Battling the octopus

18th November 1994 at 00:00
Noel Kershaw and Richard Atkins show how the ever-spreading tentacles of information technology need not overwhelm efforts at college development.

The total management of information technology has emerged as one of the biggest internal problems we have to face this decade. IT has grown piecemeal in most colleges and it has become an octopus which has the potential to strangle future developments with its tentacles unless we find a positive form of co-existence. Yeovil has not escaped this trend, but here we offer our experience to indicate a possible general approach which may be helpful.

Information technology in colleges has developed from several quite distinct starting points. These can be grouped under two main headings - curriculum-related and administrative. Even within "curriculum" there are at least five growth areas. These include the theory and practice of computing per se, business applications, technology applications, the core skill embedded in and supporting other disciplines and the use of information technology in learning support as a whole.

Because groups of lecturing staff initially tended to stumble across the role of information technology in their own curriculum area in isolation, the potential for waste, overlap and confusion in hardware, software and staffing has been frightening.

Administrative areas have proliferated as external pressures have increasingly forced colleges to adopt IT-based answers to the requirements for the production of high grade, reliable statistical information at increasingly short notice. Finance has for a relatively long time been computer-based. Within the last two to three years, however, it has become essential to adopt the same approach to student tracking, personnel and payroll, accommodation and asset management. In addition, there are the pervasive uses for communication and an overarching need to provide management information in the true sense of the word.

This situation leaves college management with a number of key problems. These include: * Avoiding narrowly focused purchasing policies for both hardware and software; * Ensuring best use of expensive teaching resources across the whole college curriculum; * Providing maximum access for students; * Ensuring that administrative systems serve the needs of the college rather than dictate its strategies; * Avoiding wasteful arrangements for maintenance and licensing.

This is a fairly daunting list and one which in our experience is made more difficult to manage if a college does not have a flexible structure which allows genuine cross-college solutions to have a realistic chance of succeeding.

This is definitely one area where the concept of knee-high management would prove disastrous. We mean by this the tendency to set a cross-college policy and then to ask someone relatively junior to co-ordinate it. The net result is that standing only knee-high in organisational terms to a powerful head of department means the co-ordinator can have as much chance of ensuring that college policy is followed as a celluloid cat has of surviving in hell.

Being fortunate enough at Yeovil to have a non-departmental structure, however, we have been able to make some good inroads into the requirements for a whole-college policy for IT. The catalyst, as so often, was a senior appointment in this case at vice-principal level, with the new postholder being asked to tackle the development of a workable strategy.

The first thing to recognise was that there is a difference between strategic and operational matters and that at the latter level it was essential to maintain working groups such as that for IT curriculum management, and on the administrative side the MIS Users' Group.

The important thing, however, was to ensure that both are properly represented on the small but powerful strategic team. Chaired by the vice-principal, the IT strategy group includes senior staff who could represent finance and management information, personnel, accommodation and assets, learning support and use within curriculum delivery.

The group's brief includes strategic direction of hardware, software and technical support and the development of an effective central purchasing mechanism. It also has to ensure that we have appropriate software licensing and make the most effective use of maintenance contracts. Its major role is to develop an action plan for whole college requirements in relation to IT, including its accommodation, and to ensure that this is fed into our strategic planning process.

The provision of generic IT staff development across the college is a further part of their remit. The best use of staff, other than those involved in central IT support, is dealt with through the two operational groups previously mentioned, although their decisions are reported to the strategy group and contribute to its planning.

In scarcely more than a term, the group has ensured the appointment of an IT services manager and a technical team, partly by internal reorganisation and partly by new posts, to give support to all users whether curriculum or administrative.

A full database of hardware and software will be completed by the end of 1994 which will also ensure efficient licensing. A centralised ordering process is now in place and at the first check only one out of the many prospective purchasers was not using the system, while at the second check there was 100 per cent coverage. Regarding accommodation, particularly to support learning and the curriculum, the group will provide the college view on these matters to guide that part of the accommodation strategy.

The future in terms of IT can be broken into three broad areas: student tracking and information; the external environment and curriculum activity.

We are conscious that currently information systems in colleges are based on staff providing data for management purposes and are rapidly putting in place the necessary infrastructure for the flow to become two-way. All staff will then be able to both give and receive accurate information to ensure effective student tracking.

Community colleges such as Yeovil clearly need to be the focus for a range of IT services in their locality. For example, we are planning links with both our HE and secondary school partners so that staff and students can have access to the maximum range of learning resources.

Within curriculum development and delivery, IT will have three strands of influence: first, the continuing growth of major learning resource centres at the heart of the college; second, the spread of IT within the full range of curriculum activity, and third, the greatest challenge of all, to support staff in their professional development as they struggle to keep pace with these technological advances. For all these matters to work properly, a team such as the strategy group is essential.

Although we know that we have not solved all our problems at a stroke by the setting up of the group and the development of a central support team, we believe that we now have systems in place which will prevent us from being over-influenced by particular things. We are also able to see much more of our total IT situation and to organise the proper inter-relationship of its different parts.

The octopus has not disappeared but we have its measurements and we feel it is much more under our control. Without the ability to take a strong central lead, however, we know we would be lost. One thing is certain: only colleges which win this particular battle will survive into the next century.

Noel Kershaw is Principal and Richard Atkins is Vice-Principal of Yeovil College.

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