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High quality post-secondary education has never been more important than it is today. At its core, the work of higher education institutions is to transform students into critical thinkers and lifelong learners who can and will actively engage in shaping a better future for the generations that follow.
The promise of higher education is for all. Our collective success matters, and the measure of that success depends on our ability to provide the same high-quality learning experience to first generation students, underserved students, working parent students, commuter students, distance learning students, and traditional students. For students, especially non-traditional students, technology is empowering. It is an ideal platform to deliver learning opportunities unattached to time and place.
"We can effectively use technology to create conditions that seed research, creative activity, critical analysis, and transition from theory to practice"
Mobile technology is particularly important because it is so pervasively used. As I walk across our campus, nearly every student I see is face down immersed in the content presented on the small screen of a mobile device. When we built our first-generation wireless network in 2005, our students were coming to campus with a single computing device. A decade ago, we saw about 4,000 unique devices connected to our network during peak use. In fall 2017, our students came with an average of six networked devices, including laptops, tablets, smartphones, TVs, gaming devices, and printers. Now we see an average of 42,000 unique devices connected to our network during peak usage.
Our students are the early adopter target market for all major global technology brands. Technology companies target their new product releases around school semester openings. How students most effectively consume information and learn is evolving, and like it or not, it is driven by these new and emerging technologies.
In many ways, we are transitioning toward the streaming model popularized by Netflix and other TV providers. In the new normal, the focus is on content, not device. Virtualization is one example of a technology that allows us to shift the campus paradigm from install everywhere to install once and consume everywhere.
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) IT team has invested significant energy in developing both a virtual desktop and application catalog that allow us to provide a mobile student desktop. We use this platform to deliver a traditional physical computing lab experience to students on any device they choose, at the location and time most convenient for them to consume the service. Our students find this flexibility empowering.
Maturation of emerging technologies, such as affordable commodity cloud services, can play a significant role in accelerating new research. Availability of viable cloud-based options for high speed computing and analytics can serve as a catalyst for innovation in institutions where big data resources were previously inaccessible.
Open data initiatives surfacing across the country reflect this trend as they leverage cloud services to make large volumes of information, along with the ability to analyze it, accessible to everyone. Widespread availability of cloud-based compute infrastructure is a game-changer that can enable opportunities for students at all stages of their education to become actively engaged in thought-provoking research and critical thinking.
At UNCG, we are actively shifting from a cloud opportunistic to cloud-first model in which our default posture is to build services in the cloud unless there is a genuinely compelling reason not to. We have already transitioned major enterprise services such as email and collaborative tools, our learning management system, and storage to cloud service providers. One cornerstone of our IT strategic plan for the 2017 – 2022 horizon includes evolution to infrastructure and platform as a service, with a goal of fully transitioning half of our on-site campus data center infrastructure to the cloud by the end of this planning cycle. The agility, flexibility and elasticity of technology service provisioning enabled by cloud-based providers will be essential for us in keeping pace with the needs of our students as they change over time.
Technology also offers a pathway for smooth transition from student to workforce. Universities are inextricably tied to the communities they serve. Our Chancellor, Dr. Frank Gilliam, has coined the phrase “shared place and shared fate” to describe this condition and it suits. Over the next decade, our institution will graduate thousands of citizens who will serve as teachers, doctors, nurses, principals, politicians and more. Each of our graduates will play a role in shaping the fate of our community and beyond.
Our IT team has focused on developing collaborative relationships and leveraging opportunities to build shared technology infrastructure that connects the institutions, education providers, community organizations, municipalities, and business partners in our local community and region. These partners assist us in graduating students who are well-prepared to successfully utilize technology at the skill level expected in the modern workplace. They play a vital role in the post-graduation success of our students and have a shared stake in cultivating capable graduates that build a strong regional workforce.
As we describe the role of technology on a student-centered campus, we necessarily use words like enabling and empowering. Delivering on the promise of higher education is dependent on high quality institutional leadership and faculty. Technology provides a highly accessible content channel for higher education’s product.
We can effectively use technology to create conditions that seed research, creative activity, critical analysis, and transition from theory to practice. Shared technology can underpin community partnerships that both benefit the surrounding region and create the conditions and infrastructure for lifelong learning. Most importantly, technology plays a critical supporting partner role on student-centered campuses as the scaffolding upon which faculty build engaging pedagogical content and the accessible delivery channels that meet our students right where they are.