Northeastern Illinois U's CIO talks IT in a purely commuter environment
This CIO profile is part of the "Mobility in Higher Education" survey underwritten by Sprint Higher Education Solutions and conducted by the Education Dive editorial staff.
Not every university has to deal with a campus network facing constant demand from thousands of resident students. In fact, commuter schools like Northeastern Illinois University don't have to deal with that level of network burden at all.
That's not to say NEIU CIO Kim Tracy has it easier than any other campus technology chief. His university, based in Chicago's city limits, has over 10,000 students with a wide range of devices coming to and from its four campuses every day. Being a commuter school, those students also need remote access to the network. Still, having a 4G cellsite located on your campus probably makes things a little less difficult.
On the heels of our 2013 "Mobility in Higher Education" survey, Education Dive spoke with Tracy about the IT pros and cons of a purely commuter university, its 4G cell site and what he sees as the big tech challenges facing NEIU over the next decade.
EDUCATION DIVE: How did you arrive at your current role?
KIM TRACY: I moved from my IT strategy role at Lucent Technologies. Before that, I had many roles at Bell Labs and Lucent Technologies, including consulting, software development, systems engineering, software quality, software testing and network design. I had a long relationship with higher education including teaching computer science, writing and computing program accreditation, so it wasn't such a shift for me. At the point that I left Lucent, it was in decline, and it was clear to me that I needed to find a new role where I could continue to contribute. I arrived at Northeastern Illinois University in 2005 and haven't looked back since.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the campus you serve at NEIU?
TRACY: We have a very diverse student population of around 11,000 students. Being within the city limits of Chicago, we can leverage the diversity and industries within the city. The main campus is located in a residential neighborhood of the northwest side of Chicago. Historically, our roots go back to 1870 and the Chicago Normal School. We still have a strong teacher education school, as well as a business school and a college of arts and sciences. We pride ourselves on helping many first-generation college students get their degrees. We have four locations: the main campus, the Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies, El Centro, and the Chicago Teachers' Center. Besides those, we offer courses at the University Center of Lake County.
What kinds of challenges and accomplishments have you experienced since you got there?
TRACY: When I started, we were searching for a new ERP. So after choosing Ellucian's Banner—SGHE at that time—we spent a lot of time implementing that system. Besides Banner, we've also spent a lot of time improving the wireless networking with pervasive Wi-Fi and a 4G cellsite that covers all buildings of the main campus, including the basements and tunnels. We've also integrated all the IT departments into a single organization where responsibility is clearer. We've installed basic technology in all classrooms and are currently prototyping the next generation of technology, including thin clients and smart projectors. In addition, we've refurbished the data center and built disaster recovery plans. We just recently migrated all faculty and staff to Google apps, after having already migrated students.
Does that cell site make your job easier? Who's the provider?
TRACY: Somewhat. It's enabled us to really use our 4G devices anywhere on campus without having to worry about coverage. It's also enabled us to consider other alternatives—like eliminating the PBX and using only 4G. We ended up deploying an on-premise VoIP PBX anyway. Mostly, it reduces a barrier or annoyance to students who can now use their phones on campus. The provider is Verizon Wireless, though we would welcome others as well.
Are there a lot of distance learning or continuing education initiatives?
TRACY: Not a lot at this time. We are currently looking at how distance learning will advance our strategies. At this point, we use distance learning mostly in the context of providing courses that link in our other locations. We do have some continuing educations programs as well.
From an IT perspective, how have smartphones and tablets impacted your daily work?
TRACY: From an IT operations perspective, it's kept us more connected and able to respond to issues as they arise. We have also used a few tablets for computer technicians to get and respond to work tickets. More importantly, we are seeing more faculty and staff using tablets and smartphones to do their daily work, making it important to support those devices. We are currently rolling out a general mobile app that works with Desire2Learn, and we also have another mobile app that focuses on the Arts at NEIU.
In terms of mobile devices on campus, how would you characterize the way things have changed in recent years?
TRACY: Year over year, we see more devices on campus, with students very often carrying multiple devices that are trying to connect to our wireless network. As a result, our wireless network has become the primary access network for students and is becoming the primary access network for faculty and staff as well. At this point, we're seeing close to a majority of our network traffic coming from wireless. We're slowly starting to see more use of these devices to aid instruction and learning.
Does your school have a BYOD policy right now? If so, what’s going on? If not, what do you think should change?
TRACY: No, we don't have an explicit policy. As a purely commuter University, we can't enforce a particular device on students. So, we have to support whatever they may bring. For faculty and staff, we (currently) only allow access to the faculty and staff network from registered, NEIU-owned devices. We do allow VPN access via faculty- and staff-owned devices. In the future, we are looking to deliver access to applications using virtual desktops and application delivery technologies to encapsulate those applications from the rest of the personal device.
With NEIU being a purely commuter institution, are there any additional IT challenges you think your campus is faced with? Conversely, are there any challenges you think you're spared?
TRACY: The biggest challenge we avoid is the IT management of campus housing. We may possibly add some housing in the future, so we'll have to deal with the networking, gaming devices and student phone support at that time. Also, after hours, our network and services have much less use than a residential campus would likely have.
As to additional challenges, we do have many students who will leave and then come back, making identity and access management a challenge, as well as remote access being more important. Students need to be able to use our systems and software from their homes and work, as well as on their own devices.
If you could change one thing overnight to make your life easier on campus, what would it be?
TRACY: Hire 10 more excellent people. We have a difficult time hiring people and sometimes our salaries are not competitive, making it difficult to attract talent.
What’s the best technology investment you’ve seen your institution make while you’ve been there?
TRACY: We've just migrated to Google apps, which I think will stimulate more collaboration between students, faculty and staff. Given Google apps is provided at no charge to universities, it provides a good return on investment just based on the e-mail use. Another good investment is the cell site, where the service provider pays the university for the location and we get excellent coverage for staff and students.
In terms of mobile devices on campus from an IT perspective, do you see any particular device creating more problems than others?
TRACY: Apple devices tend to be a bit more difficult to integrate with MDM and enterprise networking technologies, though they are getting better.
What do you think your school's biggest technical challenge will be over the next decade?
TRACY: How we use technology to really improve the way faculty teach and students learn will certainly be one of them. I think a lot will happen over the next decade in terms of competitive pressures that will force us to use technology to compete.
Do MOOCs have you concerned about anything from an IT perspective?
TRACY: No, not really from a technology or IT perspective. I am concerned at how MOOCs will re-shape the competitive landscape, but at the same time they are an opportunity for universities to leverage what they produce.
If your LMS provider could change one thing to make everything easier for you, what would it be?
TRACY: Provide guidance and leading-edge support to help migrate to the next generation of learning.
In terms of the overall tech environment on your campus, are you satisfied with where everything is at?
TRACY: Of course not. We have made a great deal of progress, but there's always progress to be made. My current concerns are: improving our operations efficiency (problem resolution, tracking, device management), leveraging our software (Banner, Google apps, etc.) and building a University-wide priority-setting process. We have several large projects coming down the pike, as well, including CRM, upgrading classroom equipment and support, a new campus, completing disaster recovery and replacing our identity management system.
Stay tuned over the next few weeks for more CIO profiles from Education Dive as part of our 2013 "Mobility in Higher Education" survey underwritten by Sprint Higher Education Solutions. Download the full survey results here.
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