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Viewing Life Through a 2020 Lens

Every year, another wave of students enters the doors of Rowan College at Burlington County (RCBC), bringing in their own set of dreams, desires, and needs. These young adults come from all types of backgrounds and experiences. However, they all generally have one thing in common. Technology!

Roughly 9,000 students attend RCBC every semester, each bringing a variety of devices. Add in over 1,200 instructors and staff members, RCBC’s digital framework has been designed to handle the overflow of technological tools on campus.

“Technology is important to us at RCBC in how it is utilized and interacted with, especially when we have 9,000 students in a given semester,” said Dr. Michael A. Cioce, President of Rowan College at Burlington County.

Evolution of Change

Dr. Cioce keeps a book on his shelf at home from his undergrad years, back in the 1990s. This hardcover book talks about where technology is going and evolving and is filled with information many would consider obsolete.

“I don’t think every single thing in the book is entirely obsolete but the content is obviously not relevant in 2020,” he said. “My youngest child is three, so by the time she enrolls in college or even graduates from high school in another 15 years, who knows how books themselves will have shifted and be used. The book is a reminder to me of how technology has dramatically transformed and continues to change.”

The constant outpouring of new emergent technology has created an enormous transformation in higher education, especially in the past five years. During this time period, RCBC has received technology grants offered by the state of New Jersey to help stay abreast with the new tools, including the Higher Education Technology Infrastructure (HETI) Grant and Equipment Leasing Funds Grant.

These grants have allowed RCBC to rebuild their technology infrastructure from the ground up, which coincided with a total transformation of the College’s facilities and phasing out of the older campus in Pemberton. At this time, RCBC invested and built a new state-of-the-art building on their primary campus in Mount Laurel.

“This infrastructure overhaul was an enormous transformation experienced over the past five years and the changes have played a significant part in our school’s evolution,” explained Mark Meara, Chief Information Officer.

These changes and updated facilities have allowed RCBC to reach students in new ways, revamping how they recruit, educate, and provide support. Dr. Cioce said the school also uses more external vendors to help with these processes.

For instance, when Dr. Cioce first came on campus, RCBC still used paper admission applications. There was an online admissions application, but most students favored the paper option. Since then, the College feels the homegrown application has grown to a maturity point and is looking to outsource the online option.

Another example of change is the use of a billboard to market the College, which would’ve been popular ten years ago.

“Now we’re using digital marketing campaigns through our marketing group where geofencing zip codes are referenced, “ Dr. Cioce explained. “We’re slicing and dicing data based on applicants’ data and following who hasn’t converted an applicant or made an appointment with an advisor.”

While someone has to run the report, go through the numbers, and then send the information to the geofencing company, these are ideas and concepts Dr. Cioce never would’ve imagined ten years ago.

RCBC also uses Blackboard for their LMS, which is outside of the school’s ERP.

“All of these things are secondary as far as how the data in converted, so I think the impact is really our reliance and usage of all of these tools,” Dr. Cioce said. “We’re not going back to a paper application or using a billboard when we can do pixels on websites or track students via cookies. There’s no ‘un-ringing’ of the bell on these changes. The impact of all of these enhancements is huge for higher education.”

Another area of transformation impacts students directly, however many of the students don’t have awareness of the weight of the transition because they’ve grown up in a wired world since birth: Today at RCBC, the College uses digital downloads for a large portion of their sources of learning. While many courses still require students to purchase traditional textbooks, the rise of digital books has helped lighten the load of heavy backpacks for some students.

“Students have readers and Kindles. They have online access to all of their information, which has caused us to revamp how we allocate space to the bookstore,” Dr. Cioce said. “The bookstore has more floor space for swag, sweatshirts, and add-on items than actual physical textbooks. The managing of textbooks is yet another offshoot of where technology has evolved in how we operate.”

Five Areas of Focus

To support student success and maintain high quality technological advances, RCBC has intertwined their IT strategic plan with the college’s overall strategic plan, focusing on five areas that tie back to the institution’s mission and vision.

The first area of focus is digital innovation, where RCBC seeks out and supports innovative technological applications designed to enhance teaching and learning for the school’s students and faculty. The second strategic element is business process improvement, supporting the college’s mission of “pillar of affordability.”

“Our goal is to embrace a philosophy that leverages technology and fosters continual business and process improvement, while effectively utilizing the College’s resources to enhance overall operational productivity and efficiency,” said Meara. “We want to ensure RCBC remains affordable to our students.”

The third goal for RCBC is business intelligence, which empowers the College’s administration and students with management information systems and provide access to data resources. These tools help achieve proactive planning and create data for informed decisions, enhancing the overall effectiveness of the school.

Another area of focus is business continuity and provision towards quality, reliable, and resilient technology resources for the college community. RCBC promises to maintain their technology resources and creates coinciding procedures necessary to support the College’s continuity and disaster recovery plans.

“The last strategic area of focus is ubiquitous computing, where we will effectively utilize technology in our communications and interactions with our students by supporting ubiquitous computing and social networking,” Meara said. “Additionally, we will provide our students convenient access to our College’s digital resources.”

The challenge in achieving these five areas in higher education is making sure their emphases match the needs of students and the reason for the development of this specified focus.

Dr. Cioce said students know what they want in their education and how they receive that education, and he believes RCBC shares the responsibility to meet students where they are at, or they may leave and go somewhere else—a place where their needs will be met.

“We understand the challenges of keeping students local and in the state, so if we produce a substantial or inferior product, students will vote with their feet and will go to any of the other institutions nearby or out of state. This challenge is why we feel staying on top of things is of utmost importance,” he said. “Plus, from an employer perspective, we can’t provide our staff with an abacus and a stone tablet if we want to keep our reputation of having high-quality academic programs and keep them on campus. Technology allows us to come on both sides of the employer perspective as well as the student front-facing perspective.”

Staying Ahead of Emerging Technologies

In order to stay ahead of high student expectations for technology advancement and emerging technologies, RCBC works closely with organizations like Edge and employs student workers in the IT and Audio Visual (AV) department. Meara said they also gain knowledge on emergent technologies from peers and other CIOs across the state.

“One of the ways we stay aware of advancing technology is through our membership with Edge. My staff and I take advantage of all of the professional development opportunities offered,” Meara said. “We also seek out other professional development opportunities to stay abreast of the emergent technologies, particularly in the higher education industry.”

The other way RCBC stays ahead of technology changes is by employing student workers within the IT department, as well as the AV branch of IT on the College. Meara said his staff is always picking the brains of these students and often tests out new tools or devices on them.

“We gain an early preview of what’s coming based on the student workers in my department. I also have two college-aged students for children, so I’m very much aware of what technology they’re looking at and using,” Meara said.

Managing the Peaks and Valleys

Being prepared for the days of heavy usage on the network bandwidth is an important task in higher education. As students descend on college, they take for granted being able to use any device brought with them. However, not all students are face-to-face or taking classes at the same time. Maybe they have a laptop, a tablet, and a phone. What happens when a student tries to simultaneously get on the network with all three devices, along with everyone else using Wi-Fi?

Dr. Cioce said he was recently shown a visual representation of the peaks and valleys constantly hitting the system.

“Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have understood what they were talking about or my eyes would have glazed over because none of today’s technology and tools even existed,” he said.

The school also appreciates the student perspective on the usage of the network bandwidth, as well as the partnership RCBC has with Edge to analyze the utilization of the bandwidth. Edge will inform RCBC if the school is getting close to limits or if peaks have been hit.

“Edge will let us know when peaks are coming so we can be proactive and ensure there is enough bandwidth to meet the demands of students and faculty,” Meara said.

“We must be responsive to technology that is going to have the broadest utilization,” Dr. Cioce said. “We have to be adaptive to new technologies because students require their institutions of higher learning to be ahead of the curve.”

Role of Technology in Education

Before Dr. Cioce’s position as RCBC’s President, his role at the College was the Vice President of Enrollment Management in Student Success. In this experience, Dr. Cioce grew to understand student’s perspectives and their bent towards instant gratification. He helped leverage technology with these demands.

“Our job is to educate students and to get them in and out, whether their time is for 60 credits for an associate’s degree program or 30 credits for a certificate program,” he said. “If we have 9,000 student touches in a semester, you need to be extremely fast in how we help each and every student.”

One of RCBC’s core goals has been to maintain competitive tuition and fee rates, while providing outstanding academic programs. Another goal is to use technology to push out information faster, whether the technology is used to schedule appointments for students or helping students sign up for classes.

“Gone are the days of every student getting a paper printout and someone sitting with them for multiple hours to make decisions,” Dr. Cioce said. “The shift away from such things as static paper schedules is why everything needs to be fast and why we can’t look at things through a 1997 lens.”

Technology is used to boost graduation rates, retention rates, and for student outreach. RCBC uses tools to discover which students haven’t registered or may require academic help. Technology also touches communications and business processes. However, the challenge higher education faces is being able to meet these demands with efficiency and affordability but less than finite resources.

“The question is how do you teach the millennials who want technology integrated into their lessons and networking communications,” Meara said. “Our role is present in every area and operation, even in how we operate our facilities. The role of how we use technology is ever-evolving and never-ending.”

Balancing Resources with Constraints

Budget constraints are an ongoing challenge every academic year and definitely not going away anytime soon. He said the changes in higher education over the past few years have changed how colleges are funded.

“Colleges have to find ways to maintain excellent programs, outcomes, and service with limited institutional resources to pay for them,” Dr. Cioce said. “There are many competing priorities, however, we recognize through Mark’s leadership that technology is not area that is worth scrimping on. Protecting the integrity of our data and digital resources is a safety issue that affects our entire institution and every member of our community.”

Dr. Cioce went on to say if you don’t put your money and resources into IT, not only on the service side but also on the protection side, issues will take place.

“Our IT budget is an important matter and one we’ll continue to make sure resources are allocated towards,” he said.

Emergent technologies are an important area in the budget, but not every new piece of technology is invested in or purchased. Both men spoke about being diligent and staying abreast of the newest technological advances, knowing when investing makes sense and they’re always asking if there will be a return on the original investment.

Value in Networking

In higher education, New Jersey schools are going through all of these changes together, rather than individually. Colleges and universities are receiving strong leadership from Edge and groups from within. There is huge value in networking and sharing ideas and concepts, as well as financial savings yielded through the consortium.

“Through the strength in numbers, these programs have allowed my cost to go down, whether the savings are on my data or my Internet,” Dr. Cioce said. “There are financial limits and constraint on everything and there’s synergy partnering with Edge which is huge, especially when I’m counting balls and strikes on this side. I know I’m getting the best bang for my buck.”

In order to create and maintain constant technological transformation, Meara agreed and said they wouldn’t have been able to achieve many of their strategic goals without the networking and partnerships with groups like Edge.

“While the digital network is important, the people network is invaluable,” he said.

Meara speaks regularly with Edge’s Jim Stankiewicz, Ed Chapel, Bruce Tyrrell, and Joe Rearden. He said sometimes he is able to help them out, but can’t count how many times they have helped him out.

“Our membership in Edge has allowed me to develop relationships with my peers and there’s so much value obtained from these relationships,” he said. “Can I exist without the digital network? No, I can’t, and obviously neither can the thousands of students and employees who use the network every day. Just as significant, however, are the incredibly valuable relationships I’ve developed with the staff at Edge.”

RCBC houses some of Edge’s network equipment and has also hosted events for Edge. The College finds huge value in the member-focused consortium, as the consortium provides access to countless valuable tools and applications, especially cybersecurity.

Dr. Cioce and other staff have also developed relationships with other college presidents and CIOs.

“From these relationships, there isn’t a sense of competitiveness you would expect from competing institutions,” Dr. Cioce said. “Rather, there’s collegiality with each other. We help each other navigate the changing landscape of higher education.”

Through networking, digital advances, and partners like Edge, RCBC has created a haven for students in a highly competitive technological world. By utilizing technology, the school is transforming lives.