The 2016 National Survey of eLearning and
Information Technology in US Higher Education
KEY CAMPUS IT ISSUES
Personnel, Instruction, Budgets, Security, and Analytics
Hiring and retaining IT talent has become increasingly challenging for a growing number of colleges and universities. Large numbers of CIOs and senior campus IT officers report that IT budgets at their institutions have not fully recovered from the compounding consequences of the annual budget cuts and mid-year budget reductions of the Great Recession. Assisting faculty with the instructional integration of information technology remains a top campus IT priority even as higher education is now in the fourth decade of its much discussed “technology revolution.” IT security remains continuing challenge. And for all the conversation, on- and off-campus, about the power of Big Data and analytics, there is ample evidence that campus IT officials do not view current institutional investments in analytics as effective or that the outcomes of these investments are, at present, satisfactory.
These are some of the key findings from the fall 2016 Campus Computing Survey. Launched in 1990, Campus Computing is the largest continuing study of IT planning and policy issues in American higher education.” The 2016 survey is based on data provided by CIOs and senior campus IT officials at 339 two- and four-year colleges and universities across the United States.
The Compounding Consequences of Budget Cuts
Eight years after the beginning of the Great Recession, almost two-thirds (63 percent) of the CIOs and senior IT officers who participated in the 2016 survey report that IT funding at their campus “has not fully recovered from the budget cuts we have experienced over the past four-six years.” As shown below, almost a third of public universities and BA/MA institutions, a quarter of private BA/MA colleges, a fifth of private universities, and more than two-fifths of community colleges experienced IT budget cuts for the 2016-2017 academic year. Moreover, many campuses also suffered mid-year budget reductions for 2016/17, averaging 8 percent, which compounds the consequences of the annual budget cuts. Unfortunately, this has been the recurring cycle for a significant number of institutions across all sectors: an annual budget cut followed by a mid-year budget reduction.
“These continuing budget cuts and mid-year reductions come as campus IT officials experience rising demand for resources and services: enhanced IT security, exploding demand for faster wireless networks, rising licensing costs for mission critical ERP applications, increased personnel costs, and growing demand for user support services” says Kenneth C. Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project. “At many institutions, the rising demand coupled with continuing budget cuts threaten to overwhelm the core IT infrastructure – mission critical instructional resources and administrative services.”
Interestingly, although 90 percent of the survey participants report that “senior campus leadership understands the strategic value of institutional investments in IT infrastructure, resources, and services” and 84 percent report strong faculty support for “the role of technology to enhance teaching and instruction,” these high levels of administrative and faculty support have not been sufficient to stem the recurring budget cuts experienced by too many institutions, especially public colleges and in particular community colleges.
The 2016 survey data also highlight the role of student IT fees as a key source of funds for campus IT budgets. Across all sectors, the majority of institutions add the student IT fees to the core campus IT budget rather than sequester these funds for new, supplemental services and resources intended to serve students. Interestingly, although private institutions are less likely than public colleges and universities to have a student technology fee, the student fees are higher in private institutions.
“At one time many institutions used student IT fees to provide new, supplemental services rather than to supplant stressed, core campus IT budgets,” says Green. "The 2016 survey data reveal that student fees are now overwhelming used to replace funds lost due to continuing IT budget reductions."
Hiring and Retaining IT Personnel
Hiring and retaining IT personnel, one of the top five IT campus priorities in recent surveys, moved to the top priority in fall 2016. More than four-fifths (82 percent) of the survey participants identified “hiring/retaining qualified IT staff” as a “very important” campus IT priority over the next two-three years. Not surprisingly, a key factor affecting staffing is money: three-fourths (75 percent) of those surveyed agreed/strongly agreed that “we have a difficult time retaining IT talent because our salaries and benefits are not competitive with off-campus job opportunities.” The IT staffing problem can be particularly challenging in rural areas and small college towns, where the competition for a limited pool of IT talent may be intense and expensive.
In addition to IT staffing, the top five campus IT priorities for fall 2016 focus on instruction, IT security, user support services, and leveraging IT resources to advance the institutional priorities for student success and degree completion.
“Perhaps not surprisingly,” says Green, “the list of the top five IT priorities has been fairly stable for the past several years. Campus IT officers confront and must manage their budgets to accommodate rising, and at times competing, demands for a wide range and growing range of IT resources and services.”
Great Faith in the Power and Potential of Technology
Notwithstanding the IT challenges their institutions confront, CIOs and senior campus IT officers continue to express great faith in the power of technology to enhance, if not transform, instruction and learning at their campuses. For example, 88 percent agree/strongly agree that “digital curricular resources provide a richer and more personalized learning experience than traditional print products.” And 96 percent of the 2016 survey participants believe that “adaptive learning technology has great potential to improve learning outcomes for students.”
Yet even as they see great potential for instructional technologies and digital resources, four-fifths (81 percent) of CIOs and senior campus officials identify “assisting faculty with the instructional integration of information technology” as a “very important” institutional IT priority over the next two-three years.
“This strong statement of support for digital instructional resources, coupled with the concern for making better use of technology in instruction, is not surprising,” says Green. “CIOs and senior campus IT officers are, understandably, advocates for the instructional use of technology at their institutions. Although faculty make decisions about curricular resources for their courses, CIOs are responsible for the enabling infrastructure, including much of the student and faculty training and user support services.”
Yet Green also notes that the absence of clear and compelling evidence about the benefits of technology in instruction and the impact of IT on learning outcomes can be problematic. For example, the survey data reveal that just a fourth of the institutions that participated in the 2016 survey “have a formal program to assess the impact of IT on instruction and learning outcomes.” Consequently, comments Green, “decisions about IT in instruction are often fueled by good intentions, anecdotal data, opinion, and epiphany as opposed to research and hard evidence.”
The public and campus conversations about the power and potential of Big Data and analytics notwithstanding, this year’s survey provides evidence of “analytic angst” across all sectors of American higher education: the survey data suggest the performance of analytics has fallen far short of the campus need and anticipated benefits. Less than a fifth of the survey participants assess recent campus investments in analytics as “very effective.” And just 16 percent report that across their institution, most users are “very satisfied” with current analytic tools and resources.
“The campus angst with analytics should not be surprising,” notes Green. “As with so many new technologies in the consumer, corporate, and campus sectors, the actual, implied, and inferred promises often fall short of initial performance.” Green notes the current disappointment with analytics on campus is not new. His 2011 and 2012 surveys of college presidents, chief academic officers, and CIOs all indicated that these senior campus officials did not view the investment in analytics as “very effective.”
“The effective use of analytics involves more than deploying a new technology. While good analytic tools are, of course, important, so too is user training. Campus officials and faculty who are eager for just-in-time, complex analyses of student performance really do need effective training woth these new resources to understand both the potential and also the limits of the data and these analytic tools.” Green also notes that the effective use of analytics many require a major change in culture at many institutions, a transition from using data as a weapon to using data and analytics as a resource: “The key question should be not what did we do wrong, but how can we do better, and how do the data and analytic tools show us the path to better for our students.”
IT security remains a continuing challenge across all sectors of American higher education. In aggregate, more two-fifths of the institutions participating the survey experienced the loss of confidential data due to the theft of a device and hacks or attacks on campus networks in A/Y 2015/16. Universities, in particular, appear to be attractive targets. A fourth of the surveyed campuses had experience with either spyware or ransomware this past year experience and also with a student security incident such as cyber-bullying via social media. Security problems caused by employee malfeasance, often a reflection of stress, anger, or over-worked IT staff, were also problems for many institutions, especially universities.
About the Campus Computing Survey
The 2016 Campus Computing Survey is based on data provided by senior campus IT officials, typically, the CIO, CTO, or other senior campus IT officer, representing 339 two- and four-year public and private/non-profit colleges and universities across the United States. Survey respondents completed the online questionnaire from September 13 through October 20.
Campus Computing Session at the 2016 EDUCAUSE Conference: Casey Green (Campus Computing), Sharon Pitt (SUNY-Binghamton) & David Smallen (Hamilton College). Video courtesy of Sonic Foundry.
Casey Green discusses the results of the 2016 Campus Computing Survey: EDUCAUSE Conference Interview with Bryan Alexander, Future Trends Forum