By Margo Day, Vice President, U.S. Education: Embracing Disruptive Innovation in Higher Education


Photo of Margo Day, Vice President, U.S. Education at Microsoft Corporation

Margo Day, Vice President, U.S. Education

University tuition has skyrocketed, there are heated discussions about university and college rating systems, and just in time is EDUCAUSE, the anticipated event where Higher Education Institutions come together to discuss information technology.

What's top of mind for me going into this week, where we'll all discuss what's pressing for higher education customers, is getting ahead of the business of learning. Student debt sits at $1.2 trillion, and universities are taking steps to alleviate costs where they can. The overarching issue here is that the business of learning must change.

Like commercial businesses in all industries, colleges and universities need to be able to compete effectively for educators and students, meet topline and bottom line financial goals, graduate students on time who are prepared to succeed in the workforce, and build for the future.

Higher Education is working hard to prepare students for the workforce and many of our customers are leading the way, but skyrocketing costs, huge amounts of data to manage and understand, and a proliferation of student and teacher-driven demand for new services supported in mobile environments are a challenge. However, if approached with the right solutions there's hope that the future looks bright for higher education.

For 25 years, Microsoft has been a technology partner in education. We've formulated a Higher Education Advisory Board bringing together some of the best tech leaders in higher education to really help us clearly understand the problems facing universities and colleges, test solutions and share best practices. From our work with Fortune 500 companies in the enterprise we're able to bring expertise about business and operations management to help our higher education customers manage the basics of running their operations, adding new technology that helps give them access to richer data and insight that helps them be more proactive, and addressing changing student demands like remote access to applications and hybrid learning options.

There are three things we'll be focused on at EDUCAUSE:

Delivering Data that Talks

Years of legacy systems means critical student, facility, and educational data is trapped in application silos, making it difficult for university administrators to get a 360 view of their own information. In many institutions there are Student Information systems, financial systems, and Learning Management Systems containing vast amounts of key institutional data -but they don't talk to each other.

Getting students the classes they need to graduate on time, modeling class capacity and space requirements, and other key operational requirements to running a healthy operation, actually require capturing and analyzing thousands of data points. Today's business intelligence tools, like Microsoft's Power BI for Office 365, is one way we believe universities draw the right information from disparate sources that helps them better plan, forecast and manage resources that help them in the daily challenges of running a complex organization.

Managing Operations and the Business of Higher Education

Teachers and students are collaborating and using new technologies and this has put pressure on university technology infrastructure and applications, but cloud platforms like Microsoft Azure allow universities to adopt infrastructure services, platform services AND hybrid solutions, making it easier for them to take advantage of the flexibility of the cloud. The Rutgers Business School IT staff had to meet the needs of the 40% increase in enrollment over a 4-year period with a lean IT staff to implement the IT services to support this growth. They turned to Azure's Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) for server, storage and networking, resulting in consolidated IT in the cloud, a host of important new services while also making it easier and safer for students and professors to access, all while maintaining a lean IT staff.

Universities are also required to create breakthrough research in order to maintain accreditation and ranking. Microsoft's Azure for Research program offering product grants to universities in need of big data research and partnerships that require high-performance computing. In one example, heart patients were returning to the hospital at alarming rates, so the Center for Data Science at University of Washington decided to investigate and used Azure to analyze massive amounts of patient data to spot and understand the factors that predict to a heart patient being readmitted after Congestive Heart Failure.

Updating the Learning Model

The cost of higher education means many universities are being forced to articulate their value to students, taxpayers, and the market at large through new criteria based on things like return on investment. This typically means metrics like graduation rates, job success rate, four-year-graduation-rate that put new pressures on higher education administrators. New ways of offering value to students, through more flexible learning options, like online learning, or offering hybrid approaches to learning, have become paramount to embracing the new mobile, cloud and fiscally-minded 21st century student wanting to graduation on time. Students are increasingly asking for mobile access to complex, specialized applications once reserved only for in-lab use; they want to collaborate online with other students and their teachers; and physical presence isn't the only definition of "in class" these days. These trends create a demand for blending both lecture and online learning opportunities to create their learning experience which has put new pressure on outdated university technology infrastructure, to keep up.

Microsoft in Education offers a range of solutions for what students never see, but what they use every day. Cloud platforms like Microsoft Azure allow universities to adopt modern infrastructure services that scale with demand, helping them support and introduce new application services, develop custom, cloud-based learning applications, and at the same time work in a hybrid cloud-on-premise environment. Productivity applications like Office 365, offered free to students, just announced last week help them with everything from online collaboration from the comfort of their own dorm rooms, to video conferencing via Lync to digital note taking via OneNote, calling home via Skype, and more.

How we educate our next-generation of workers and what the future of higher-education looks like, is still in play. Technology, and finding the right partner who can think about what's happening in the classroom learning environment, as well as running the overall operation as a successful business, is paramount to higher education evolving through this massive time of transition, and preserving hundreds of years of great tradition at the same time. At Microsoft, we're excited to help shape the future of higher education and a new generation of future leaders.

You don't have to be attending EDUCAUSE in Orlando to connect with thousands of Higher Ed IT peers. Avid Twitter user? Simply follow @Microsoft_EDU and use the #EDU14 hashtag. Prefer Facebook? "Like" the Microsoft in Education Facebook page.

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