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The Top 10 Higher Ed IT Issues of 2016

A panel of higher education leaders identifies the major technology challenges that their universities will have to deal with next year.

INDIANAPOLIS — Higher education leaders are gearing up for next year as they look ahead to see what kinds of technology issues they will face.

A panel of leaders came up with a list of 10 IT issues that will be important to address in 2016 and talked about their findings in discussions at EDUCAUSE in Indianapolis in October.

Information security

Information security topped the list of issues that IT leaders will face. So far this year, 1,415 security breaches have occurred in the United States, with about half of those targeting businesses, a quarter targeting government and 9 percent targeting education institutions, according to DataLossDB from the Open Security Foundation. More than a third of those breaches came from hackers trying to infiltrate systems.

Higher education institutions will experience data breaches. It's no longer a question of if, but when. That means it's even more imperative for IT leaders to understand where their data is, which data is the highest risk and how it can be protected. By creating data classifications and guidelines that govern data security, universities can get everyone on the same page.

"We really do have to foster a culture of data stewardship at our institutions," said Michael Fary, enterprise data architect at the University of Chicago in a panel discussion at EDUCAUSE about the issues.

Teaching and learning plus student success technologies

Optimizing education technology and student success technologies came in right behind information security in terms of important issues to address in 2016.

Learning technology has been on the top 10 list pretty much every year, and this year is no different —it maintained its No. 2 slot from 2015. As technology becomes an integral part of student learning experiences, the IT team and faculty will need to work much more collaboratively. With a tight working relationship, IT leaders can make sure faculty members feel comfortable with rapidly changing technology, and faculty can try different things in the classroom with full support from IT.

On the student success side, university leaders have unprecedented access to data that can help them make strategic decisions.

"We're able to interrogate data in a completely new way that we've never been able to do before," said Kimberly Arnold, senior evaluation consultant at University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

But the challenge is to connect data across the institution. By connecting data from various silos, leaders have a clear picture of what they can do to prevent courses from becoming bottlenecks for students and how they can steer students toward the best education path for them. 

Top 10 Higher Ed IT Issues Comparison
2015 2016
1. Evolving staffing models 1. Information security 
2. Optimizing technology in teaching and learning 2. Optimizing educational technology 
3. Funding IT strategically  3. Student success technologies 
4. Improving student outcomes 4. IT workforce 
5. Demonstrating IT's value 5. Institutional data management 
6. Increasing capacity for change 6. IT funding models 
7. Providing user support 7. Business intelligence and analytics
8. Developing security policies for the institution 8. Enterprise application integrations 
9. Developing enterprise IT architecture 9. IT organizational development 
10. Balancing information security and openness 10. E-learning and online education 

Business intelligence and analytics 

Higher education institutions are under growing pressure to increase student graduation and persistence rates, and a number of states base their funding on how well they're doing on these types of outcomes. Coming in at No. 7, business intelligence and analytics show potential to help universities break apart data silos and use the information they have to make a difference.

Business intelligence is not about producing reports, said Craig A. Fowler, CIO of Western Carolina University. It's about analyzing the data to see what's going on across the university and then acting on that analysis, added Gordon Wishon, CIO of Arizona State University.

"Too often our data has grown up in silos with different departments feeling that they own the data," Wishon said. "We consider data to be an institutional asset, and we're taking very much an enterprise view of data and how it should be collected and maintained and ultimately used."

While business analytics typically sees more investment from universities than learning analytics, both types can complement each other. In fact, good student outcomes are good business practices. A 2015 report from the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research on higher education analytics showed that institutions invested in learning analytics and institutional analytics for several of the same reasons, including improving retention and demonstrating higher education's effectiveness.

"There are overlapping interests between the business and institutional analytics and the learning analytics, and I think that's going to be the sweet spot," said Eden Dahlstrom, director of research at EDUCAUSE.

E-learning and online education

E-learning continues to advance in importance to institutions, making the top 10 list in the last spot. Universities are increasingly under pressure to catch up in this area and help faculty change the way they teach, said Marden D. Paul, director of planning, governance and assessment at the University of Toronto. Because not all students learn the same way, and not all faculty teach the same way, university IT leaders will need to take a different approach to providing technology tools, said Wishon from Arizona State. Traditionally IT leaders try to provide common technology tools to everyone in the institution, but faculty and students need different tools to use in different ways. 

That poses a dilemma for universities.

"The easiest way to scale is to standardize, but if personalization is going to be your differentiator, then you need to be able to personalize at scale," said Stephen Landry, CIO at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. "There's no way to do that unless you have a good analytics tool to allow you to intervene for the right student at the right time with the right resources."

No one has the answer right now to this dilemma, but it's certainly something that IT leaders will need to think about next year.