In the 11 case studies that Albert Sangra and I examined for our book on the integration of technology in universities and colleges, one of our conclusions is as follows:
‘Too often, key decisions about technology were made by senior administrators without the necessary knowledge and skills to make an informed decision, or committee recommendations were overturned by other factors (such as competing priorities) that were not well explained or communicated to the committees that had done the work.‘
Now that technology is permeating all aspects of administration, teaching and research in universities and colleges, all senior administrators and managers will increasingly be required to participate in decisions about technology choice, investment, maintenance, management, policies and above all security. However, Albert Sangra and I found that program directors, heads of departments, deans, and vice-presidents/vice-rectors were often ill prepared for decision making regarding technology. At the same time, we don’t agree with just delegating all technology decisions to the IT professionals. (This is another major topic for a blog!).
Although technology specialists, such as CIOs and learning technology managers, can and should provide valuable input to decision-making, vice-presidents, deans, heads of department and program directors all need to know what questions to ask, have a basic understanding of technology issues, and how these are managed within the institution, and need to understand the implications of their decision-making regarding technology.
In a previous blog, I drew attention to the study by Higgins, Prebble and Suddaby (2008) that identified a series of questions that senior administrators should ask before making technology decisions. Although this is a good set of questions, I feel they are necessary but not sufficient. If senior and mid-level administrators are to answer these questions effectively, they must have the information needed to answer the questions, or know where to get it, or have in place a process whereby all the stakeholders are involved and can agree a decision. Furthermore, administrators need to have some criteria or framework for assessing the information collected.
For instance, if an academic department insists that a new learning management system is required, but the IT department says that this merely duplicates existing technology and adds extra costs, how can this conflict be resolved? Administrators need to have means by which to bring all the interested parties to the table, and know enough about the technology (and teaching and research requirements) to be able to assess competing views if agreement between the parties cannot be reached.
I believe then that every institution should have a process by which newly appointed senior and middle level administrators can be properly briefed about technology. This would include the following:
- a briefing on the institution’s overall goals and strategies, and particularly its vision for the future, and where technology fits with this (if such a strategy exists)
- a briefing by the directors of the roles and operation of the various units that support learning and administrative technologies throughout the organization, in particular, the IT department(s), the learning technology unit(s), and the faculty development office,
- a briefing by unit directors and selected faculty on key technologies currently in use, and possible future developments in technology and their implications for the institution
- a briefing on major technology strategies and projects that are already underway (essential to avoid reinventing the wheel, or canceling successful projects initiated by the previous administration), preferably with presentations or demonstrations by faculty and staff about their technology projects
- a briefing on intellectual property, privacy and security issues
- an online social network focused on technology policies, using forums and wikis, where discussion about key technology issues/decisions are open to the whole community, with senior administrators taking an active role in moderating and participating in the discussion
- a set of readings on the management of information and communications technologies in post-secondary educational institutions
- enrolment in an online course on planning and managing technology in post-secondary education
- a visit to at least one other organization of similar nature that has a high reputation for technology integration, to see how they do things.
Some of the institutions in the study had annual open houses on learning technology and/or IT strategies/issues. These were useful for all faculty, students and administrative staff, as well as administrators. However, the open houses in our case study institutions were not so focused or comprehensive in their treatment of the specific issues listed above, mostly focusing on just the demonstration of technology projects, and new or possible IT strategic directions, and unfortunately we found that many newly appointed managers did not bother to attend, although the VP Academic was usually there, if only briefly.
What is needed is a comprehensive strategy for preparing new administrators for making technology decisions, and it should be a responsibility of the executive team, with assistance from the various stakeholders, to ensure that such a strategy is in place. This could be combined with strategies for preparing administrators in other key areas of management, such as financial management and human relations.
However, as with my suggestions in another blog about the need for systematic training and qualifications for instructors in teaching, this proposal goes against the grain of the typical organizational culture in a university or college – faculty would say it smacks too much of managerialism and is too influenced by business practice. ‘We promote bright people to these positions and they will work it out for themselves, ‘ to quote one senior administrator in our study when asked about training for the job.
So: some questions for readers:
- does your institution have a systematic program that prepares new administrators and middle managers for their new management responsibilities around technology issues? If so, would you be willing to share details of how this works?
- if your institution has no specific training on technology issues for new administrators/managers, why not?
- if you think that some form of training is a good idea, does what I am suggesting above make sense? What would you add or change to that list?
- I did not include in my list a basic understanding of information and communications technologies, as I would have difficulty in defining the minimum they need to know – but is it really necessary to know how a computer or network works for the kind of decisions they have to make? If you think they do need to have a basic set of IT skills and knowledge, what would they be? Should we give a VP Academic an IT test before he/she is appointed?! (I did say IT not IQ).
Bates, A. and Sangra, A. (in press) The integration of technology in universities and colleges San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Higgins, A., Prebble, T. and Suddaby, S. (2008) Taking the Lead: Strategic Management for e-Learning Wellington NZ: Ministry of Education/Aotearoa, National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence