IT in Educational Institutions, Planning and Development of
Planning and development of information technology (IT) in educational institutions consists of a set of activities aimed at identifying what the future information architecture of an education center should be. During this process, the IT applications that can most effectively contribute to the achievement of the center’s mission and objectives are identified; the order in which the candidate applications are developed is also prioritized, and the volume of investment in them is decided, as well as the most appropriate development methodology to ensure the success of the project.
There are numerous evidences that demonstrate the need to carry out organized processes of IT planning and development in organizations (Marabelli and Galliers 2017; Kumar 2015). Sometimes this process is not carried out in an orderly manner; money is invested in technology to solve specific problems that may not be useful in the long term for responding to information needs. In addition, the disorganized implementation of IT can lead to problems of duplication, incompatibility, and premature technology obsolescence (Kumar 2015). Education centers represent a type of organization in which there is a need to carry out organized IT planning and development processes. This need is the result of a series of characteristics, including (a) the handling of a large amount of teaching, administrative, and personal information, which obliges them to comply with requirements related to privacy and ethics in the use of the IT; (b) limited economic resources, which implies the need to rationalize investments, including in technology; and (c) although a large number of education centers are not run for business purposes, they nevertheless do play an important social role and have a mission and objectives to fulfill.
To this, we must add the varying nature of the educational training offered according to the type of center. Schools and high schools share a similar mission, fundamentally based on the teaching of concepts, although with different methodologies according to the age of the students. Vocational training centers have, basically, a “professionalizing” mission, based mainly on a practical education oriented toward training professionals who will mostly perform “blue-collar” type jobs. Universities and colleges share a professionalizing and research mission, where theoretical and practical training is combined, oriented fundamentally toward training professionals who will mostly take up professions of the “white-collar” variety. This different conceptualization of education centers adds a challenge when establishing IT planning and development processes.
Another factor of added complexity is the low level of familiarity of many educational managers with IT. This fact means that, frequently, the function of coordinating the planning and development of IT is delegated to third parties (Marabelli and Galliers 2017). In this way, the overall vision regarding the direction of education centers is lost, and the planning and development of IT is a poorly organized process, even, at times, chaotic. This multidimensional problem hinders the proposal of an integrating model for the planning and development of IT in educational institutions. The availability of a conceptual framework that guides this type of process could be very useful for educational managers in facing this type of challenge with certain guarantees of success.
The field of education can benefit from techniques and tools related to the planning and development of IT that have been widely verified in other organizations. The accumulated experience in this area by many education centers, especially universities, can also be taken advantage of. The greater relative size of universities has meant that, for decades, they have had experience in the problem of IT implementation. In order to provide an integrative proposal for the planning and development of IT in education centers, a broadly verified and simple approach is presented below. The proposal is based on an information architecture planning model rooted in IT application portfolio matrices. This model is characterized by a broad capacity to adapt to different situations and scenarios, having demonstrated its practical usefulness. This is due, in large part, to the extensive experience accumulated over time of its use in all types of organizations. In the following sections, the proposed approach will be described, and it will be particularized for different educational levels.
Information Architecture and Planning
Planning, simply put, is deciding what to do before taking any action (Reynolds 1992). An IT plan is needed to guide all economic, human, and material efforts to achieve effective information management in an organization. The IT plan defines what projects to develop and at what time. It also serves as a reference to justify the use of scarce resources at an organization. The existence of an IT plan can even serve as an argument to help management stop a project already under way if the project is not consistent with the overall plan (Reynolds 1992). In organizations, as in education centers, the IT plan must be consistent with the mission, objectives, and maturity of its IT infrastructure. A first requirement for a successful plan is that the participants agree on the scope, deadlines, and expected results (Peppard et al. 2014). In the educational arena, the center’s management team is responsible for establishing these parameters, alone or in cooperation with other agents or advisors, both internal and external, to support the planning process. In this part, it is very useful to establish the reasons that justify the development of an IT plan. Among these reasons may be dissatisfaction with the current management of information at the center, a change in the mission or its objectives, the updating of a previous IT plan, etc. Another relevant factor that justifies IT planning is the identification of trends in the educational field and in technology to support the teaching-learning and data management processes (student records, academic performance records, etc.). Understanding the changes that are taking place in the education sector and how they can affect educational institutions may be the key for the plan to be able to respond to challenges in the environment. The IT plan must explicitly incorporate how to respond to these identified external trends.
The IT plan should also consider the current situation of the education center in terms of IT infrastructure and maturity in the use of said infrastructure. The degree of response to external IT challenges will depend on the level of internal development. For this reason, the proposals emanating from the plan must be realistic and coherent with the current situation of the center. If the degree of development and maturity of IT does not allow an immediate response to trends in the educational environment, then this fact should be considered in the plan. In this case, it would be necessary to establish actions to cover this gap between the internal situation and the challenges that are to be faced or to reformulate the objectives of the IT plan. From the conjunction of the elements that converge at the education center (mission, objectives, trends in the educational environment, IT situation, etc.), a set of potential IT projects will arise that will constitute their future information architecture (Chan and Reich 2007; Ward et al. 1990).
The architecture of applications is a table that aims to reflect and classify the applications that must be developed or improved according to the information needs of an organization. A useful way to represent the information architecture is through the concept of an application portfolio matrix. Each IT application can be positioned in the cell of an array according to its potential contribution to the organization. The advantage of this approach is that, according to the cell occupied by the application, there are generic recommendations that can be helpful in making decisions about IT. These may be decisions of the following type: (a) relative volume of investment, (b) priority in the order of development of the IT applications, (c) method for the development of the application, (d) more appropriate information technology, and (e) form of IT management once it is operational. Despite the utility that these tools can offer, it is necessary that their adoption be carried out with caution, since what is offered are generic recommendations. However, it cannot be forgotten that it is necessary in each specific case to evaluate the different alternatives and carefully study the implications of the decisions to be made.
Application Portfolio Matrices
As a result of IT planning, it may be concluded that there are several IT applications that should be carried out to cover current and future needs. If the education center has a strong innovative vocation and uses IT as a strategic instrument in its operation, then the number of resulting applications may be high. At this point, the problem of limited resources arises, which forces management teams to select applications based on their usefulness, associated costs, capacity, etc. There are many variables involved that complicate the process of deciding which applications will be given the time and resources needed to develop them and which others should wait, or even be discarded. To try to facilitate this decision process, the application portfolio matrices have been designed. Basically, they are two-dimensional matrices in which, depending on two simple variables or two aggregate variables (the latter resulting from the weighted combination of several simple variables), the computer application is located in a quadrant of the matrix according to the score it achieves in relation to the defined variables. Depending on this position, experience has allowed the development of generic recommendations that may be applicable for each case. The advantage of application portfolios lies in their apparent simplicity and the capacity for systematization they offer, based on well-defined significant variables. Their usefulness is evident in facilitating what in principle constitutes a task of rationalization and complex decision-making, and that can have strong repercussions for the organization (Tukana and Weber 1996).
Support. Applications that improve administration and results but are not critical for the organization, since it could carry out its activities almost normally in the event that these applications were not available. Basically, these are applications that facilitate or speed up tasks, generally from a purely operational point of view.
Factory. This group includes those applications that are essential for performing the operations of the organization. They are so important that they have become critical and the organization would encounter serious difficulties if the application stopped working, even for a small period, or if anomalies were detected that made the validity of the information doubtful.
Strategic. These are critical applications for future success and of great importance in the present. It could be that the organization already had some IT application in this group, but it is usually foreseeable that the application will take another form in the future or that it will be presented in a format that also includes other functions or technical advances that make it more versatile and important.
High potential. Applications that may be of future strategic importance, but that currently do not have enough importance to support the activities of the organization. In short, these are potential developments with a high level of uncertainty, since their justification is based on the contribution that could be made in the long term.
- Support applications. Within this category, all the applications that are important for the operation and administration of education centers are framed, although they are not critical because they could continue their operation for a long period of time without them. The second characteristic of these applications is that they are often applications common to all educational centers, so that there can be hardly any differentiation based on the use of this type of application.
Software packages. Due to the general nature of the activities to be supported, there are many software packages available on the market that can serve this purpose. It is convenient to select applications with a well-established client base that have already been tested, avoiding being the first to use an application.
Functional complexity. The support applications are characterized by being easy to use because they usually work in isolation, so that an error in one of them does not affect the rest of the IT applications at the center.
Skills. As these types of applications are usually based on a standard software package, it is not generally necessary to possess high levels of technical skill for their use.
Computational capacity. The need, in terms of capacity, of most support applications is, in general, completely predictable, which makes it difficult for computer equipment to crash due to inefficiencies in processing capacity.
Risk. With this type of application, no kind of technical risk should be introduced. The software/hardware used may be something new for the center, but it must not be new for the supplier, who must be prepared to deal with any possible incident.
Divestment. These systems, because they are not critical to the center, are candidates for elimination. There may be arguments that justify the subcontracting of this kind of system operation to third parties, in the form of outsourcing, which are advisable to consider.
- Factory applications. These applications are vital for the present functioning of the education center.
Software packages. The factory applications are usually specific to the sector of activity, and even specific to the education center (e.g., college or university) based on the way in which activities are carried out. Although there are standard packages, they are fewer in number and more specific than those available for support-type tasks. Because the integration of data is a key aspect in factory systems, the databases from which they are fed must be highly consistent.
Functional complexity. Factory applications tend to be functionally complex; they are characterized by having dependencies on other programs, in such a way that any change can affect other applications in domino effect. If standard computer packages are used and modifications are made to adapt them to the specific needs of the education center, it is necessary to thoroughly check the changes so that the system works and no failures appear.
Skills. This class of application will require modifications to meet the changing needs that may arise at educational institutions. Therefore, a high level of skill will be required by the technical support managers. In this sense, updates to the program are very important and have to be verified and evaluated after introduction. The people responsible for adaptation, whether they are internal or external to the center, must be highly qualified.
Computational capacity. The availability of the system is critical; this means having an up-to-date backup and all the essential components, both hardware and software, should be duplicated or ready to be replaced quickly if problems arise. Capacity planning should be based on peak loads that ensure the response of the system, even in extreme conditions.
Risk. It is important that these systems do not fail; one way to reduce unnecessary risks is to avoid technological innovation in the area of factory applications. The general rule should be to make changes in the technology used only if it has been extensively tested. In case of use of a new IT application that replaces the previous one, the operation of both systems should be carried out in parallel for a time to ensure that the new system works satisfactorily.
- Strategic systems. They are those that should allow the education center to stand out in some way over others. It is likely to mean a change in the way the center is operated or controlled. It can also happen that the advantages are not lasting and that, in addition, the application needs continuous improvements to allow it to continue gaining advantage in the future, which brings with it a great deal of expense. Many aspects of technology management associated with strategic systems are very similar to factory applications, although the biggest difference lies in the need to take risks.
Software packages. It is unlikely that commercial software packages exist for this type of application. If they did, a short-lived advantage could possibly be achieved by being the first user of the package (the sustained advantage comes from the unique character of the IT application, which others cannot easily copy or improve).
Functional complexity. It is likely that these systems are complex or become complex as functions are added to them. Ideally, the system should be tested to ensure the tightness of the risk before implementing it at the operational level.
Skills. Considerable technical and organizational skills are required for its development and implementation. It is important that there is continuity with the members of the technical team in order to conserve knowledge about the mode of operation of the application, given that this context does not facilitate the generation of exhaustive documentation on how to operate it.
Data sources and dependence on other systems. The data in the strategic applications need to be integrated with other systems at the center; they can also take data from external sources. Sometimes, strategic systems are based on existing applications, such as factory or support types. It is important that these last ones are stable and robust applications because, if, on the contrary, they are unstable, the new strategic applications will inevitably expose those weaknesses and cause the systems to crash.
Computational capacity. In direct contrast to factory and support applications, the computational capacity requirements for strategic applications are often very difficult to determine. Therefore, it is advisable to use equipment that allows an increase in capacity or technological updating.
Risk. The projects included in this category are clearly high risk; this is due to the direct relationship between risk and potential benefits. The risks involved are of a technical or organizational nature, due to the fact that the center may be entering into new, less experienced technological areas, and also in combination with relatively significant changes in working methods (of students, teaching or administration staff).
Implications for planning. A continually updated knowledge about IT trends in the education sector is important to avoid being surprised by other innovative centers. It is also important to develop these applications quickly because the possibility of achieving advantages can be fleeting or short-lived.
- High potential applications. They are innovative applications that, eventually, could be of great future importance. An application should only be in this part of the matrix for a limited period until its future is clarified. To facilitate their development and management, the most appropriate course of action is to select a project leader (some member of the teaching or administrative staff), supported by the center’s management and with sufficient technical skills to work in a close relationship with the technicians. Before a technology “abandons” the high potential cell, any error or failure should be completely corrected, given the risk that a failure will drag down the rest of the applications. If the education center wishes to stand out from others, it should consider investing in this type of IT application, since if it does not act in this way, it runs the risk that the possibilities to stand out for its IT are limited by a set of outdated technologies and skills.
Software packages. The computer applications that can be found on the market correspond to very novel systems that have not yet been exploited commercially on a large scale, so there is the possibility of obtaining advantages derived from being the first to use this technology.
Functional complexity. These applications have a high level of complexity because they normally support processes whose difficulty in automating has usually been the reason underlying the absence of computer applications to carry them out or because of new technology that, due to lack of operational knowledge, is often difficult to assimilate.
Skills. Given their innovative nature, these applications require highly qualified personnel, which means updating the training of the center’s staff or hiring the support services of leading technology companies.
Computational capacity. It is difficult to identify what will be the capacity needed for the high potential infrastructure, since there is doubt as to whether the applications will be useful for the center in the future or, on the contrary, they will be abandoned. For this reason, it is convenient to use incremental technology, which can be adapted to future growth of the system as the demand for use in the center increases.
Risk. These applications, by their very nature, are of high risk, so it must be assumed as natural that technical glitches and crashes occur, although this should not affect the operation of the educational institutions. That is, the risks should only affect the system under test, keeping it insulated as much as possible from other applications of common use.
Administration (Investment and Priorities) and Development of IT Applications
Decisions about what amounts to invest in IT infrastructure or what should be purchased first can be difficult to make and even become a source of conflict if there is no well-founded justification to support them. In addition, there is the condition of the low level of funding that usually characterizes educational institutions. Numerous techniques offer a reference on which investment decisions to argue for, although it is true that they are mostly oriented to users well versed in technical-financial concepts. This complexity often results in the management of education centers, for lack of knowledge of IT, preferring to leave the IT investment chapter in the hands of third parties, sometimes even external to the center. For this reason, it is convenient to offer tools that, although they do not have a high level of mathematical rigor, are sufficiently valid and, above all, intuitive enough to allow this process to be led by the center’s management.
Investment in IT infrastructure competes with other alternative investments, such as in real estate (new or renovations), equipment for classrooms or laboratories, office supplies, hiring teaching or administrative staff, etc. It is necessary, therefore, to establish a basis on which to evaluate IT investments. Investments in IT in the educational field should not be considered only based on the argument for the benefits that are going to be generated, which are usually very difficult to quantify, but on how they can serve to support the functions of the education center.
Support applications. The main reason for its existence is the improvement of efficiency, which should be quantifiable and become a financial argument for investments. If the application contends with others for the limited resources available, then a supporting application must show a good economic return for the allocation of scarce resources. However, if IT investment capacity exists in a decentralized manner, the corresponding department of the center can assume responsibility for the investment in an application of this type.
Factory applications. As for support systems, it is recommended that benefits (tangible and intangible) or costs be estimated before allocating any resource. In general, a feasibility study is appropriate in order to find the best solution among a range of alternatives, each with different costs, risks, and benefits. However, some forethought must be demonstrated with the results because this may be inappropriate for factory applications, where the most economical solution may not be the most effective.
Strategic applications. The fact that an application is considered strategic implies that it is considered important, even essential, for the achievement of the center’s objectives, especially in the long term. With this type of application, the benefits have to be estimated approximately because it is difficult to adapt an estimate based on the calculation of benefits and costs that can be generated. Therefore, an application will receive the approval (or not) to be developed based on the decision of whether it is relevant to the objectives of the center. The key aspect is whether the management judges the investment as appropriate. In this sense, the critical factor is to allocate resources enough to carry out the development and achieve the objectives within the appropriate time horizon.
High potential applications. The main essence of high potential projects is that the benefits are unknown, the objective being to identify the potentially achievable benefits. It is the R&D segment of the matrix and should be justified on the same basis as any other R&D development. This case is especially applicable to colleges and universities. When the allocations are made, the subsequent sums invested must again be justified and not simply assigned with the vague hope of eventual success. In general terms, investments in IT should be as objectively and subjectively considered as the center’s other investments.
Support applications. The establishment of priorities is fundamentally based on the fact that those with the greatest benefits (teaching, administrative) that use the fewest resources should have the highest priority.
Factory applications. The arguments for the assignment of priorities include (a) improvement of the teaching-learning process, (b) improvement of administrative processes, (c) improvement of IT infrastructure, and (d) others. Each of these aspects must be assigned some form of relative weighting so that an order of preference can be decided.
Strategic applications. Within this segment, the rational basis is based on prioritizing those applications that contribute most toward making the education center stand out from others and, in addition, require fewer resources to develop.
High potential applications. They are difficult to prioritize and will tend to be decided on, to some extent, unlike strategic applications (what resource is available, and then which IT application could make best use of that resource?). The results will depend not only on the value of the idea but also on the strength with which it is supported.
Support applications. Largely, they consist of legally necessary applications, office applications, and personal support systems. They have value for the center, but they are not fundamental for its operation. The most appropriate solution is the purchase of a widely verified standard package that best meets the requirements of the center or that can be conveniently parameterized to fit work habits.
Factory applications. They are critical for maintaining day-to-day operations, and if they fail, the center can face serious problems. They are, generally, the workhorses, and they need to be well designed, efficient, and robust. The traditional method of development, based on the systems development life cycle (SDLC), is configured as the most appropriate in this segment. It can also be useful to buy a standard program from a recognized manufacturer, and it is essential that the application is not closed but can be parameterized in some of its functions to adapt to the needs of the center. Being applications that are important for the center, although not strategic in terms of being able to stand out in the future, completely outsourcing their development is also possible.
Strategic applications. They are vital for the future operation of the center and constitute a part of its long-term objectives. Traditional development methods are not usually appropriate in this segment, since speed and flexibility are essential, and effectiveness is more important than efficiency. The best way to develop them is through the close association between users (preferably at the level of center managers) and highly experienced IT analysts/computer programmers. The information content of the service is generally crucial in strategic systems. Therefore, easy access to relevant information is very important. In summary, for this type of application, the most appropriate form of development is the systems development life cycle (SDLC), but using computer tools to support the development itself, commonly known as CASE (computer-aided software engineering).
High potential applications. They are associated with the R&D category, where the most innovative technology can be tested to find out its potential contribution to the center’s objectives. In this case, a fast and independent development, which can be abandoned at any time, is necessary. Because the risk is high, stringent cost control is essential. The IT applications in this quadrant can be developed by a user, or by a user and a computer professional jointly, analyzing and programming the application. It is important not to risk the functioning of current systems, controlling the effectiveness of experimentation. The most appropriate development approach, in principle, is that of the prototype or the development by users, through the use of fourth- or fifth-generation languages.
Most education centers rely on legacy systems for most of their information management needs. Normally these systems offer reliable services, given that, predictably, the failures detected during their implementation were corrected years ago. The main problem with older systems is that they were developed to function in circumstances different from those of the present and have to be updated to meet current and future needs. This circumstance – the reliability of the system, but its low adaptation to new technological trends – means that it may be more profitable to make modifications to the current system than to replace it with a new one. This decision must be evaluated against the cost involved, since some older systems may be expensive to maintain or problems may arise because they operate on hardware or operating systems that no longer have technical support. These variables must be taken into consideration when reviewing the portfolio of existing systems. To summarize, if a legacy system can provide useful functionality in a cost-effective way, then it must continue to be used. In this case, it is convenient to focus this analysis on the future benefits that the system will provide, without considering the costs of the past. With this approach, continued investment in old systems is avoided, however expensive their development and maintenance may have been, so that the anchoring effect is canceled out by the investment made. In these cases, substitution may be the only viable option for the future.
Schools and High Schools
Schools and high schools are the education centers at which the students attend compulsory education in most of the countries around the globe. Although they offer training at two different levels, primary and secondary education, they have numerous characteristics in common. That being the case, the IT infrastructure shares characteristics and objectives, being a useful tool both for the training of students and for the administrative management of the center (Gulbahar 2007). Normally, these centers do not have specific IT staff, IT support services being, in some cases, outsourced to local supplier companies and, in others, provided by centralized education authorities that serve the schools of a geographical area. At these levels, IT is not only treated as a support for teaching-learning and administrative management but also learning in the management of IT tools – mainly those related to office automation (word processors, spreadsheets, presentations) – and also for the programming of simple codes. The representation of the architecture of applications through the portfolio matrices constitutes a static photograph of a specific moment. As IT evolves continuously, the portfolio matrix also evolves as the new technology becomes ubiquitous. IT applications that are in the high potential cell at a given time may, after a time, enter, for example, the support category. For this reason, the planning process must be dynamic, and the architecture of IT applications must evolve along with the technology and the maturity of students, teachers, and administrators in the use of it.
Universities and Colleges
Higher education centers have the mission of training in skills for professional and research activity. Their students are adults who choose these courses of study because of their interest in following a path toward a particular vocation. They usually present complex structures, with a large number of students, professors, administration staff, and service personnel (maintenance, security, etc.), distributed across various buildings or campuses in which different undergraduate and postgraduate courses are run and research is carried out. For this reason, it is easy to deduce that IT planning and development is a complex task that requires high levels of investment (Lin et al. 2012). Universities have their own IT support services, which can be centralized for the whole institution or decentralized across different buildings or functional units. Regardless of the existence of an IT manager, strategic IT decisions should always be the responsibility of the rector of the university.
Most education centers have information technology and communications infrastructure. In many cases, this has been installed to respond to particular problems related to the teaching or administration of the centers. The most common situation is that the implementation of the IT infrastructure has not obeyed any particular plan and different agents have been involved in its development, and it has often been done in different ways. IT evolves continuously and leads to the creation of new expectations by its users, which is also true in the field of education. IT has acquired a major role in education centers at all levels, mainly in administrative tasks and as support for teaching. However, the lack of long-term planning can lead to the situation whereby the IT infrastructure available in educational institutions is a burden rather than a driver of change. Within the set of functions of the current crop of education managers is to establish action plans in the field of IT infrastructure. However, the fact that a large number of education managers do not have specialized IT training, along with the limited resources usually available to educational institutions, means that IT planning and development is secondary.
In this entry, an integrating as well as a simple to operationalize framework has been proposed to guide the planning and development processes of IT in all types of education centers. It is based on a widely verified tool in the scientific literature – namely, portfolio matrices. With the proposed model, a framework is offered to guide investment decisions, priorities, and forms of IT development in centers operating at different educational levels.
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