Education Technology: A CIO’s Perspective
Today’s higher education CIOs seek better technology more to gain a competitive advantage and to support business initiatives, with less focus on cutting costs and driving operational efficiency. In the interest of distinguishing themselves this way, Gartner suggests will spend more than $38.2 billion throughout 2016 on education technology.
Holding the purse strings are people like Jeremy Cucco, CIO and Associate Vice President for Technology at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. He oversees the school’s Technology Services staff and spearheads a seven- to 10-year strategy to modernize networks and systems all over campus. Puget Sound is a small liberal arts university operating on a single campus, with approximately 2,600 undergraduate and 270 graduate students.
At Puget Sound, demand for better applications drives infrastructure spending, not the other way around. “Instead of being oriented to provide infrastructure, we’re more interested in providing experience,” says Cucco. “Everything about technology in education is about what you can do with it, not what it can do for the operating environment.”
Puget Sound maintains at least some level of control over external applications while supporting core campus services like security, dining services and the campus bookstore. Faculty members use tools like MakerSpace, an online community that helps students share their inventions, find inspiration and interact with other creators. To thrive in these communities, students also need hands-on edge user technology, such as 3D printers, robotics and laser cutters.
Experiential learning often takes advantage of third-party software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications, including e-learning systems like Blackboard. Blackboard recently partnered with IBM to migrate its applications to public cloud, leveraging cognitive computing to improve resilience, security and reliability.
An Appetite for Data
Like many universities, Puget Sound is seeing exponential growth in demand for data. According to Cucco, on-campus data requirements have doubled every two years over the past 10 to 15 years. “Ten years ago, the big thing was, ‘Hey, we can download mp3s!’ Then, all of a sudden it became about streaming audio. Then, ‘We can download video.’ And then, ‘We can download high-definition videos.’ And, ‘Now we can stream 4K videos.'”
Before transitioning into higher ed, Cucco worked for the Department of Defense, where data requirements stayed constant and were built largely around file sharing. Dealing with ballooning on-campus data demand has provided an intriguing challenge, as students and faculty not only consume content but also create and upload it using social media platforms and applications like Periscope.
What to Do With So Much Data
For the CIO’s office, growing data requirements requires both cost control and expanded investment in education technology. To keep up with rising data demand, the university has increased its WAN link to 10 Gbps, updated its core switch and purchased other distributed hardware to support the switch. The cost for internet service providers is high and will only increase in the coming years.
Even though Puget Sound isn’t a true big data environment — they may have significant warehousing requirements, but they’re not currently analyzing enormous data sets — Cucco anticipates big changes as the university figures out how to glean value from all of its data. “That’s a huge thing for us right now, looking at how we’re going to analyze our data and what we’re going to do with it.”
As with most expansions, cost is a concern: “Those aren’t cheap systems.”
Balancing Education Technology Costs With Quality Service
As a former federal government employee, Cucco takes budget stewardship seriously. One of his cost-cutting strategies involved helping to transition the campus data center from blade servers to high-density, virtualized environments. He also purchases modular hardware, helping the university avoid both vendor lock-in and big purchases that quickly become obsolete.
The other side of good stewardship is spending money where it’s most needed by the user. Another of Cucco’s projects, improving wireless internet service around campus, stemmed from conversations with students and faculty about their on-campus technology experience.
As CIO, Cucco strives to have these conversations on a daily basis, and they’re one of the most important ways he measures his performance. “So much of our collaboration that we do here is entirely based on relationships. Ultimately, it’s not the software or the technology that brings people together.”