When CIOs need hard hats

How to integrate IT in campus construction projects

While executing an eight-building, $157 million construction and renovation project in 2014, officials at Del Mar College in Texas forgot one critical player: the tech expert. Information technology administrators weren’t brought on board until just before the design was finalized.

At that point, they had to scramble to integrate technology into a range of facilities—from installing advanced lighting controls in a new fine arts center to adding applications that respond to mobile devices in buildings throughout campus. Because most of the project funding had already been allocated, the technology budget fell short and the team had to dig into other sources to cover the costs.

“It’s very costly to infuse technology after the design phase,” says August Alfonso, chief information officer at the college, which has since revamped the planning process so IT is included at the beginning of each project.

On many other campuses, technology is no longer an afterthought in construction planning.  

“You can’t consider a contemporary building without considering its nervous system, and the technology is obviously the eyes and ears and transport of information that is vital to the building,” says Mark Valenti, president and CEO of
The Sextant Group, a technology consulting firm that works primarily in higher education. “It is only going to become more so over time.”

Embrace the following five strategies to ensure technology leaders on your campus are closely involved in construction planning from the outset.

1. Include IT at the very first planning meeting.

Lone Star College, a two-year school in the Houston area, began inviting IT leaders into the earliest stages of the design process three years ago, after they were left out of the initial planning for a $420 million bond project in 2008. As at Del Mar College, technology costs went over budget as a result, says Butch Juelg, Lone Star’s associate vice chancellor for technology services.

“We had to keep going back and cutting from the overall project because we would say, ‘Here’s what the technology costs, and there’s not enough room for technology, or you’re going to have to take the technology out,’ ” Juelg says.

In the college’s most recent bond project, totaling $450 million, IT leaders were involved in the planning from the start, which allowed them to make better recommendations about the types of technology to install in new and renovated buildings.

IT leaders can encourage early inclusion by building trust with other campus leaders and by showing that they care about the entire institution—not just its technology, Juelg says. 

“You have to be able to be seen as a true partner to the institution, not just someone who fixes IT issues, and it takes time to do that,” he says. “Sometimes you have to strongly suggest that you need to be in the planning meetings, and once they see the input you offer, next time they’ll invest in you.”

2. Carve out a new role for IT.

Colleges and universities have created new positions that ensure IT leaders are intimately involved in construction.

One example is Clark College in Vancouver, Washington. Officials began planning a new STEM classroom building in 2010, but because the project needed approval by the state legislature, the college didn’t break ground on the facility until 2015.

By then, the design of the building—and the type of technology it needed—had changed, and several IT professionals who were part of the original planning team were no longer involved, says Chato Hazelbaker, chief information officer.

“You’re always answering help desk calls; you’re always answering the things that are broken today, which gets in the way of things that are planned for the long term, like a building project,” Hazelbaker says.

Hazelbaker reassigned the director of multimedia to become director of new buildings. The new position provides a staff member who has the expertise to make recommendations on technology solutions and who will remain involved in the project from start to finish.

3. Tailor IT to each classroom.

The cookie-cutter approach of 10 years ago to planning classroom technology no longer works. Each room may have different needs, depending on whether it will be, for example, an active learning space or a fabrication lab.

“People want these more flexible rooms,” says Michael Hites, senior associate vice president of administrative information technology services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “So you’ve got to spend some time with the stakeholders and find out what the needs are for the space.”

What used to be a simple conference room with a table and chairs now requires a large screen on the wall and collaboration tools for students to share their work with one another. Another new facility on campuses is the makerspace, where students can produce high-end video or program circuit boards, Hites says.

Classes that focus on the health professions also need highly advanced technology. Moravian College in Pennsylvania is building a health sciences building with labs for nursing, with mannequins automated through a broadcast booth, and with a virtual reality cave where students can simulate dissections on cadavers.

IT leaders were involved at the start of the two-year planning process for the building, and even went on tours of other colleges that had installed similar types of technology. What makes IT’s expertise integral to Moravian’s building is that the technology is embedded directly in the circuitry and is built with fiber optics, says CIO Scott Hughes.

“We’ve used fiber optics to do building-to-building connections, which has been the model for years,” Hughes says. “Now what we’re doing is driving fiber optics to the end point”—where the learning occurs, or in this case is the virtual reality cave. “Fiber optics brings you information at the speed of light, which is what you need for all the virtual reality sessions,” he adds.

4. Use an integrated planning process.

In addition to IT leaders, an integrated planning process should include input from facilities, academics, student services and financial affairs, says Michael Moss, president of the Society for College and University Planning.

That approach typically begins with the appointment of a project manager to oversee planning and construction. “Have that person in tune with all the stakeholders and make sure he or she is in touch with the people involved in the process, including the faculty, students and IT professionals,” says Hites, of Urbana-Champaign.

Once the planning team is assembled, advanced technology and the furniture to support it should be tested in an existing building. “Let people use the space a little bit and make sure that it’s working before you go and order $2 million worth of equipment,” he says.

5. Plan for the future.

Because campus buildings may last 30 years or more before needing upgrades, IT leaders should ensure the recommended technology meets the needs of the future. That requires IT managers to monitor trends and forecast what the technological landscape will look like when current students have graduated.

“It’s not easy, to be honest, because you could be right or wrong,” says Richie Crim, information technology strategist and chief information officer at Lord Community College in Virginia. “It’s hit or miss because we just don’t know.”

One way to prepare for advances in technology is to make buildings as flexible as possible, Crim says. For example, install non-load-bearing walls so they can be torn down and a room can double in size, he says.

Moss, of SCUP, advises looking ahead at least as long as the strategic plans last. Most colleges and universities have developed five-year strategic plans, and should be able to project that far ahead.

“What we’re finding is that the requirements of the buildings are really being informed by emerging technology for the next generation of students rather than the current generation,” Moss says. “It’s not getting longer between technological changes. It’s getting shorter, and people need to plan for that.”/p>

Sherrie Negrea, a writer based in Ithaca, New York, is a frequent contributor to UB.


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