Preparing Students for a Globally Connected World: The Role of the IT Organization

By David Waldron, VP for IT, St. Edward's University

David Waldron, VP for IT, St. Edward's University

University graduates enter a world increasingly shaped by the forces of globalization and characterized by ubiquitous technology and relentless change. Universities face a set of complex challenges in their efforts to equip students for success in this environment. Technology organizations within universities have critical roles to play in supporting university efforts in this arena and providing students with opportunities for meaningful engagement with sophisticated technologies in increasingly wide use beyond the academy. Technology organizations should craft the technical environments they provide not only to facilitate formal instruction but also to contribute directly to student learning. Navigating and leveraging the environment we provide should prepare students to navigate the environment they will encounter upon graduation. We should introduce students to the ways in which the world increasingly works.

“University technology organizations ultimately exist to facilitate the pursuit of institutional mission”

One powerful way in which information technology organizations can approach and organize this effort is through the definition and adoption of a digital learning ecosystem. I use this term to refer to a set of integrated, complementary applications—some synchronous, some asynchronous—designed to robustly support multiple learning modalities. These include face-to-face learning and a variety of distance and hybrid modalities. The ecosystem includes all the technological tools used directly in the provision of content and instruction (e.g. the learning management system), but also includes those enterprise applications that students and faculty use frequently in conducting knowledge work associated with teaching and learning (e.g. file sharing and synchronization, web-based videoconferencing, and video creation and capture tools).

University technology organizations expend significant resources to make enterprise applications broadly available to their communities. Many factors must be weighed as applications are selected for deployment and implementation plans are developed.  In the context of such decisions, technology organizations should consider how the use of such tools might help prepare students for transition beyond the academy. For example, employers and other associates will expect graduates to be capable of collaborating effectively with distributed teams using a variety of relevant technologies. Technology organizations should consider how such technologies might be made available and how their use might be encouraged and supported. Beyond deployment, technology organizations should model use of such tools, and champion and support their use across the community.

This effort creates the opportunity for—and necessitates—fruitful conversation across the technology organization. All groups within IT including instructional technology and infrastructure groups have important roles to play in making decisions that shape the technical environment we provide to facilitate the kinds of meaningful student experiences that can contribute to future success. These conversations must ultimately identify desired functionalities and the ways in which they might be made available and supported.  They must also reflect an understanding of other priorities and existing constraints. Organizations moving in this direction would do well to consider the formulation of general principles to guide this work. These may be worthy of consideration: 

• We should, whenever practical, provide our students with real world tools.
• The tools we provide should allow for ubiquitous access including access via mobile devices where appropriate.
• We should, whenever practical, provide our students with tools and resources that they can take with them when they leave the university, assuming ownership and responsibility.
• The tools and support services we provide should afford our students opportunities to gain real technical fluency and expertise.
• Our graduates will not be shielded from changes inthe technologies and tools they will need to use. While we must manage the change that students experience during their studies, change is ultimately inevitable and healthy.

At this point, distance learning is widely understood to be technologically mediated, but over the course of the last few decades face-to-face instruction has come to rely more and more heavily on the use of a variety of technologies. Designing a single ecosystem capable of supporting all relevant modalities should provide important efficiencies. Faculty and students engaged in distance learning might use a subset of the ecosystem’s technologies more intensely than faculty and students engaged face-to-face (and vice versa) but all faculty and students have access to the same ecosystem. Many technologies within the ecosystem will be used across all modalities, but with different levels of intensity and perhaps in different ways.

Universities differ in terms of their curricular goals, the programs they offer, the audiences they serve and the learning modalities they utilize. Consequently, each university must determine which applications will be required to create a compelling learning environment under the unique circumstances they face. I believe that it is safe to assert that a great majority of learning communities need to communicate and share documents asynchronously; to communicate synchronously via video in multiple contexts; to co-create documents; to create, edit and distribute video and audio documents; and perhaps to record and live stream events. The initial iteration of a digital learning ecosystem might include:

• a learning management system (LMS)
• a collaboration suite (e.g. Google Apps or Microsoft 365)
• a file sharing and synchronization application
• a web-based video conferencing application
• a video/lecture capture application
• web/blog publishing tool(s)

It will be critical to approach the ecosystem in a systematic and integrated way.  As needs and technology change the ecosystem will have to evolve. It is necessary to define methodologiesthrough which new functionalities and technologies will be identified for integration andobsolete elements will be identified for retirement. It will also be necessary to develop and refine strategies and methodologies for communication, implementation, documentation, support, training and assessment.  Given the vital role that the ecosystem and its components will play in the university's pursuit of mission, change management will require considerable attention.

If a digital learning ecosystem is to be truly successful, it must be shaped by the broad educational goals and pedagogical experience of faculty.  It must also be widely adopted and embraced by this group.  Many institutions have created a standing faculty advisory group for their technology organizations.  These advisory groups should be engaged at the very beginning of conversations about the digital learning ecosystem and should be consulted on a regular basis about performance and about the nature of its future growth and evolution. If an institution has not yet formed such a group, the creation of a digital learning ecosystem would be an excellent context in which to do so.

Universities have realized for quite some time that the quality of the educational experience they provide is dependent upon the robustness of basic IT infrastructure. As applications have proliferated the need for identity management systems and single sign on regimes has become clear. Universities are likely to find the deployment of a digital learning ecosystem among the activities providing impetus for the development and implementation of an application integration strategy. This will facilitate data sharing and inter-operability among applications, and allow for progress toward providing continuous experience for clients as they interact with the elements of the ecosystem.

Universities exist to promote student learning and development. University technology organizations ultimately exist to facilitate the pursuit of institutional mission. The adoption of a digital learning ecosystem requires that technology organizations think holistically about the technical environment we create for our communities and intentionally about preparing students for the world they will enter upon graduation. It holds potential for improving the alignment of the products, services, activities and investments of the technology organization with the university's educational purpose.

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