Building Better Strategic Relationships as an Information Technology Executive
Bret Ingerman, Vice President for Information Technology at Tallahassee Community College (TCC), joins Dr. Jeff Borden in this episode of Connected Campus. Bret shares his experience creating a strategic relationship between information technology and the broader organization, tactical changes that make responding to an emergency less painful, and the positive trends he believes will endure post-COVID.
Vice President FOR Information Technology, Not OF
Bret believes information technology executive leadership should bring far more to the table than a single-minded focus on the information technology team’s goals and aspirations.
When TCC learned that COVID-19 was spreading in the United States, they had to develop a plan fast. Many in IT leadership positions may have focused on necessary technology acquisition, but Bret collaborated with the executive team to come up with a strategy to keep faculty and students safe before raising purchasing needs to get everyone online.
Bret added that a seat at the executive table has given him a broader lens through which to view the institution. He has realized that technology isn’t always the primary concern.
“You could be at a residential college, and you’re worrying about things like how do you keep the dorm safe during a pandemic? Or how do you replace roofs when you don’t have as much capital expenditure funds? It gives you a larger perspective.”
Instead of pushing an information technology agenda, Bret sees his job as listening to the institution’s broader needs and raising recommendations on how information technology can solve a problem when appropriate. He also understands that keeping a tight rein on technology can backfire. Too many restrictions cause people to become resentful and raise silos.
“Departments can go off and buy their own software. If they don’t need our help, they can go buy whatever they want. I know we’re making a difference when a department’s VP comes to us and says, ‘Hey, look, we’re looking for a product to do X. Will you sit with us in the demos to do this?’ And my answer is always, ‘Absolutely.’”
Higher Education Needs to Listen: Students Demand Connection
Bret reminisced about his days at a large, private university. While the education was excellent, he felt like just a number lost in a sea of students. Even though every course was taken in-person, the sheer volume of undergraduate students made lectures overwhelming.
For example, a biology lecture may have three hundred students in attendance. Hands-on labs can run with as many as fifty students at a time. Those crowds are not conducive to forming connections with professors or fostering a comfort level people may need before approaching a teacher’s assistant to ask questions.
Connection is a human requirement. We’re social animals. Many students are paying more for four-year institutions because of the perception they’ll form long-lasting relationships. A side effect of the pandemic is students questioning whether or not the extra money for a private college is worth it if they can’t go to a physical campus. If higher education doesn’t get more creative about forming connections with students, people will continue to question the value of higher education post-COVID.
“At TCC, we’re dealing with tens of thousands of students. You’re never too big to try to find ways to connect students to each other and connect students to the campus.”
Strategic + “Scrappy” Thinking Made for an Easier COVID Transition
Some IT leaders have stated the remote learning experience has elevated IT beyond being perceived as “just a service desk.” After all, at some institutions, IT’s role was limited to fixing computers or turning on an application. Suddenly they’re being asked to speak about teaching and learning—or at least building an infrastructure to support teaching and learning.
Due to Bret’s urging, TCC began moving to a cloud-first strategy in 2012. They moved their login and authentication to the cloud. They also moved to voice over IP phone systems and offsite hosting solutions that are fault-tolerant.
They moved to cloud-based technology for three main reasons:
- The existing infrastructure was aging
- It was easier to obtain OpEx than CapEx
- They are in a hurricane-prone area
They realized that as long as their technology was available online, they had a better chance of staying online and productive should there be an emergency. This strategic thinking paid off in a big way once COVID-19 hit. They were able to equip their entire faculty to operate from home within one week.
Bret says that he’s had success with newer, smaller vendors who are willing to work with the university to find ways to make information as accessible as possible to faculty and students. He also finds that tools serving multiple functions instead of specializing in a single feature are much more beneficial in the long run.
“I typically find the vendors who typically are willing to go do this are the smaller vendors–the startups. When you go to a large conference, all the big vendors have huge booths in the center. You can talk to those guys anywhere. I recommend people gravitate towards the less expensive tables at the exhibit hall’s sides and speak with the emerging vendors. They have really cool ideas.”
Some COVID-era Innovations Will Last
TCC implemented Campus in autumn before the pandemic. The pandemic greatly accelerated adoption. “We saw good growth in usage, but now we have 13,000 people regularly using the Campus MYTCC portal. We didn’t do much advertising because they know it’s a place where they can go engage with other students and help each other out.”
They moved some support functions into MYTCC (TCC’s instance of Campus) and found that student peers often answered off-hours questions before the IT team could get to them.
Bret also feels that Zoom meetings with faculty exposed a lot of wasted time moving across campus for a 20-minute meeting. Dialing in made meetings more uncomfortable because people can’t read one another’s reactions to a particular topic. With video calls, much of that ambiguity is eliminated.
While Zoom is great for video conferencing, “it’s not a great tool for video instruction.” Some companies are starting to wrap around the Zoom API to offer some more instructional features such as recording attendance. The functionality is catching up with demand, and we’re excited to see what will be developed next.
One of the more surprising trends Bret has observed is a demand for synchronous online classes rather than self-managed instruction:
“They wanted a sense of accountability. They wanted a time to show up for class–have a faculty member show up for a class–and not just be left to their own devices. […] I think that’s here to stay. I think for a lot of our students (attending a public, two-year institution) getting out of the house can be problematic. They may not have childcare. They may not have transportation when they need it. So the idea that they’re able to be at home and actually attend a class virtually–but live–is pretty compelling.”