think that I don’t fall victim to some of these thoughts and even practices now and then.  In other words, I’m saying that my house might be made of glass…but I don’t think I’m throwing stones.  At the very least, in terms of career accomplishments, I have no right to make these comments.  But if I always thought that way I would rarely write anything.  This is a general commentary, and is not about myself at any rate. 

Also, note that while I am highlighting an Educause Review article in this particular post, it’s mostly because it’s the most recent one on this topic.  I’m certainly not criticizing the publication nor its various editors and staff (many of whom I know personally).  If this is still an important question, then ER should be covering it.  However, I am not sure it is an important question.

In early June, Educause Review posted an article titled A Transformative Period: Is Higher Education IT Having an Identity Crisis?   The question being posed is whether, in light of all the changes in higher ed in general, IT is facing a set of changes so dramatic that the entire role of an IT organization must be reconsidered?  It asserts that “the IT organization must be prepared to engage with its institution in a number of ways in a fast-paced environment” and that this is an “issue of transformation.”

Several interviewees give a variety of answers, but I must admit that I am having trouble with the question, and the premise itself.  I don’t think there should be any transformation going on at all, at least not now.  More broadly, I don’t see why we are still having this conversation.  Shouldn’t we already be what this article is asserting we should be…changing into?  If we aren’t already there, then the problem isn’t about adjusting to change tomorrow, but about whether we can be effective leaders today.  So why the ongoing discussion?

On the one hand, if one looks at the field of IT unto itself, without the context of managers and leaders, then yes, there is a major shift occurring.  One can either acknowledge this change and take advantage of it to grow an organization, or ignore it and become irrelevant.  Essentially, in a time when many IT services are becoming commodities and students (and faculty and staff) are bringing in personal devices that are sometimes far more powerful and certainly more mobile than what departments have been able to offer in the past (BYOD), if an IT organization doesn’t think about change, then its role as a vital part of the institution will be greatly jeopardized.  But I think looking at just the entity, the set of services that make up IT, is a completely useless perspective.  What matters are the people and the leaders that are in place.

Any and all leaders in IT today must be looking at the landscape far beyond the technology.  Business processes, enabling innovation, supporting mobility, accepting BYOD, and pushing forward new and creative initiatives.  If a CIO isn’t already instinctively thinking about these matters, about the role of IT as part of a key, strategic and programmatic component of a rapidly changing landscape, rather than just a service provider, then there is a serious issue.  Again, the true, underlying question for me is why are we still discussing this?  Maybe we need a note on the side saying “hey!  make sure you’re thinking this way!” with each issue but surely Educause Review with all its great content can devote some pages to other topics.

The identity crisis is not about IT from the perspective of the IT leadership.  It’s one created entirely by the institution itself, if and only if it is not putting enough thought into the role of IT or ignoring the hopefully-forward thinking minds that lead such organization. Of course, this is in fact often the case – the institution is lagging behind the existing change in leadership styles in IT.  Even if there is a really creative IT leader that understands these dynamics, it’s certainly possible that other executives at the institution will disagree.  They will be the ones that relegate IT to simply a service provider, rather than an enabler or a creative entity that adds value.  This is certainly a big challenge.

But the article implies that the identity crisis is located in the IT organization, or is at least partly so.  This discussion therefore still doesn’t make sense to me.  A leader in IT, today, should be considering the department’s role in the institution’s long-term strategic planning all the time. Let’s look a bit closer at some of the comments, and I will take another probably-too-bold step in offering my own thoughts and responses.
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thoughts from the EDUCAUSE LTL volume 4

I didn’t get to write a post yesterday because I was exhausted.  Our teams do presentations on the 4th day, yesterday, that is meant to “make the case” for some proposal for a fictional institution.  We worked late into Wednesday night, I was rehearsing my section of the presentation even later than that (into Thursday morning), and then the presentation itself certainly was a high pressure situation.  We were all just very, very tired.

I’ll have a recap post at some point of the entire experience but, as was the case the first couple of days, a quick reflection is still important.

With all the work done to find our strengths so that we can apply them effectively, I have come to appreciate that strengths can actually be weaknesses themselves.  It’s all about context.  When working in a team where everyone is a highly-motivated, potential formal or informal leader, strengths such as being an Achiever (wanting to accomplish things), an Arranger (always understanding how things work together), and Input (wanting know more and more) can be a problem.  They can make me inpatient, they can make me potentially disruptive.  Considering the effort put in by my fellow teammates, I can only hope that I did a mildly effective job of keeping myself in check.  Perhaps most of the time.

This means that there is even greater nuance to dealing with strengths and weaknesses than I had realized.  Before, it was know your strengths, which helps you understand your weaknesses, then either address the weaknesses head on (out of your comfort zone) or find a complement.  But strengths themselves can be weaknesses.  My, this can get complicated.

One thing I saw during the building of our presentation was that all of us having to just buckle down and get the thing done allowed our “executor” strengths to come through, and then our other strengths could rise above that.  It was almost like a base or “safe space” for us to start opening up.  I felt a lot more comfortable knowing we all had this common goal that included a timeline, where we really knew we had to just get down to it.  But even so, no one stopped indicating those existing strengths.  I found this fascinating and I truly enjoyed just turning to others and saying “I’m not good at this, someone please help me.”  Others rose up, gave me ideas, and things came together.

Considering that “leading from where you are” is a fundamental part of leadership in general but also key for those of us that are parts of larger organizations, this was pretty cool to watch.

I want to thank all of those at LTL 13, and to my teammates on team 5 in particular for an amazing experience.

thoughts from educause LTL volume 3

So..I’m really tired, and this is going to be short, to be honest.

Last night my team worked on finishing the presentation we will make today to the “senior administrative leaders” that the LTL faculty will be “playing.”  We are to pitch a specific idea, with implementation, budget, etc., that will address a strategic concern of a college.

Until last night, I have to admit that I haven’t felt completely at ease with our group.  This is not a statement about the people, much less about any one person in particular.  It’s about trying to form a team made up of people that have all come to a workshop designed to build leadership.  This is a group here to become better leaders.  Putting us in groups is going to cause some unease.

But there is nothing like a project, trying to make something concrete, to bring people together.  As we worked together, our skills and strengths emerged naturally.  Even more impressively, the way we offered to help just flowed.  Someone would ask for help (I know I did several times) and others would start working on solutions.  One person made headway, and ideas were thrown about, and we ended up with a great product.  When we did a run-through, we all gave feedback equitably and fairly, and we have, I think, a solid product.

I don’t know what today’s reflection piece will be, but I know that last night’s collaborative experience will be the sticking point for me for the day.

thoughts from the EDUCAUSE LTL, volume 2

I a still at the Learning Technology Leadership program from the Educause Institute, and the latest reflection piece we’ve had is on leadership.  Unlike the first assignment, this one was done in the morning, before getting on with the day.  So it’s shorter.

We were asked to discuss how the first day’s discussion may have changed our views on leadership.  My response follows, and additional commentary past the jump.

While the concept of leading from within a group (rather than at the forefront) is nothing new, the discussion that stemmed from the governance committee model at Northwestern still struck a chord. Even at a small institution such as mine, where working with anyone means working with everyone, maintaining a steady focus on communications and sharing the ownership of knowledge and understanding is a powerful tool.

Unfortunately, this also takes a lot of energy. I am inspired by the prospects of what such shared communication can provide. Yet I am also concerned about the sheer amount of effort required to sustain such a program.  At a larger institution, you not only have more resources in terms of number of people from your own organization to attend these meetings, but just more people in general.  At a small institution, at some point, these committees are all the same people, and you have to watch for burn-out, disillusionment, and perhaps even annoyance with the process.  That is completely counterproductive.

It will be a delicate balance and I will be adding “informal” to many of the names of these governance/communication groups, but it certainly has great impact, regardless of institution size. And that means it’s worth the effort, in almost any case.

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thoughts from the educause learning technologies leadership program volume 1

Day 1 of the Educause Institute for Learning Technology Leadership came to a close last night.  For just a half-day session, I am truly exhausted.  I am also excited that such a dynamic experience will span the next 3.5 days.  I’m sure I’ll get a lot out of it.

We are asked to reflect upon a specific topic each day.  Last night, we focused on the results of our StrengthsFinders surveys.  This tool, which I’ve used a few times now and find quite useful, tries to identify 5 strengths based on a big, long series of survey questions.  They are actually statements, and you have to choose which one better describes you.  For the most part, they are not opposed, which means it’s not easy to decide which one fits you best.  So you make a decision that is a combination of logic, thoughtfulness, and gut.

Below is a slightly-edited (just tightened up) version of what I wrote in our internal Yammer group.

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virtual desktops in the higher education world

As I was working on my post about my adoption of the “VDI Lifestyle” I started thinking about the role and viability of virtual desktops in higher education in general.  It’s great that I’ve adopted it and use it the way I do, personally.  And I do think that the reasons why I’ve taken to it so thoroughly are important for many users to consider.    But from a strategic planning perspective, how do virtual desktops it fit into higher ed?

Operationally, a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) is a pretty complex setup.  It has a lot of moving parts, and it relies on all of the moving parts all the time to be successful.  For us, that means VMWare View as the backbone, Unidesk for management of the desktops, Active Directory for access, and all kinds of hardware connected as thin clients, converted retired desktops, all-in-one clients with built-in monitors, and then many staff using full-function desktops with the VDI software.  There are servers (7 of them serving 300 desktops – imagine if you were a much larger institution), a fast storage array (running solid state drives), network switches and lots of blinking lights.  We’ve had hundreds of hours of configurations and many lessons learned the hard way.

So on the one hand, it’s a tough proposition for a small IT shop.  Even a medium sized one, if you don’t have dedicated folks, it’s not going to be easy.  There is more than enough specialized, proprietary knowledge to require quite a bit of staff time.  This is a key part of making a strategic decision to move forward.

There are significant benefits, though.  Centralized management, a clearly-defined budgeting plan (either servers or perhaps Desktop as a Service), addressing server and desktop needs all at once (a big issue for us when we started), and quick response to user requests (need SAS on your desktop?  Just give me 10 minutes, reconnect and it’ll be there) are just a few.  When the moving parts are in sync, it’s quite beautiful.  So for the administrator, it is a powerful tool, and for support staff, a way to ease the load.  And if we can ease the the administrative overhead, then we can allocate resources to other needs, such as in-person desktop support or personal consultation.

But making strategic decisions isn’t just about internal operations or ease of administration.  That’s all about the department.  What truly matters is what we can deliver to the end user.  Desktops for work productivity is a Business Service Catalog component, and we must never forget that we are trying to meet customer needs here, not our own.

The first question I ask myself when making strategic decisions is “how will this improve productivity for the staff, faculty, or students?”  Yes, sometimes these discussions are quite short – without an ERP, we don’t get much done at all, so we need to have one.  Upgrades to networking, wireless connectivity, and other factors are all in the same ball park.  But there are lots of other services that do require some more thought, and something as fundamental as one’s computer certainly does (or should) fall into that category.  Most of the time the average computer will meet all needs.  But one size does not fit all – will the standard desktop handle the work of a statistics researcher?  What about laptop users?  Ultrabooks vs. desktop replacement?

And if virtual desktops are under consideration, will what we can provide centrally meet the productivity needs of others? (more…)

livin’ la VDI loca

[thanks to Tom Rose from Unidesk, with whom Menlo College works closely, for some editorial suggestions and cleanup]

There is a big difference between technology that you use as a tool, and one that becomes a foundation of how you get work done.  A computer used to be a tool to access digital assets when needed.  Now the only way we can be productive at all is to be at a workstation or on a laptop.  We used to do searches for what restaurants are nearby and how to get from point A to point B, and now we would probably be lost  forever without our smart phones.

I’ve had an experience like this recently, with our virtual desktops at Menlo College.

This has been my first exposure to a Virtual Desktop Implementation, commonly referred to as VDI.  Here at Menlo,  the desktops being served by the installation are also called VDIs (our VDI system supplies users with their VDI desktops).  For the tech-heads, our implementation is based on VMware View (as compared to Citrix or Microsoft’s VDI/Hyper-V) with Unidesk to provision and manage our desktops.  Unidesk allows us to build applications in layers which we can basically mix and match as we wish.  Then View delivers that customized desktop to the user or lab.

It’s took the first 7  months of my time here, but I’ve made it through that paradigm shift, from seeing VDI as something “on the side” to relying on VDI as the a core component of how I work.  Without VDI, I would not be able to do my job.

When I arrived at Menlo, I had a laptop docked and connected to all my peripherals and powering two 22″ displays.  I had a VDI allocated to me, but I connected very, very rarely and only via the software client on my laptop.  So I was using my full-featured laptop to connect only as-needed to my VDI.

Later on, just to test our new VDI build (we upgraded throughout Fall 2012 and Spring 2013) and some new software (Office 2013), I had a Samsung All-In-One 22″ thin client (over which I actually prefer a standalone client)  installed in my office.  This was in addition to my laptop.

Because Office is an everyday application, I was on the VDI fairly often.  Rather than spin my chair around and around to use both my VDI for Office but my laptop for everything else, I would slowly start using the VDI for email, calendaring, and creation of documents  – not just testing Office, but using it.  I added some more applications, and eventually found myself with a VDI desktop that did everything my laptop could.

Then, around early April, 7 months in, I was in a meeting, with my laptop, and realized that what I needed was a file I still had open on my VDI.  So I connected, again from the client software on my laptop but this time stayed in the VDI the whole time.  I was now using the laptop merely as an interface.

One particularly important aspect of doing this was that even though I was connecting from my laptop in the meeting room and a thin client from my office, it was still the same VDI.  I wasn’t running two different desktops.  I was connecting to the same exact one.  If I disconnected in my office and then connected in a meeting room, everything comes up just as it was before.  I am not restarting.  I am not logging off.  There is virtually no lag before I’m up and running again, right from where I left off.

Later that week I purchased a 10″ tablet (VMware View runs on both iOS and Android), gave my laptop up to one of my staff, and haven’t looked back.  My main workstation is now the same two monitors but this time connected to a thin client not much bigger than a cable modem that offers audio, high quality dual output video, and even USB device support (including my web cam, though it’s choppy sometimes and can’t do HD).

When I’m in a meeting, I often do take notes in the cloud (Google Keep, usually) but have my VDI running just in case I need to jump over and access my more extensive materials in Microsoft OneNote.  OneNote is an incredibly feature-rich, designed-for-notetaking application that I’ve been using since it came out.  And it doesn’t run on iOS or Android and I’ve struggled with that incompatibility for years, but it does on my VDI.  When I am at home, I use my desktop and connect to my VDI.

I don’t do any Menlo work outside of my VDI.

I am now “livin’ la VDI loca.”  It is an integral, almost inseparable part of how I get work done, not just a tool for getting onto our campus network or for access to a restricted resource.   It empowers me to use my personalized work environment from anywhere, as long as I have an internet connection.

I did eventually get an ultrabook laptop, by the way, because there are of course some times when I am not on the internet.  But I haven’t bothered to personalize it beyond the basics.  Because now the laptop is just a tool, just a way for me to connect to my real workspace, my VDI.

 

hillbilly MOOCs

Note – I realize that using the term “hillbilly” might strike some as insensitive and some as rude. I apologize for that. The fact is that it has a strong relationship to the notion of “rural” and “backwards” and, in comparison with the other MOOC programs I want to discuss, it is appropriate. So yes, I am taking some editorial/artistic license in the name of a better “hook” of a title. I’ll change it if anyone speaks up.

Massive Online Open Courses – or MOOCs – have been basically THE topic of the past couple of years. Whether it’s a company – Khan Academy – or part of a university – HarvardX – the creation and delivery of these courses has taken on a decidedly formal manner. There are offices devoted to helping design and deliver these programs, with dedicated staff. They have reached a level of maturity that, for instance, faculty whose curriculum have become part of the HarvardX program have written a formal letter asking for more oversight on the program itself. Faculty are injecting themselves into the program. Which means they are taking the impact of MOOCs on the larger issue of education and Harvard’s educational “brand” quite seriously. Which is a big deal.

For small institutions, though, delivering content online can be quite challenging. At Menlo College, for example, which is a very small college – 700 students – the first question is about getting something online. Not an entire courses. A MOOC is so far down the line that while it might be on the horizon, we’re still far enough away that we’re not sure if the world is flat or not. Perhaps we’ll fall off the edge of the world before we get to the MOOC implementation.

Lately, I’ve been contemplating how we might build a program overtime that would lead to an effective implementation of online course materials in a hybrid and/or “flipped” (rather broad description from Wikipedia) environment that could, in theory, eventually lead to acceptance and creation of effective MOOC-style curriculum. Since we don’t have an academic computing/educational technology program right now, this is an important issue for me and for Menlo. Is this a topic we wish to address as we build a program from scratch? If I had to pick, say, 5 low-cost, low-overhead, high-impact solutions, would any of them be the building blocks of online content delivery? Or should any of them be, with an eye towards that horizon?  One always wants to make tactical moves that align with strategic goals but is there enough clarity?

One thing we know is that the MOOC model is not going away.  From a purely business perspective, it is just too compelling to ignore. Right now the “open” part of the MOOC acronym suggests that profit should not be a factor at all. But at some point people will want to make money on any venture, and the notion of being able to deliver one set of content to 100, 200, 300 or any number of students in a ridiculously scalable model (single delivery system, single assessment model, etc – all scalable) is just too compelling and enticing. So MOOCs are here to stay. If you reel in the “ideal” that underlays MOOCs just a bit, courses delivered entirely online are equally obvious. They might not be massive and not as scalable (depending on implementation), but they are still very compelling. So, from a strategic planning perspective, I guess we do need to build up to a significant online presence for our curriculum.

For us, where we are starting from the ground up and with no staff dedicated to this purpose, we have to take this one step at a time. (more…)

a bigger step than I realized

It’s been slightly less than 3 months that I’ve been CIO at Menlo College.  While in many, many ways it’s not a conventional CIO position, I am still consistently surprised at how different my work is now compared to before.  I would presume that most people in CIO positions are working in relatively large organizations, where each direct report is a manager unto him or herself.  Here, I have a team of 7 (2 are 50%) including myself so I’m still very hands-on.  In many ways one would think that my job would not be much different from being Assistant Dean for Law Technology at the Santa Clara University Law School.  I am still doing strategic planning, still communicating with schools in the area for collaboration, and still working with a small team to be highly productive, rather than a large organization. You’d think the jobs would be similar.

You would be very, very wrong…

The difference between that job – arguably the CIO of the law school – and this one is significant.  First, the scope.  There is nothing in between being a Director of IT for a unit and CIO for an entire institution that prepares you for the scope of responsibilities.  I can’t imagine one, anyway.  I suppose that a CIO could throw all responsibilities at a direct report to give that sense, but even someone really bad at delegation wouldn’t give everything to one person.  You’d delegate to 3-4 trusted folks.  In which case none of those 3-4 have to deal with the scope.  But at the end of the day, a CIO of a small college like Menlo or a big one like, say, Princeton is still where the buck stops.  When it comes down to it, a CIO has to be at least aware of everything going on.

Even beyond scope, I’m now doing certain activities that I never engaged in before.  Negotiating the price of a SAN – sure, done that.  Negotiating the price of our ERP, then asking for installments to handle our cash flow environment, with a shorter contract under the stipulation that we’d get the same pricing next year?  Totally different.  And having to keep in mind cash flow all the time?  Puts a spin on everything.  Then the phones go down or the wireless network won’t hand out IPs anymore and it’s back in the trenches.  It really has caught me off guard, which is saying a lot because I tried really hard to be ready for anything.

The financials is the big part.  It’s not as simple as “you pay a lot for licensing and hardware refreshes, then use up whatever else is left wisely.”  I have both more and less leeway to use some techniques I found useful in the past.  For instance, I would cycle lean and “heavy” years at the law school.  One year we’d spend a lot on servers and storage – maybe $125,000.  The next year we’d spend $20,000, if not a bit less.  This helped me get that big budget approved, and gave the school a lot of flexibility in the lean years to allow other departments to do stuff.

I can’t do that now.  I am the one budget, so I can’t really give myself leeway by having heavy and lean years.  And while this is a very cooperative environment, the bottom line is that few departments have one-time projects that can be funded through decreased IT needs for that one year then absorbed into operations and budget from then on, while IT’s budget goes up again.  So I have to spend about the same amount year over year on everything.  I can move dollars around and perhaps yes, I can spend a bit more on something this year and less on it next year.  But my budget is not part of a larger overall budget in the same way it was at the law school.

I am also much more sensitive to cash flow.  Because I was abstracted at least one more layer away from the school’s direct finances and the decreased spending in one month by, say, the career center would offset increased spending that same month by Law Tech, I could spend more or less from month to month.  It didn’t matter as much if I had all of my licenses due in the same month.  Here, because my budget is fairly large, if I don’t spread things out I inhibit my own ability to spend.  Almost like our budget is so big that we hold ourselves back in terms of our flexibility.

There are a dozen if not maybe 30 other ways that have shown me, repeatedly, how big of a divide there is between before and now.  But the gulf has proven to be quite large indeed…

enterprise: 1 to beam up. hopefully

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced between Santa Clara and now Menlo is trying to remain focused on pursuing enterprise-quality services while facing the realities of the higher ed environment and its financial limitations.  I think it’s easy to go one of two ways.  Get a bit negative about our prospects to continue to deliver quality services to students with static or, more likely, shrinking budgets try to do “more with less.”   Or look harder at operations, find places where efficiency can be improved, and perhaps even cut out some services to deliver 8 great products that keep the school moving rather than 10 okay and eventually less-than-okay services.

Note – these are perceptions and perspectives that arise from trying to implement and maintain top-notch services and support in the higher ed space.  These are most likely not actual policy, on a day-to-day, week-by-week basis.  I am not saying that there are managers in place at other schools that have “given up” on meeting these types of ambitious goals.  I believe that everyone wants to deliver.  I mean merely that, when facing this challenge, you don’t always look at the sunny side of things.  In the time I was at Santa Clara, where we introduced and/or reorganized a lot of services and in the first few weeks at Menlo, I find myself going back and forth, and I am in some ways surprised by how intense the back and forth has been.

The other day, during a planning meeting for an event, a group of high level staff at Menlo spent 2 minutes discussing a particular item.  2 minutes doesn’t sound like much.  But when the topic is who is going to pay for a balloon arch…2 minutes is eternity.  This is the financial context of Menlo College.  My point is not that it’s “bad” or “oh my gosh, see how tough it is for me??”  But if it was eye-opening to me to see at what level financial decisions are made at a school the size of Menlo (687 students this year), then it’s important to help my 1 or 2 readers wrap their heads around it, too.

On the flip side, Menlo, its leadership and its board have been realistic supporters of IT.  All of the credit goes to my predecessor, Raechelle “Rae” Clemmons, who established the importance of a proper IT infrastructure at any institution, even one as small as Menlo.  In some ways, I think she effectively impressed upon these folks that perhaps it was even more important for Menlo to have a well-developed IT environment than at some other locations with (slightly) more funding.  There is almost no margin for error when budgets are this tight, when the “minimum request” is always the one that is actually approved.  So every dollar that is spent must go towards fundamental improvements to infrastructure and operations.

Almost paradoxically, even at such a small college, the closer we get to an “enterprise”-level environment (which usually means more money), the more efficient we can be, and the more money we can ultimately save. Just because we are small doesn’t mean we don’t benefit from these type of investments.

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