What are IT leaders saying about tech transformation in higher ed?

October 17, 2023 Watermark Insights

Higher education institutions are rapidly changing — and technology is at the center of the movement. In a recent live panel, IT leaders Brett Weisz, Chief Information Officer at Montana State University Billings, and Darren Bauer Kahan, Chief Product and Technology Officer at Watermark, discussed what colleges and universities must do to position themselves for success in our constantly evolving world.

Weisz and Kahan spoke on the most pressing issues in higher ed today, including how AI can augment staff and cover gaps; its security implications; and how it may impact faculty, students, and institutions for years to come. 

Read on for an overview of their insights about how to: 

  • Stay vigilant about security.
  • Leverage AI advancements.
  • Consolidate tech.
  • Make a cost-saving software switch.
  • Retain valuable staff.

Cultivating a culture of security awareness

This may come as a surprise, but higher ed institutions are among the most targeted types of organizations for security attacks, particularly ransomware. The vast repository of sensitive information, from personal student records to cutting-edge research data, makes these institutions attractive to hackers. Universities must adopt a culture of security awareness to stay protected.

Weisz likens the issue of security to that age-old conundrum: How do you eat an elephant? “The bad guys evolve very quickly,” he says. “We don't always have enough time or money or staff to throw at whatever problem may be coming our way. So we need to eat that IT security elephant one bite at a time.” What does this look like? Slow, incremental, and consistent improvements through approaches including:

Multi-factor authentication (MFA). Implementing MFA is essential. This extra layer of security helps ensure that even if login credentials are compromised, unauthorized access remains a distant prospect.

Regular patching and updates. Staying updated with the latest security patches and updates is a crucial aspect of security. Outdated software is an open invitation to cyberattacks.

User training. Faculty, staff, and students should be educated on cybersecurity best practices. Informed users are the first line of defense against social engineering and phishing attempts.

“Assume a breach” mindset. The mindset of "when, not if" should be at the core of a college or university's security strategy. Recognizing that breaches can occur despite robust measures in place ensures that institutions are better prepared to respond swiftly.

Leveraging artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence has already begun to revolutionize higher education. From automating administrative tasks to enhancing the learning experience, AI is altering the way colleges and universities operate. Faculty can now do things like structure their CVs automatically using AI or leverage AI-driven platforms like Watermark Faculty Success that allow them to cut data entry time by 80% and increase their confidence in the results by importing activities directly from their CVs.

AI is here to stay, and its potential is vast. So, too, is its risk. Challenges include:

Privacy concerns. AI collects massive amounts of data, raising concerns about the privacy of students and faculty. Colleges and universities need to develop clear policies and safeguards to protect this sensitive information.

Security risks. AI systems can also be vulnerable to attacks, and universities must protect these assets. Encryption, data monitoring, and strict access controls are vital.

Job disruption. The advent of AI may lead to job displacement for some, particularly in roles that are highly repetitive. It is incumbent on colleges and universities to retrain and reskill employees to stay relevant in this changing landscape. As Weisz puts it: “It's not going to take your job today. But if you don't learn how to use these tools, you're going to be at risk of losing your job [in the future]. Somebody who is very proficient in prompting an AI to give them a quick and efficient answer is really going to dwarf the productivity of someone who is doing everything from scratch.”

Consolidating your tech stack

Higher education institutions often employ a multitude of technology solutions and vendors to meet various needs. While diversity can be beneficial, it can also result in inefficiencies and increased costs. Many universities are exploring ways to streamline systems. Tech consolidation emerges as a great way to achieve:

Cost reduction. Reducing the number of vendors can lead to cost savings. Fewer vendors mean lower licensing and maintenance costs.

Improved user experience. Consolidation under platforms like Microsoft 365 and the Watermark Educational Impact Suite (EIS) provides a seamless user experience, simplifying access to essential tools and applications.

Integration. Integrating systems allows for better data sharing, which can lead to improved insights and decision-making.

Following best practices for software rollouts

Introducing new software and systems in a college or university setting is a complex endeavor. “It’s that technology paradox,” says Weisz. “We think we're gonna get you to be more efficient. But you have to go through a period of inefficiency to get there.” It’s for this reason that software rollouts are often met with great resistance — and it’s an institution’s ability to navigate this pushback gracefully that will determine whether the changes stick.

For a smooth transition, institutions must enact best practices like:

Collaboration with champions. Identifying faculty and staff who are enthusiastic about the new technology and partnering closely with them can help drive adoption and provide valuable feedback.

Pilot testing. Before a full-scale rollout, conduct pilot testing. This allows you to identify and address any issues or concerns before they affect the entire institution.

Peer-to-peer adoption. Encourage faculty to share their positive experiences with peers, creating a peer-to-peer network of support and encouragement.

Prioritizing staff retention

Retaining skilled staff is a significant challenge for universities. Making sure that your valuable people feel happy and engaged is vital not just to your institution’s smooth operations now but to its continued success in the future. Many higher ed leaders are exploring innovative ways to keep their people satisfied, including:

Fun new projects. Engaging employees with new projects keeps them motivated and invested in the success of the college or university. This makes your institution into “a career-growth station for your team and your staff, and that drives retention,” says Kahan.

Career-goals identification. Understanding the career aspirations of staff allows institutions to tailor development plans to help them achieve their goals within the organization.

Mentoring programs. Establishing mentorship programs can provide employees with guidance and support as they navigate their career paths within the college or university.

Advancement opportunities. Even if it means that some staff may eventually leave for other job opportunities, colleges and universities should encourage and facilitate the professional growth of their employees. This approach can lead to a highly skilled workforce and contribute positively to the institution's reputation.

The transformation driven by digital innovation promises to make education more accessible and efficient, but it also demands a relentless commitment to security, privacy, and adaptability. Is your institution ready?

Interested in hearing firsthand as IT leaders discuss some of the most vital questions around tech transformation in higher ed today? Watch the panel discussion.

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