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Technology (Innovations for Education)

Yours, Mine and Ours

Shared services support technology infrastructure for colleges and universities.

Shared Services Support Technology Infrastructure

PHOTO COURTESY OF ALDERWEB

The concept of shared services has become a popular topic of discussion as colleges and universities strive for increased efficiency. When it comes to technology, such arrangements can bring a variety of benefits. In purchasing, the combined market offered by more than one institution can be attractive to vendors of software, hardware or IT services. Potentially, bigger numbers can bring increased bargaining power in negotiating discounts on purchases or leases.

In addition, joint purchasing can reduce administrative overhead and, depending on the volume involved, may reduce the number of support staff needed or free up staff to complete other tasks.

Also significant can be the potential to eliminate the need for redundant hardware as institutions share costly equipment. Enhanced bargaining power may also prove a boon to students, leading to discounts on tablets, laptops or software. Along with making products more affordable, a bonus may be that students more readily avail themselves of the latest technology.

Less visible but also attractive is the prospect of pooling intellectual resources. As IT leaders and staff of cooperating colleges work together on joint projects, they become more available to one another for informal consulting in directions ranging from problem-solving to assessment of newly introduced products. 

Broad-Based Sharing

At Five Colleges, Inc. (made up of Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges and the University of Massachusetts Amherst), sharing of technology has been extensive, according to Neal B. Abraham, the group’s executive director, who is also a professor of physics.   

Among the group’s initiatives have been development of a virtual computer lab, common use of the Shibboleth network sign-on system, and joint participation in the Moodle e-learning platform and Drupal web development platform. The consortium also hosts, supports and maintains the Mimsy XG central data repository and Robobraille/SensuAccess assistive technologies, and joint systems for library cataloging and sharing electronic resources.

In addition, the group manages and markets a high-speed fiber optic network linked to an Internet2 node, while one campus offers as a shared service the management of network switches, commodity Internet and Internet2 services.

In the process of working together, institutional reps have found multi-faceted value in their cooperative efforts. 

“Sometimes it is not just sharing the technology, but using the same technologies that will create efficiencies,” Abraham says, pointing to examples such as Drupal and Moodle. “If the campuses are using the same platform, you have a built-in support system — a network of people with knowledge and different experiences dealing with different challenges at different campuses.”

In another example of inter-institutional cooperation, the University at Albany and Hudson Valley Community College (both part of the SUNY system) have recently formalized an agreement to share both IT services and facilities. Each school will serve as the other’s secondary data center. This means first locating UAlbany’s back-up physical and virtual servers, as well as network equipment, to the community college location. The university will then provide reciprocal services to Hudson Valley when its new data center facility opens later this year. As part of the agreement, a dedicated fiber link will be installed between the two campuses.

Shared services have been a major focus in Washington, where deep cuts in state funding have been the catalyst for cooperation in a number of areas, according to Paul T. Francis, executive director of the Council of Presidents based in Olympia.

“Of course technology is changing and advancing at a rapid rate,” he says. “And at the same time our institutions have had to be more careful than ever with resources.”

Focusing specifically on technology is the Washington Higher Education Educational Technology Consortium (WHETC), composed of the chief technology officers of the state’s public baccalaureate institutions and a representative of the community and technical college system. Along with the Council of Presidents, partners include Central Washington University, Eastern Washington University, The Evergreen State College, the University of Washington, Washington State University, Western Washington University and the State Board of Technical and Community Colleges.

The group meets six to eight times a year to compare notes on IT practices, software applications and other matters of mutual interest. Members also track proposed legislation and communicate concerns with policy makers.

Recent activities have included evaluating technology approaches to combating student plagiarism and meeting with Microsoft representatives on Office 365. The group’s activities have been important in making the most of available human and financial resources dedicated to technology solutions, according to Francis.

“In this era of declining resources, higher education institutions need to be supreme examples of good stewardship of public resources,” he says. Francis adds that in considering joint initiatives, it’s especially important to consider exactly how students are using technology. “We need to look through that prism,” he says, noting that meeting students’ technology needs is an ideal agenda to be pursued through shared services.

Avoiding Problems

Despite the advantages, sharing technology solutions is not without its challenges. Since every college has its own policies and procedures, conflicts are possible. And delays may be longer or more frequent in purchasing or other activities when more than one institution is involved. Differences in philosophy may also pose barriers, as IT directors or administrators they represent may embrace different approaches to for meeting commonly identified goals.

Developing careful implementation plans can help prevent many problems, Abraham notes. He says that if a new technology implementation that has been “approved” or “bought,” a diverse team should be formed with different skills and expertise, drawn from different campuses, which will work together for the duration of the project.

“Set a coordinator or point person, set up standing project meetings and keep meeting notes,” he advises. “Organize training sessions for the group, celebrate milestones and give credit to the individuals within the group and outside the group.”

For a new enabling technology, Abraham recommends finding a use case that is small and well defined. “Define the pilot that you want to do,” he says, including resources needed. “Get the buy-in from the departments that would be impacted both as users of the new technology and the staff and budget needed to do the work.”  Once commitment is from obtained from supervisors, planners can follow the same process as for an “approved” project, Abraham says.

In pursuing any joint initiatives, good communication is imperative, Francis adds. “It’s essential in order to be more efficient,” he says. “I can’t see how we could be effective if we’re not talking to one another.” 

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

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