Tuesday, April 17, 2018

What does IT mean in an educational institution?


In the early 90s, IT in an institution meant PCs, Laptops, LAN cabling and often people confused Electricity with IT.

A couple of decades later, IT additionally started meaning Software, Mobiles, Apps and probably, more headache (read, work) for a lot of people working in these institutions.

Have things really changed?

Today, IT "interferes" with almost everything in a campus. None of the functions can work without internet, solutions like Excel or Word, mobile apps or, in our case at O P Jindal Global University, even a food coupon vending machine. We are aggressively pushing IT usage in almost every aspect of a student's life, knowing well that these will bring more and more responsibilities on the small IT team. New skills need to be developed, not just within the IT team but even outside!

If most users still panic only when the WiFi fails for an hour or a Projector system fails to connect within 2 minutes, it is not entirely their fault. The essence of IT infrastructure is that it should work behind-the-scenes silently and efficiently, just like water, air or electricity. The residents seem to understand that Power switch-over may take 15 minutes or water taps may run out due to maintenance needs but they can't remain disconnected for that long. A Skype or Video conferencing call may be happening with their colleagues in another country or a large contingent of eminent personalities may be waiting impatiently for the projector to connect. These instances are indicative of criticality of IT services in today's context and must ring alarm bells in the top ranks of service providers.

A larger question is about the role of IT in the institution's strategy and direction. The litmus test is to see the constitution of the Board to verify if IT has a representation in it. We are yet to see this happening in educational institutions and we continue to see the representation of HR and Finance and in some cases, the Infra team if the institution is in an aggressive growth phase. IT representation in board meetings becomes limited to ensuring that the Powerpoint presentation runs well on the projector!

If educational institutions want to make projections into the future, they have a near impossible task if they don't think of IT as a strategic partner. How does one be prepared for a future that will see more learners outside of a campus than inside? How does an institution plan for a future where their students will not be from a definite geography? How does one get ready to launch academic courses and research programs if the courses will need global collaboration using technologies not prevalent today?

In the modern context, IT initiatives can have major impact in the cost structures of an organization. With the right interventions, IT can free up precious resources to redeploy in more
high-value transactions. At O P Jindal Global University, we have replaced a manual process of calling students' parents for approving gate-passes by an automated IVR-based calling process. As an immediate impact, the hostel staff could now focus on calling parents for feedback and longer chats concerning their wards. Subsequently, we released another upgrade to allow the parents to approve their ward's gate-pass request by clicking on a dynamic link.

In other situations, IT can help solve operational challenges to manage costs (like a mobile app for meal coupon tracking), ease processes (by installing a mechanized RFID/ Biometric-based entry-exit gate) or improve efficiency (by automating the sticker generation process for conducting anonymized examinations). These measures drive home the point about taking IT as a central pillar that drives innovation in an institution and impacts almost every aspect. As a visible reminder of the potential of impact on other departments, at OPJGU, we call our IT department as the Office of Innovation.

IT must bring about the change in an institution's working and strategic planning. And as with most other things, this change starts at the top. We are fortunate to have the leadership at OPJGU take cognizance of this fact and allow the Office of Innovation to make interventions that have long-term impact on the institution's vision.

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