How college CIOs brace for back-to-school (with video!)

Enterprise IT stands to learn a lot from higher-ed CIOs, who are on the front lines in tackling demands for connectivity, service, security and innovation.

To some, the job of a higher-education CIO might seem downright cushy. After all, unlike their corporate counterparts, these IT leaders don't have to answer to shareholders, cater to business-line leaders or survive acrimonious mergers.

But the reality is, come the end of summer, these unsung heroes of academia face an onslaught of network traffic; malware-ridden personal devices; compute-intensive systems that require 100% uptime; demanding faculty, administrators and researchers; and some of the world's most tech-savvy -- and bandwidth-hogging -- students.

Far from taking it easy while students are out on break, higher-ed CIOs work tirelessly all summer to prepare for every imaginable back-to-school nightmare, from a security breach to a network outage to a Twitterstorm of negative publicity.

Even so, CIOs say, no amount of work can fully safeguard against every hiccup -- or disaster. "There's nothing like having 3,000 students and a couple of hundred faculty jump on [the network] on Day One," says Chuck LoCurto, vice president and CIO at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I. "All the stress testing in the world sometimes doesn't compare to getting all those fingers tapping the keyboards in different ways."

In that way and many others, education IT is on the front lines in developing strategic responses to the same challenges that bedevil enterprise IT. Read on for tales from the trenches from six university CIOs as they grapple with the demands of connectivity, service, security and innovation.

A demanding customer base

The explosion in the number and variety of personal devices, combined with highly competitive student recruitment practices, has created an environment where students have come to expect unprecedented levels of IT service and performance. Network glitches, first-generation mobile apps, spotty Wi-Fi coverage, slow connectivity, a closed help desk -- they're no longer acceptable snafus in an environment where more and more universities view their students as valuable consumers, not faceless numbers.

"For us, the focus is on the student experience from the first moment they step onto our campus," says Brian Haugabrook, CIO at Valdosta State University (VSU) in Valdosta, Ga. "It's all about how to ensure that they have a great technology experience and access to services. We really pay attention to what we see in other industries, whether it's the hotel industry or hospitality, and how these businesses take that experience very seriously." (For details on how universities are using data to enhance student experience, see Using and analytics to get (very) close with students.)

That's why, despite limited financial and IT resources, this summer VSU is overseeing deployment of a Cisco-based wireless network that will provide three million square feet of wireless coverage blanketing every inch of indoor space and many outdoor areas at the university.

VSU has recently completed the first phase of the project, which includes replacing the wireless infrastructure for residence halls. In the past, VSU's wireless coverage could not support 50+ students connecting all at once in a classroom. The new wireless infrastructure will increase the number of access points by 300%. Haugabrook says the university will also offer Internet Protocol television (IPTV), as well as digital video recorder (DVR) services to its fall arrivals.

It's a combination of value-added service and cost reduction that enterprise IT teams dream of. "What we're doing is actually improving service while at the same time reducing costs," says Haugabrook. "Our wireless project will provide students with more access, and Internet-based television is actually going to reduce our overall cable costs."

With student experience firmly in mind, Reed Sheard, vice president for college advancement and CIO at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., every year picks a project "that's really ahead of when mass adoption is occurring. If we get it right, it changes the rules in our favor by providing better service or service that's actually beyond what people are expecting," Sheard says. "It brings delight to people's computing experience at the college."

This year, Sheard is in the process of moving many of the university's services to the cloud, including student admissions, enrollment and relationship management, which he expects to improve the student experience by providing greater and easier accessibility to services.

At Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass., returning students will be able to enjoy Wi-Fi that's scaled to meet the demands of their particular location on campus, says assistant CIO Sean O'Connor. "We've architected the wireless network to address the needs of the students and faculty in the classroom, in the dorm rooms or just going across campus," he explains.

The school now has the ability to deploy access points specifically designed to address heavily used areas where there is a lot of congestion on the network. "If I have a classroom with 75 people in it, that's going to need a different kind of access point than a dorm room, which serves only four or five people at a time," O'Connor says.

Network access is Job No. 1

The speediest connections in the world won't make students happy if they can't connect their devices the moment they set foot on campus. American University (AU) in Washington, D.C. will welcome 14,000 students on day one, 2,000 of which will be completely new to the school.

To help students properly configure their devices for AU's wired and wireless networks, the university holds an annual Tech Fair during orientation week, according to CIO Dave Swartz. "It's not just getting one device on the network and configuring it," says Swartz. "Some of these game consoles and other kinds of intelligent devices aren't necessarily easy to get on our network, so we have to train and orient students."

The sheer number of devices that need to be configured can be staggering, CIOs say. "On any day in the fall, just on our wireless network, we'll have over 55,000 unique devices," says Gerry McCartney, vice president of IT and CIO at Purdue University in West Lafayette, In. "That's everybody's smartphone, Xbox, laptop and iPad."

Bryant University reduces at least part of the headache by providing every incoming freshman with a brand-new Lenovo ThinkPad, which they use for two years; returning juniors are encouraged to trade in their original laptop for a newer model.

"On Labor Day, we will roll out 1,100 laptops in an hour," says LoCurto. Despite a tightly run distribution process that would make enterprises envious, LoCurto says, "We worry less about the 1,000 or so students getting good computers and more about the 2,000 students coming back with the computers that they used all summer, potentially filled with viruses."

To guard against students connecting infected devices onto the network, university IT departments typically take a number of preventative measures. At Bryant, for example, no device is able to access the university's network unless it is registered -- a policy that also pertains to the school's guest network. Students are on a separate network from faculty to minimize security risks. Network usage is policy driven via Bryant University's network management system.

And for any students who may be a wee bit rules-averse? "We have enough monitoring tools that we can tell who did what, and when and what site they were on," LoCurto says.

Social, analytics amp up service delivery

Another new pressure on the tech staff: social media, which has dramatically changed the way education IT interfaces with its target audience of tech-savvy 20-somethings. "You like to see the green lights on the network all the time, because if the network goes out for one minute, I'm guaranteed to see at least twenty tweets out there," says Haugabrook. More than simply a nuisance, he says, these kinds of virtual black eyes can have a disastrous impact on a university's ability to recruit prospective students.

For this reason, VSU relies on a combination of Oracle Business Intelligence and social relationship management technologies to flag social media mentions the moment they occur. "We'll find out [about a network outage] on Twitter before somebody actually calls the help desk," says Haugabrook. "We're monitoring social media so that we know about things as early as possible."

VSU also taps the Oracle suite to make more informed decisions in regards to staffing its help desk. By collecting and analyzing data on call volume and response times, VSU now has a clearer picture of how to better deploy its staff and respond more quickly to queries.

Some of these data-driven decisions include transitioning to a 24-hour help desk to accommodate adult and online learners, as well as training overnight library staff to serve as IT support specialists for late-night queries. What's more, rather than hire full-time employees, VSU is hiring students part-time to function as help-desk technicians, enabling VSU to cut the overall IT budget by 5% this year while offering greater service, Haugabrook says.

Data analytics is also helping VSU meet its goal of responding faster to unforeseen classroom glitches. Haugabrook says he was inspired by how police forces use data analytics to track crime hot spots and then strategically place officers around town to reduce criminal activity. So VSU conducted a pilot that used sophisticated algorithms and computer models to determine where to strategically place technicians across campus. Technicians are now situated in key locations around campus so that if an issue arises, they can be on-site within minutes.

In the past, response times ranged from one to two hours. By contrast, Haugabrook says, the pilot project achieved an average 13-minute response rate. "Going from an hour down to 13 minutes is really huge," he says. "When we've talked to some other schools, they've said that's not even possible, so it was a really great achievement."

Next page: The summer race against time

The summer race against time

All of this activity is forced to occur in an ever-narrowing window of opportunity.

Once upon a time, university campuses emptied out for the summer, giving IT time to do its work in peace. No more. Adult education programs, online learning courses, weekend sessions, summer camps for high school students and younger -- they all contribute to a round-the-clock IT environment that makes it difficult for CIOs to schedule implementations and upgrades.

"There are no downtimes," says Purdue's McCartney. "As the university moves to a more continuous twelve-month operation, opportunities for inadvertent conflicts only grow."

Deborah Corwin Scott, CIO at WPI, says her team likewise is under significant time pressure in the summer months.

"As soon as we finish commencement, that's our opportunity to get into some of the buildings that have been occupied all year long, such as the dorms, to add new technology and do upgrades and repairs," Scott says. "The classrooms also are idle a little bit right after graduation, and we can upgrade all of our classroom technology as well as get into some of the other academic spaces," she continues. "We only have a short window because then we get into the summer term and the summer programs, so it's quite a tight schedule."

If there's no downtime in the IT schedule, that almost always means there's no summer break for the CIO either. When asked what his summer vacation plans are, AU's Swartz responds incredulously, "Are you kidding me?"

VSU's Haugabrook says, "I got one day vacation and it actually wasn't a full day. I think I worked until lunchtime and then I got the rest of that day," he chuckles. "That was my vacation."

As for Bryant's LoCurto, he says never really disconnects, even when on vacation. "For me, being able to connect is a stress reliever," he says. "If I wasn't connected for a couple of days, I'd be uneasy. A vacation means being able to work, just not in the office."

-- Additional reporting by Tracy Mayor

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