vicki powers
freelance writer

Colleges Make the Grade

Smaller colleges and universities are connecting vision with technology to deliver higher education.

iQ Magazine, First Quarter 2005

by Vicki Powers

The college experience is changing. During freshmen-orientation sessions at colleges and universities across the map, incoming students frequently ask about food, on-campus housing, and now, wireless network access. Parents generally ask about financial aid and what opportunities the school has beyond the classroom to help students to maximize their learning experience.

The higher-education landscape is full of challenges these daysshrinking budgets, all-time-high student enrollment, disparate and outdated technology solutions, and a generation of students growing up with and expecting technology at their fingertips.

How can smaller colleges and universities balance the expectations, budgets, and learning needs in the classroom and throughout the campus when it comes to technology? Networking technology and Internet Protocol (IP) networks provide a consistent system in a technology world often resembling a patchwork quilt. These solutions, paired with a strong vision at the university CIO and presidential level, help these schools achieve a higher return on their overall investment and please their ultimate customersa connected community of students.

Networking For Simplicity
"Funding IT projects" ranked as the top issue in EDUCAUSE's fifth annual Current IT Issues Survey in 2004 for the second year in a row, based on its strategic importance to institutions. EDUCAUSE is a nonprofit association working to improve technology use in higher education. The solution is not necessarily to vie for more money during the economic downturn, but to use shrinking resources more creatively. Network solutions enable higher education to receive a greater return on its overall investment in technology than it could get by cutting IT budgets or staff, according to Warren Arbogast, president of Boulder Management Group and a higher education technology consultant for 20 years.

Schools such as Bentley College, Bowdoin College, Bryant University, and Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), use integrated networking technology to reduce the complexity of their systems by extending their networks in a "whole campus" approach, whether it's classrooms, dormitories, open spaces, or the library.

Versatile Systems
"One of the challenges in information systems is trying to implement an infrastructure that is versatile and flexible to meet the requirements of today and all the new things to occur in the next 12 to 24 months," says Peter Kehler, director of information systems at SAIT.

This polytechnic institute in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, educates a diverse constituency, including 8,000 full-time students and 62,000 more in continuing education, distance learning, and customized training programs. SAIT's campus connects 14 buildings and 3 satellite facilities. About one-third of its total learning spaceroughly 100 classrooms and labs-is fully networked and offers multimedia tools including video data projectors, VCRs, and interactive whiteboards. A residence hall built in 2001 includes IP telephony with broadband connections to every room, and SAIT plans to extend IP telephony as future building renovations take place.

"We're investing significant sums in curriculum development and network infrastructure to enhance learning," says Dr. Gordon Nixon, vice president of academics at SAIT. "The whole-campus approach is beneficial to education, because it keeps everyone on the same level playing field." Nixon says this approach prevents a division between students that previously existed in the school's largest program, Business Administration, where laptops were optional until 2002. SAIT started a pilot program in 1997 with two academic programs that required laptop computers as part of tuition for 50 learners. In 2004, 26% of its students were using laptops in ten different programs, requiring that the campus have a scalable and robust network.

SAIT accepted 3,900 freshmen in September 2004 but had to turn away 6,000 qualified applicants. Distance education provides one way to help SAIT handle growth. The school actively markets its distance-education courses and is focusing on putting more courses online to meet the needs of more students. It now offers one full degree program online, its Bachelor of Applied Geographical Information Systems (GIS).

"Building bricks and mortar is expensive, yet distance learning allows us to accommodate more students," Nixon says. "Online learning is in very high demand and growing at about 20% a year."

Common Vision And Focus
Higher education spent roughly $2.7 billion on network hardware in 2004, a 6% increase from 2003, according a recent report from In-Stat/MDR. The research firm anticipates this category will experience relatively strong growth through 2008 to reach $3.4 billion.

It's important that the actual technology implementations are partnered with a strong technology vision, which needs to come from the college president working with a team of colleagues, Arbogast says. Many times, smaller institutions fail to develop an overall vision of their wants and needs regarding technology. Without a central approach to technology, schools find it extremely challenging to share and analyze information as well as maintain the costs of doing business. Networking technologies help ensure everyone has access to the same systems and information.

As he speaks to campus presidents, Arbogast hears the same concern: "We don't know technology, so how can we set the vision for it?" He finds that it's often intimidating to people who don't understand technology to think they can have a role in the technology conversation.

Bryant University's Art Gloster also believes that the whole-campus approach is the most cost-effective way to deliver quality programs to students. Gloster, vice president of Information Services for this Rhode Island-based college, says it's much better to maintain one network infrastructure because it reduces networking costs and staffing requirements.

Bryant University President Ronald Machtley believed technology should be a differentiator for his campus, which implemented a deliberate technology initiative as part of its larger strategic plan five years ago. Machtley created Gloster's position and hired him two years ago. In that short time, Bryanta private college with 2,700 studentsmoved up to No. 2 on Princeton Review's "Most Connected Campus" list in the October 2004 issue of Forbes, from sixth the year before.

"We're really looking at using technology in the classroom and making it the cornerstone of the learning experience at Bryant," Gloster says. "It is a yearly goal, and we really look at progress toward that goal."

Bryant boasts a number of technology initiatives as it works to converge its voice, data, and video capabilities onto a single network. Incoming freshmen each receive an IBM ThinkPad computer with Cisco Aironet wireless capabilities that is upgraded during their junior years and later given to them at graduation. Bryant recently completed its transition to a wireless campus in July 2004, which means students with laptops can work and study anywhere on campus via a wireless local-area network. The campus also introduced a network-based bulletin board to replace traditional paper posters around the college.

Most recently, Bryant added a Cisco IP Communications system in residence halls that offers phone number portability, voice mail, and message broadcasting to student rooms by college administration. The system can identify the originating building, floor, and room for emergency calls placed to both campus security and the state 911 call center. Bryant expects to lower telecommunications costs with IP telephony, but the motivation behind the system was to provide better service to students.

Faculty members are quickly showing acceptance of Bryant's technology surge as well. Today roughly 95% of faculty members are using Blackboard, a Web-based course-management system from Blackboard Inc., to post course materials through the campus intranet.

Time For True Innovation
One advantage of a networked campus with standardized systems is that it frees a school's technology experts from having to focus on routine maintenance issues and allows them to spend time on true innovation. Otherwise, an overwhelming amount of technicians' time is spent maintaining different pieces and putting out the immediate "fires" of the day. IT staff members at smaller schools are often spread thin and have to maintain systems for multiple departments.

"Unfortunately, not enough time is spent with faculty and students as customers and allowing innovation to lead the growth of future technology," Arbogast says.

Bowdoin College, a small private liberal-arts college in Brunswick, Maine, was a technology innovator back in 1824 when its mathematics professor was the first to use a blackboard in a college or university classroom. That tradition of innovation continues today, though the modern "blackboard" also includes a network connection.

The ultimate goal, according to Bowdoin CIO Mitch Davis, is to create a "culture of technology" where faculty and students know that the equipment, training, and support are available to do anything at any time with technology. Appointed in July 2003, Davis is Bowdoin's first-ever CIO. One of the first changes he made was to refocus the IT group from just a service role to a service and consulting role for faculty members and students.

"Our IT staff members work creatively with faculty to help build a better learning environment," Davis says.

Bowdoin uses technology as a catalyst to combine faculty research and teaching to create an online educational experience for its 1,623 undergraduate students. Four years ago, Bowdoin established the Educational Research & Development incubator to help faculty members incorporate technology in their teaching methods. Eight staff members work daily with faculty to create new and interesting content for online and classroom use. From GIS in the history classrooms to virtual Japanese gardens in humanities, Bowdoin students benefit from access to many cutting-edge classroom methods that rely on technology. Several education groups have awarded Bowdoin grants to pursue its technology advances, including the U.S. Department of Education, National Endowment of the Humanities, and the National Science Foundation.

Bowdoin recently upgraded its entire IP network and data storage capabilities to meet students' rigorous needs. It doubled storage, doubled its Internet speed, added new servers, and redesigned the college's entire Web site. While an extensive IT upgrade of this scope would generally take about a year at other institutions, Bowdoin's staff did it in-house over the summer.

Bowdoin's gigabit Ethernet and wireless network foundation allows it to deliver all its content solutions over a secure network, including e-mail, online collaboration, videoconferencing, and an Internet-based radio station. Bowdoin also broadcasts student-filmed and - produced programs via the IP network including a variety show, sports, news, and a soap opera.

The Power of Competition
Some smaller colleges and universities are using technology as a competitive differentiator to attract students to their campuses. The so-called millennialsthe generation of 60 million people born between 1979 and 1994grew up in a world filled with more information and entertainment than ever before. Campus officials recognize that incoming students are accustomed to having online technology as part of their everyday lives and expect this collaboration and connection with others to continue during college.

Information technology isn't an "add-on" at Bentley College, according to Traci Logan, the school's vice president for IT and vice provost for Academic Affairs. Rather, it's viewed as an enabler that is marbled into the way Bentley educates, transacts business, and communicates with its nearly 5,500 business students in Waltham, Massachusetts.

"We didn't introduce mobile computing, 'port-per-pillow,' wireless, and classroom technology only as a means to keep pace with our competitors," Logan says. Bentley is a leader in its commitment to technology and the relationship between business and IT, and between business and arts and sciences. "We've had a clear and deliberate strategy to differentiate ourselves by focusing not just on IT infrastructure, but on the way technology is transforming business practice, collaboration, and communication."

Bentley's goal is to prepare students to meet the demands of an information-rich, technology-driven, knowledge-based global work environment using a business curriculum that integrates technology at every level. Technology allows the concepts and theories that students learn in class to come alive through several hands-on, high-tech learning laboratories." The result is a powerful backdrop for teaching and learning.

The IT-intensive learning labs create a point of differentiation for Bentley. Whether it's the Center for Marketing Technology, Accounting Center for Electronic Learning and Business Measurement, or the Trading Room, the specialized learning environments introduce students to simulated, real-world settings and allow them to apply classroom learning to lifelike situations.

Bentley's campuswide wireless network is another means of differentiation. Bentley started its transition to wireless in 2000 with common facilities. Today, every undergraduate student has a wireless-enabled notebook computer that can access the network in academic and administrative buildings as well as residence halls.

Part Of Student Life
Wireless campuses continue to be a major trend, according to In-Stat/MDR's latest research data. Campuses are evaluating, implementing, and utilizing wireless networking for student, administration, and campus maintenance communications.

"It is becoming a major trend to put [wireless networks] 'hot spots' in more common and gathering areas on campuses," says Stephanie Atkinson, senior analyst of vertical markets for In-Stat/MDR. "The smaller private universities are more likely to invest in wireless networking."

If some of the technology starts to look like it's going for the "gee-whiz" rating, it's quite the contrary, according to Steven L. Worona, director of policy and networking programs at EDUCAUSE. He believes it's important for campuses to enable students to communicate in the way they are accustomed and to keep pace with technological changes.

"Campuses have recognized it's not an add-on frill, but necessary and important to retain students," Worona says. "What does this have to do with instruction? It's an integral part of student life."

Ultimately, more and more colleges and universities will transition to networking technology as resources allow. In particular, converged networks reduce complexity, maintenance, and staffing responsibilities while encouraging vibrant innovations. The opportunity to attract more students and save money: priceless.

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