7 technology and IT challenges in higher education

Here's how college and university leaders can embrace new solutions to overcome obstacles and increase efficiencies.
By: | December 17, 2020
Getty Images, Hiroshi WatanabeGetty Images, Hiroshi Watanabe

The education industry is tapping into the digital revolution, transforming how students learn, how professors teach, and how higher ed institutions operate. With customized learning experiences at the forefront, the industry is seeing increased attention on gamification, digital classrooms, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, and more.

Stephen Sweett, Buchanan Technologies

Stephen Sweett, Buchanan Technologies

While this brings many positives, there are also challenges involved in integrating tech into higher education. IT challenges come in many forms, and administrators may be unprepared to handle them without performing their due diligence.

1. Data security

This poses a major challenge because of the time, money and resources required to enhance network security. Additionally, if the institution’s network was compromised in the past, these issues must be resolved before the implementation of any network improvements.

Even small breaches can be catastrophic. Research shows that the average cost of a data breach in education can be as high as $200 per record. Student information, social security numbers, and bank account data are all at stake.

To stay ahead of security threats, adopt a security strategy (such as the NIST Cybersecurity Framework) and use those guidelines to ensure the complete protection of the IT environment.

2. Student success support

IT strategy needs to support student and staff success. As a result, it is important to establish specific and actionable goals that will overall enhance the student experience.

Here are some examples of goals that can be supported by IT initiatives:
• Support easy enrollment
• Enable education goals
• Reduce IT tickets rates
• Solve IT issues faster
• Implement new technology like virtual reality
• Help prepare their professional development

In 2017, 74% of higher learning institutions incorporated student success initiatives into their IT strategies. Those that did saw improvements to their public profile, student outcome, and academic success metrics.

Of course, this implementation is often easier said than done. Administrators must prioritize the integrations that simultaneously support multiple success initiatives. They must also understand how technology defines each student’s on-campus experience.

Most solutions aren’t holistic. Universities will need to learn which tools are feasible for their budgets and how to integrate those tools seamlessly into the IT environment.

3. IT staffing

Across developers, vendors, service managers and business analysts, universities are facing greater demand for IT staff than ever before. This presents a challenge across both staffing optimization and compensation.

Research shows that staffing costs and capital outlays contributed to rising tuition costs over the years. The average tuition at public, four-year universities has increased by 160% since 1990.

To manage staffing costs, institutions should take stock of their growing IT needs and how different positions align with their technology roadmaps.

This could mean improving the IT recruitment pipeline, cross-training staff and developing a stronger IT workforce management strategy overall. These are viable strategies for addressing higher education IT challenges.

4. Data-enabled culture creation

Institutions are seeing an increased reliance on data and information for decision-making—and need clear, measurable goals, and concrete data to validate how well those goals are met. There’s no other way to ensure a college makes better use of resources.

Business intelligence (BI) tools offer basic analytics and reporting, and for the long term advanced prescriptive analytics should be considered.

It is equally important to ensure that IT teams are appropriately trained on each tool’s use and know how to apply insights to support decisions.

5. Digital integration

IT efficiency relies on smooth integration, interoperability and coordination across all teaching and learning applications.
This is a growing challenge facing modern universities, as IT systems become less monolithic and more separated across varying products and services.

Universities need to account for these issues to eliminate inefficiencies and redundancies. Several strategies apply here:
• Understanding key integration points across IT systems
• Appointing data stewards to oversee processes
• Identifying bottlenecks in educational technology applications and capacities
• Creating policies to ensure smooth hardware/software integration

Above all, universities should leverage expertise and work towards a system of continual IT architecture improvement across all integrations.

6. Data governance

The more data an institution has, the stronger its data governance policies must be. This applies to:
• Data storage
• Data security
• Data management
• Implementation processes

It represents one of the larger technology challenges in higher education.

Universities should begin by appointing dedicated personnel for data management and segregating data sets by their relative importance.

It’s important to start small and work up to larger data sets, categorizing and sorting information to benefit BI teams. This is a long-term process of data sustainability. But it’s necessary if institutions want to get the most value from their data without undue time spent on management.

7. Adapting to change

The last challenge is also one of the largest: working toward enterprise-wide adoption of change in higher ed.

This needs to be supported by all levels of stakeholders, including dedicated coalitions that advocate for initiatives. These initiatives may include implementing new structures, policies, programs, or staff, as needed to address the above challenges.

The research included in the 2020 EDUCAUSE Horizon Report offers good insight into the planning process and includes rundowns of emerging technological and economic trends set to shape the future of higher education.

These trends offer an important foundation for how educators can promote a change-oriented mindset in their institution:
• Develop policies that support learning analytics
• Maintain uniform standards for data services providers
• Offer pedagogical training for new technology practices
• Leverage learning analytics as a part of curriculum design

This is a long-term goal that’s never really “done.” It must be worked on continually to make digital transformation a core part of the university’s operating model. As time goes on, this digital focus will become even more important.

The Horizon Report predicts that U.S. college enrollments will drop by as much as 10% by the late 2020s. But technology may hold the answer to declining enrollments.

For example, fully online enrollments in Canada have increased by nearly 10% annually from 2015 to 2020. Universities that invest in a change-oriented mindset will be better positioned to capitalize on these trends.

Address your biggest IT challenges in education

Addressing these challenges are important steps towards solving IT issues in higher education and advancing digital equity. But internal strategy is only one part of the equation. Universities can reduce IT implementation costs and IT management time by outsourcing components of their IT solution to service providers familiar with higher education and associated technologies.

Stephen Sweett is president of Buchanan Technologies, a managed service provider. He encourages the people of the organization to perform at their highest levels, and his knowledge in process flow drives the operations and delivery side of the business.