Higher Education as a Cloud-Based Community

Higher Education as a Cloud-Based Community

Higher Education IT does more than just keep the lights on.

Just like business organizations, colleges and universities have ambiguous goals in which the support of IT professionals is of great importance.


Understanding and utilizing data is what IT professionals do best. 

But how is Information Technology in education different than any other industry?

For Rick Smith, Chief Information Officer at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, the answer is in why they do it - for the students. 

With data being gathered every day, higher education institutions need professionals that can understand and use data to support student success. 

In this episode of The Higher Edge Podcast, Rick Smith gives us insights on how IT in education compares to other industries, the importance of IT in higher education institutions, and how IT professionals in higher education support student success.

Here are some of the highlights of our conversation.

IT Starts With the Students

Currently, Rick works as the head of IT for the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, one of the oldest medical schools in the country.

While working in IT for over 30 years, Rick has worked in multiple different verticals, with many different companies and organizations.

Stepping into the world of higher education, Rick found that his colleagues were much more driven and focused on one particular goal, student success.

“Talking about differences between working for university vs business, what I found here is that everyone is very mission-driven. Everybody is absolutely focused on the students and student outcomes.

I think the service has made them feel more empowered, they feel more energized, they feel more inspired to get things resolved in a timely fashion because they understand the mission is to serve those that we are trying to educate.”

Now in the higher education industry, Rick has found that colleges and universities face similar challenges to the ones with which he is most accustomed.

“The one thing that I also found, however, is that the challenges here at PCOM are really just like any organization in any other industry. 

You still have challenges with the rationalization of applications, you still had siloed systems, you still had siloed data, you still had some challenges and opportunities related to reporting, analytics, and process improvements.

These are all things that are not germane to higher education. They really cross industries. 

The problems here are the same problems that I’ve dealt with in the past.”

Having a clear mission and understanding the tools of the trade has allowed Rick to focus on why he does what he does and see how it impacts the students at PCOM. 

The Importance of IT in Higher Education

No one could have predicted we would have a global pandemic resulting in social distancing and quarantine-at-home protocols. 

For Rick Smith at PCOM, the pandemic introduced new challenges that required new solutions.

“We had a digital transformation plan, but when the pandemic hit, it really escalated our digital transformation. Everybody went virtual for a long period of time - and we still had to deliver courses and lectures to our students. 

It was here before the pandemic, but even more so now, there is a heightened understanding of the importance of technology as it relates to the outcomes of our students.”

The pandemic escalated the importance of technology for colleges and universities, which empowered institutions to quickly ramp-up technology solutions to help solve other challenges they were facing. 

One significant problem Rick noticed happening to many higher education institutions was the decrease in students attending universities. 

“Generally speaking, the number of students attending college across the board, not at PCOM necessarily, is decreasing. Why? It’s partially because the cost to attend a college and university is increasing. 

So, from an IT perspective, one of our roles is to ensure that we are selecting, implementing and, most importantly, leveraging the right technology so that our staff and our faculty can work smarter in the process of educating our students. 

It's all about improving efficiency and productivity while cutting costs.”

Technology that can help a university cut costs can, in turn, help cut costs for many students struggling to pay tuition.

How IT Professionals Support Students

Students and data are a package deal. Students generate enormous volumes of data over the course of their educational career including things like test scores, attendance rates, online participation scores, and more. 

For Rick, being able to manage this data and use it efficiently helps IT directly support their students.

“One of the problems that happens across the board in every industry I've been in, every organization I started with, is you wind up having a lot of data. Most of the time that data is locked up in systems that are very siloed. 

They don't speak to each other, and when you try to pull that data together and aggregate it so you can make very informed and actionable decisions, it's not possible unless you have the right technology in place.”

Applying the perfect technology for the job is one of the key parts of what it takes to be successful in IT. 

For Rick, these pieces of technology not only aid the university, but more importantly, the students.

“...A big piece of what we're doing is making sure that we implement the systems, technology, and processes to pull all that data together and make that data available to the right people when and where they need it, so that they can help with the student outcomes and student enrichment.

That perspective is fantastic - the idea of optimizing and making sure that the right technology is being used to help drive down the burden on the students.”

For Rick, the real purpose of IT in higher education is to do just that - support the students. With machine learning and carefully planned AI models, technology can better support students by predicting where they might need the most help and offer solutions based on these predictions. 

“What we really need to get to, and what I think is a disruptor, is when we get to the point where we're using artificial intelligence and machine learning to do predictive and prescriptive analytics.

Wouldn't it be extremely valuable to use some of that prescriptive and predictive analytics to say, ‘Hey, based on all these variables that we've been tracking in our tools, here are some students that are maybe not engaged. And here are some students with some early indicators [that suggest] they may be struggling out of the gate.’ And [to be able to] give them the support early on in their journey to be successful.

That's a disruptor. AI machine language and modern-day data warehouses are going to be a disruptor for education across the board.”

Discover More When You Listen to the Podcast!

Interested in learning more about what it takes to be the CIO at one of the oldest colleges in the nation or how IT can benefit your college?

Listen to our interview with Rick Smith to get more insights into:

  • How PCOM escalated digital transformation after COVID
  • IT as a player in driving innovation for higher education
  • Tools for solving different IT challenges on an institutional level


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