New tech should support student and faculty needs, campus innovation officials say

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Innovation allows colleges and universities to improve how they serve students and meet their needs, but it’s important that schools develop strategies to ensure technology is being used to support change and solve institutional problems, education technology officials said during a conference last month.

“We’ve seen an increase in prioritizing and dedicating resources to [technology],” Kate Miffitt, director of innovation for the California State University system said during Educause’s online conference.

But implementing technology simply because it’s new and shiny, she said, won’t address students’ and institutional needs as well as a thought-out strategic plan will.

Ari Bader-Natal, chief technology officer of Calbright College, an online-only community college founded last year, said that innovation efforts help institutions improve their students’ experiences, but that it has to be balanced with operational concerns. A school adopting new technologies, he said, has to ensure those tools don’t create new challenges for students and faculty or take away from the school’s overarching mission or academic quality.

At Calbright, Bader-Natal said, that’s achieved by testing new technologies in small pilot programs before they’re scaled up for the entire school. These programs allow the institution to test how new technology will actually work, he said, and ensure that innovation efforts have the desired outcome of helping students, faculty and staff and addressing their needs. He mentioned this was done when Calbright migrated its network infrastructure to the cloud.

Cal State takes a similar approach, trying out new technologies on individual campuses before implementing them across all 23 schools in the system, Miffitt said.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, she said, the Cal State IT department helped develop a virtual reality lab to be used in conjunction with an in-person chemistry class, she said. But once the health crisis erupted, forcing classes to move online, those digital tools were able to be implemented systemwide.

Bader-Natal said it’s also important to ensure that faculty and students alike are included in these efforts.

“That’s something that I’ve seen both the power and value of,” he said. “Students bringing ideas, recommendations, getting involved in prototyping, new solutions, user testing.”