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The Constantly Changing Technology Marathon of Innovation

By October 2, 2018 No Comments

For some people, technology seems a constantly changing rat race. They are continually trying to keep up with changes and new inventions. Others think of it as a marathon, with a new race starting right after one has finished. Either way, success at the finish line is always at the forefront.

Exciting things are taking place at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey on its 252-acre campus where a technology marathon is always part of the education landscape. Montclair State, now a designated research doctoral university, is recognized, by the National Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. The University has research being funded by federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, NASA and the U.S. Departments of Energy, Defense, Agriculture, and Education. Some of the research efforts target a wide range of areas like the collapse of the Antarctic ice shelves or the collision of the two neutron stars 130 million light years away, or the use of drones to assess New Jersey flood plains.

All of this academic success and research wouldn’t be taking place without Montclair State’s excellent network and academic technologies. Located 12 miles from New York City, the University has focused on maintaining and investing in increased network bandwidth, high-performance computing capacity, and advanced storage and data management capabilities. They are also working hard to support the needs of a growing number of researchers by establishing a cost-effective shared infrastructure with the requisite prioritization, scheduling, monitoring, accounting, and load-balancing technologies needed to dream big and accomplish the unimaginable across their academic programs.

“A top priority here at Montclair State has been to continue building out the excellent networking and academic technologies that we consider to be critical to the delivery of education,” said Montclair State University’s Chief Information Officer, Candy Fleming. “My experience leading projects elsewhere has certainly contributed to that role, but I am very proud to say that our technologies at Montclair State are, in my opinion, among the best at educational institutions.”

Fleming has been Montclair State’s Vice President for Information Technology and CIO since 2015, as well as an NJEdge Board Director. She brings 25 years of knowledge and expertise to the University as she oversees the University’s Information Technology departments including Enterprise Technology Services, Enterprise Application Services, Technical Support Services, Instructional Technology and Design Services, Program Management Office, and Institutional Research. She is also responsible for the implementation and maintenance of all aspects of IT at the University — from computer labs to the learning management system for online and traditional courses.

From One Marathon to the Next

One of the first challenges for Fleming at Montclair State was to complete the simultaneous implementations of three new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems across multiple administrative functions at the University. Her biggest challenge was to prepare the IT and the functional organizations to take ownership of these systems, to learn to support the systems without relying on consultants long-term and to truly leverage value from the information and the functionality provided by the systems. Fast forward three years and the University is starting to make changes to the ERP systems — in order to keep up with technology changes and program needs.

“I have to say, I have absolutely continued to learn, grow and aspire to achieve new heights while here at Montclair State,” Fleming said. “You’re always trying to draw from your experience as you learn new things and take on new challenges.”

Finishing the ERP implementation didn’t mean Fleming was done. It just meant one marathon was completed and another begun as the University continues to take steps to enhance the networking and academic technology on campus. Montclair State is also always looking at ways to increase its network bandwidth as well as the ability to assess and optimize the use of cloud platforms versus internally hosting the computer and storage facilities.

The Increasing Need for Collaboration & Partnership

Fleming is also in-tune with her counterparts in the academic world regarding how to assist her staff in providing educators and researchers with the tools they need to continue to solve issues and create solutions in the world. Inherent to achieving this goal is increased collaboration among researchers and IT at Montclair State as well as from other institutions or industries, requiring shared access to high-performance computing and massive data volumes.

“The needs we are hearing about from our researchers are not only for advanced technology, but also for support. With IT taking an active role with technology solutions, the researchers are able to focus on their research rather than to divert their time to implement and run the technology,” Fleming explained. “So most immediately, I’m working on increasing the competencies of my own IT staff to effectively support the specialized technologies needed for research.”

She is also building relationships with the University’s researchers in order to better understand their needs and to build consensus on Montclair State technology directions. Fleming is also working closely with Scott Herness, Montclair State University’s Vice Provost of Research, to establish an advisory group of researchers to provide counsel on research IT strategies.

This advisory group will assist in providing coordination and oversight to researchers seeking infrastructure for their research. Typically, researchers fund their own grants and then hire graduate students or allocate their own time to support that infrastructure. However, more and more, researchers may have the opportunity to leverage shared cyber infrastructure or condo-style information technology where they share the infrastructure with other researchers. Montclair State is evaluating these options.

Another way the University has collaborated and partnered with other industries was the opening of the new School of Communications and Media building in September 2017. The University partnered with Sony’s Professional Solutions Americas group to build this 105,000-square foot building that houses the communications department, as well as the Center for Cooperative Media, the student newspaper The Montclarion, and WMSC, a full-fledged radio station. Because of the Sony partnership, the building is filled with the most advanced broadcast and digital media technologies, more than any other educational institution in North America.

Montclair State is also partnering with other colleges and universities as well as organizations such as NJEdge and the New Jersey Big Data Alliance. Fleming said Rutgers University and NJIT are crucial partners in sharing research IT learnings and directions. Conversations have been initiated across the institutions’ respective IT organizations to share and expand expertise and to explore common interests, including potential cross-institutional implementations of shared research infrastructure. The CIOs plan to continue to share information and to potentially explore funding opportunities aimed at inter-institutional or regional research collaboration.

“It’s very rewarding to work with different institutions, especially in IT, because we learn from one another,” Fleming said. “In some cases, we hold one another up. We brainstorm ideas, and it’s a lot more rewarding and beneficial for us to collaborate than to work in silos.”

Montclair State is one of 15 other higher education institutions in the New Jersey Big Data Alliance. Its goal is to drive collaboration across New Jersey academia, government and industry in building advanced computation and big data capabilities and expertise. These institutions all meet regularly and sponsor an annual symposium that includes speakers, panels, and outreach all related to big data. The alliance was recognized in 2014 by the New Jersey state legislature as the New Jersey Advanced Cyber Infrastructure Consortium, formalizing the partnership to build computational and analytics capabilities and expertise in New Jersey. This organized approach becomes an effective way to foster innovative and productive research via multi-institutional partnerships.

“We are definitely always seeking to partner with our neighboring New Jersey research institutions, both on research and on the underlying information technology platforms and directions,” Fleming said.

Gaining an Edge with NJEdge

Montclair State is also working with NJEdge to leverage its network infrastructure and uses a variety of their products and technology solutions. Fleming says they rely heavily on their network connections and NJEdge’s consistently high uptime, performance, and operational reliability. They appreciate NJEdge’s recent adoption of new technology that quickly detects and mitigates the impact of DDoS attacks and the use of the NJFX node. Montclair State has also been a major participant in procuring the VMware licenses through NJEdge, and they plan on participating in several additional cooperative pricing opportunities, such as the recently announced Amazon Web Services alliance.

“NJEdge has been a longstanding partner for us with respect to our network services and its consortium procurement opportunities,” Fleming said. “But equally important is the shared expertise and the member collaborations the organization has facilitated.”

Montclair State has had uniquely close professional ties with the NJEdge team, as both Ed Chapel, NJEdge’s Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer and Michael Reekie, NJEdge’s Director of Network and Security Operations, happen to be former Montclair State IT colleagues. At the same time, Fleming has been an NJEdge board director for the past three years.

These close relationships help Montclair State become a strong participant in all of the NJEdge Communities of Practices, and Fleming says the University finds them to be extremely valuable in terms of knowledge sharing among colleagues at peer institutions and for discussing mutual IT challenges and creative solutions. In fact, Dan Ginsberg, Montclair State’s network engineer, is currently serving as co-chair on the Security Resource Group Community of Practice.

“This relationship is valuable because as we increase our focus on research and pursue inter-institutional research grants, the process can be facilitated by NJEdge,” Fleming said. “It is all enabled by the technologies and expertise provided by NJEdge.”

Montclair State has been using the EdgeSecure product with DDoS mitigation, which is benefiting the University. They are looking into using the security risk assessment in the next year.

“Security is a never-ending challenge. We will never be done with being able to address the challenges,” she said.

Because of the amount of research and the need for high-performance computing capacity, NJEdge can provide Montclair State with the necessary technology to handle the different types of controls researchers need to accomplish their tasks. They can help the University segment the network so the institution can support different types of networks, including a dedicated research network that won’t disrupt the high-availability needs of the production transaction network.

“NJEdge is leading the way in terms of technologies that we need, and we’re interacting very closely with them to take advantage of these technologies for our research,” Fleming said.

Using Data to Improve Student Success

The digital world is one such technology that is transforming the academic environment, creating new challenges for administrators to tackle. For instance, student expectations have increased and they expect better career and life outcomes as a result of their education. At the same time, the government and industries expect students to receive an education that prepares them for jobs. Technology is key to delivering new modalities such as online education, distance learning, active learning, and higher student engagement in all aspects of education.

Technology is also increasing capabilities to monitor and evaluate all of the big data that is collected through the educational process. Technology enables gathering and evaluating huge amounts of data in order to evaluate the progress of students, trigger interventions when appropriate, and optimize the likelihood of students succeeding in their education.

“Each of these factors is driven by technology and each requires technology to effectively respond,” Fleming said.

Information technology is critical to every component of the higher education landscape, from the back office, the administration professional, administrative processing of student applications and registrations, but also the ability to effectively engage students in the classroom or online for successful learning outcomes. Administrators are looking at big data analysis of progress, outcomes, and options for student improvement. Researchers want the ability to collaborate and create innovative research.

“I think the challenges are how to truly leverage and gain value from the technology investments we are all making and how to integrate continual planning, assessment and raising the bar for leveraging these technologies into all aspects of the campus,” Fleming said. “It’s really the same old question: How to keep doing more, but really assure delivery of higher value with always constrained resources.”

This is the question Fleming is always asking. It’s why she knows the race is a marathon and why she never stops running.

“It’s frankly just helping everybody to pace themselves, recognize that we have to breathe while we’re doing it all, but to keep going and to have fun with the things that we’re delivering, and not to put too much pressure on ourselves to move as fast as we’d frankly all like to. It’s a marathon that’s always changing,” she said.

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