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IT Strategic Plan addresses challenges facing higher education

Thursday, December 3, 2020

The University of Georgia’s 2020-2025 Technology Strategic Plan is designed to help the institution navigate expected disruptions to higher education caused by digital transformation and economic challenges, Dr. Timothy M. Chester said when presenting the plan Wednesday.

The Vice President for Information Technology spoke about the challenges facing higher education institutions and presented the strategic plan for the next five years to the campus community via a Zoom webinar.

Traditional institutions, including universities, who play a gatekeeping role for life experiences and information can expect disruptions to their business models in part because of digital transformation, Chester said. The increase in personalized, handheld technology such as smartphones and tablets has empowered individuals and weakened their ties to traditional institutions, including educational institutions.

“Before this digital transformation, we relied on traditional institutions—schools, churches, universities—to guide us through our life experiences and validate our beliefs and expectations,” Chester said. “We now look to social networks to connect us through these devices.”

 Universities face economic challenges as well, including cost pressures, an increase in competition and a drop in the number of people pursuing college degrees. The University of Georgia is fortunate to have strong brand recognition and is located in an area of the country that is growing demographically, Chester said.

 “We have to be better and more agile in recruiting students,” he said. “In many ways, we have to become our own social network, and work relentlessly to grow it.”

 The 2020-2025 Technology Strategic Plan consists of six major technology goals to help UGA adapt to this changing environment. Under the leadership of Dean Charles Davis and University Librarian and Associate Provost Toby Graham, Enterprise Information Technology Services (EITS) facilitated a series of focus groups and working groups comprised of students, faculty, and staff to discuss how technology should be used to advance the University’s 2025 Strategic Plan.

 The goals for the 2020-2025 Technology Strategic Plan include:

1. Work in partnership with the Office of Instruction to support and facilitate the creation of the next generation of physical and virtual learning spaces for both on-campus and off-campus students and faculty. “Digital technologies have created flexibility and convenience that students expect,” Chester said. “We pride ourselves on face-to-face instruction, but asynchronous interactions have to play a part as well.

2. Work in partnership with the Office of Instruction, the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs, and the Student Government Association to improve the availability of efficient, personalized digital services for students. Services that promote collaboration, facilitate the discovery of University resources, and reduce time spent on routine tasks from the time they are prospective students through graduation.

 EITS continues to work with the Student Government Association to improve the Official UGA Mobile App, Chester said. Zoom has become a core collaboration tool in the pandemic age, and the addition of G Suite in November made available more tools for students to collaborate and connect. Chester added EITS is on the hunt for more digital tools, including chat services.

 3. Work in partnership with the Office of Research to extend the University’s centrally supported research cyberinfrastructure to enable expanded research activity and utilization of research computing services by more faculty in more disciplinary areas. The services provided by the Georgia Advanced Computing Resource Center (GACRC) provides access to research and teaching clusters, large-scale storage and data management services that aid the research community in its initiatives. Collaborate with partners to support the development of policies, services, and tools to enable effective management of data throughout the lifecycle of a research project.

 Chester said there have been great gains made in the university’s research enterprise, including the management of an $80 million portfolio anchored around the university’s high performance computing center. The university is also moving towards a 100-gigabit connection to the regional education research network, Southern Crossroads, in Atlanta, which will give researchers more capacity to connect with colleagues from around the world.

The next frontier also includes making research data broadly available through a centrally supported service for faculty. EITS and the University Libraries will partner on funding a position focused on collecting and archiving UGA research data, Chester said.

4.  Work with the Office of Instruction, the Graduate School, Finance and Administration, and the University System of Georgia to extend the benefits of Athena (UGA’s student information system), OneSource Financials (UGA’s Financial Management System), OneUSG Connect (the University System of Georgia’s Human Resource Management System), and other new administrative and data systems to improve business processes, inform healthy decision-making, eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy, and reduce administrative burdens.

The implementation of a new student information system and new finance and administration systems greatly helped UGA navigate the pandemic, Chester said, by allowing the university to make changes, issue refunds and develop a budget quickly.

“Moving forward, these platforms will provide ways for continued business process improvements,” he said.

5. Maintain an inclusive environment. Recruit, maintain and support a more diverse workforce, ensuring that it more closely resembles the State of Georgia as a whole.

“Our people are our most important asset, and maintaining an environment of inclusion and diversity, not only when it comes to backgrounds and ethnicity, but when it comes to thought and ideas is absolutely critical.” Chester said.  

EITS works to recruit employees at an entry level and becomes the guardrails around those employees during their professional development, Chester said. “As we grow that talent, we promote that talent as opportunities open up.”

This can be challenging, as information technology predominately attracts white males, Chester said. EITS is making progress, starting with his leadership team. “There’s an incredible amount of diversity there in terms of gender and ethnicity, but also background and experience,” he said, adding that 70 percent of his current direct reports have been promoted from within the organization.

6. Be an organization that “flies the plane.” Don’t be caught reacting and having to respond to unforeseen changes and extraordinary circumstances continually. Be an organization that proactively thinks and works together so that it spends more of its time driving improved user experiences and less time reacting to things unexpected.

Over the last year, EITS has done a better job of anticipating changes, rather than reacting to change, Chester said.

“This requires a lot of thought, and it requires us to get out of our comfort zone of habit and repetition, and force ourselves to think about what could happen,” he said.

Chester said his leadership team is committed to meeting with each other on a regular basis to develop their work together and collaborate with each other.  “Collaboration is absolutely essential to flying the plane,” he said.

The 2020-2025 Technology Strategic Plan and the annual targets for achieving each goal is available on the EITS website.


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