Field Notes: Is technology helpful or holding us back?

January 11, 2021
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Development of software and programming. Program code on computer screen.

by Cynthia Suter, Registrar, Norwich University                                                      

"Field Notes" is a regular Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at connect@aacrao.org.

Yes, we are in the 21st century, and I’ve been in the higher education industry for nearly 20 years, so the obvious answer is “helpful.” But let us really ponder this question. Institutions will pay thousands of dollars for technology to help streamline work, organize processes, or track data. Our institutions allocate dollars in our budgets to pay for annual maintenance and/or licensing fees. To run the technology, it may be necessary to have servers or a company (such as DBM) to host the technology. In addition, institutions may need specialists and staff to utilize the new solution in order to learn, implement, and “feed” the technology as well as train others. Purchasing and meeting the go-live deadline is the easy part, but finding the resources to manage the technology and time to train staff--and, even more importantly, the time to research new enhancements and implement those enhancements--seems to fade away, especially as stakeholders continue to add more solutions that are said to make our lives easier. So, I ask again, “Is technology helpful or holding us back?” Following are some tips to help manage technology.

Not every solution is going to solve the challenge

Software marketers often say their technology solutions can integrate with any student management system, but they fail to say if the integration is a standard part of the set-up, if you need to beg and plead with another institution to share their code, or if your own IT staff must build the integration.

Technology companies often say they can customize to your needs but fail to say how time consuming it is to maintain those customizations. My advice is to do minimal or no customizations and to use the data fields as intended. If not, product enhancements are hard to implement once you’ve developed one rabbit hole to fit your needs; to try and undo years of data practices is very labor intensive and can severely impact reporting. 

Consider saying no to the purchase of technology if you don’t know the logic or process to allow the system to be your solution. For example, over the years, faculty have asked for a system that can create a schedule and offer enough sections. But to do that, we must implement ways to build the curriculum majors’ academic plans, document potential double majors’ curriculum plans, and understand percentages of transfer courses and fail rates, among other variables. The question raised quite often is, “Isn’t there a system that can just do this or that for us?” But without developing logic for the barriers causing the question, there are no rules to follow; therefore, the technology cannot produce the desired data. A similar challenge comes when asked for a system to maximize room utilization. Without clear guidelines for who has first choice (such as interdepartment or tenured faculty) and which rooms are consistently off-limits for (practicums, for example), logic cannot be coded. So, until such external variables can be better controlled, or there is a stated logic to get to the end means, a  system cannot fully meet their needs. 

Adopt a data governance committee

If you don’t have a data governance committee, I strongly encourage you to reach out to the chief information officer and ask that one be adopted. A data governance committee can provide the unbiased review of technology solutions and ensure that all stakeholders are brought to the table to vet those solutions. This ensures that everyone can understand the required investments, whether it be financial or time, from those stakeholders. The committee can also investigate if there is a software already available to meet the desired needs.

Consider potential budget items

Some technology solutions are people heavy and robust, which can consume human involvement. The below budget considerations are fairly straightforward, but the second and third items cannot be overlooked. 

  • Technology and maintenance

  • Additional IT staff needed to support the technology

  • Conference fees

  • Staff to research upgrades and monitor communications from the vendor

Manage upgrades

Once you’ve found a balance with these tips, the last item to consider is ensuring that upgrades are maintained. A one-and-done approach might help in the short term, but the inability to keep up with upgrades or new ways to use the technology solution can bog down your processes and force staff to find workarounds, eventually making the solution obsolete or a nemesis that everyone wants rid of. Then, you have the cliché of money washed down the drain.

Choose wisely 

Technology is helping us, but too much of it, or the wrong solution, can definitely be harmful to a team, department, or the entire university. I’ve witnessed firsthand an ongoing engagement of a system that was not maintained adequately. Individuals did not know the system’s power or standard practices for utilization. Although the project has demonstrated opportunity, it has also turned processes upside down and caused confusion as some changes have been drastic, and second nature work now requires additional thought. Technology solutions should not be taken lightly; if you find yourself starstruck, it is probably best to ask, “Does this sound too good to be true?”