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Lessons in strategic leadership for university CIOs

Lessons in strategic leadership for university CIOs

IT in higher education needs to move from utility to a strategic asset, says Dr John O’Brien, the CEO of EDUCAUSE.

If there is an academic leader who understands IT, reach out, invite them to your meetings, make them part of your network

John O'Brien, EDUCAUSE

“IT has to be part of the decision-making fabric of universities, in a dangerous and more complicated world,” says Dr John O’Brien, CEO of EDUCAUSE.

Yet, a recent survey among university CIOs revealed only 55 per cent of them are members of their institution’s highest decision making body.

“How can you move from utility to a strategic asset if you are not involved in those strategic conversations?” asks O’Brien, who spoke at the THETA conference in Auckland.

THETA, The Higher Education Technology Agenda, is a global conference held every two years and aims to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology. It was last held in Auckland in 2005, and this year is jointly hosted by the University of Auckland and AUT.

He says strategic leadership for university CIOs is recognising IT is more than a utility, but a strategic asset.

He says one way of bridging the gap is to identify champions outside IT.

"If there is an academic leader who understands IT, reach out, invite them to your meetings, make them part of your network,” he advises.

The future of IT is working more collaboratively across the university, promoting IT, not as technology but as a strategic asset.

“The technologies come and go but people remain, it is the people who need to understand different approaches to technology.”

When colleagues are not familiar with the work done by the IT team, questions arise like, ‘What is this new technology we paid for?...We paid for this last year, why do we need to pay more?’, he says.

"IT must not operate in a silo.”

There is a whole range of metaphors for working in a silo, says O'Brien. These include working in a box, working in an island or IT standing alone on top of a mountain.

But he says there are no metaphors for IT working together.

He proffers the term ‘barn raising’, where people work together to build a barn, ensuring the structure is sound.

'Barn raising' as a metaphor for IT working together.
'Barn raising' as a metaphor for IT working together.

“You have to hardwire the necessity for collaboration,” says O’Brien.

Cloud technology has changed higher education and is transforming the IT operation, he adds.

"In the past, the departments reached out to IT... But IT needs to be there when these conversations happen because technology is embedded in everything we do," he says.

Analytics and gaming in the curriculum

He points out more universities now have a strong focus on student success using analytics and data-informed decision making.

This means ensuring business intelligence, reporting and analytics are relevant, convenient and used by administrators, faculty and students.

“We know student success is the hardest needle to move,” he says. “We would invest hundreds of thousands of dollars on students success and you move it 1 per cent, the next year it will move back.”

“High education is working hard on analytics,” he points out. “Everybody seems to acknowledge it is a high priority.”

You have to hardwire the necessity for collaboration

He says some of the tools being used now, show how engaged students are with classes and help them schedule and plan classes.

One community college deploying analytics saw course passing rates improve 3 per cent in one year and completion rates by 3 per cent.

Gamification is one concept that academics are using to increase student engagement, he says.

"When students are asked why they hate a game, they say it is too easy. When they are asked why the hate the class, they say it is too hard," says O’Brien.

“There is an opportunity to bring gaming ideas... into the classroom environment."

He says a lot of these technologies can help lead to a learning environment that is truly engaging and different.

He concludes his presentation with a quote from Albert Einstein:

“I never try to teach my students anything ... I only create an environment in which they can learn.”

The Powhiri at the opening ceremony for THETA 2017.
The Powhiri at the opening ceremony for THETA 2017.
It is New Zealand Sign Language Week: THETA speaker Nick Wallingford, bee expert and senior academic staff member at Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology, greets delegates using the third official language of New Zealand.
It is New Zealand Sign Language Week: THETA speaker Nick Wallingford, bee expert and senior academic staff member at Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology, greets delegates using the third official language of New Zealand.

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