NASPA Needs a Technology Core Data Service, and Why This Matters to You

Who You Gonna Call?

Who do you call when you have a burning question about technology? Chances are good you have a picture of “that one techie” in your mind right now. You know their name, and you probably have their extension memorized. Beyond that, your knowledge of who does what with technology on your campus likely gets hazy. If you’re part of a system of universities, you may rely on “birds of a feather” colleagues at other campuses you meet with on a regular basis. No doubt you have colleagues who use the same software as you to administer departmental programming, can quote verse about the hoops you have to jump through to get the data you need, how your staff deals with social media, and so on. If you’re lucky, you get to go to conferences and have an informal network of professionals to lean on. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was an unbiased resource you could rely on to provide benchmarking information about technology-related topics germane to higher education? Something like this actually exists…sort of.

What’s a Core Data Service (CDS), Anyway?

The idea for a multi-organizational technology assessment in higher education is not new or original, nor did it materialize out of thin air. Since 2002, EDUCAUSE – the world’s largest community of IT leaders and professionals in higher education – has conducted an annual assessment of hundreds of campuses. The activities around this assessment culminate in a product they call the Core Data Service, or CDS. What’s in it? Benchmarking data on staffing, financials and a variety of technology services. It’s a fantastic reference for higher education technology professionals, especially leaders who need to know where they stand with respect to their peers. The problem with the EDUCAUSE CDS is that it does not collect data or provide insights that are particularly useful to student affairs professionals.

Why NASPA Needs Its Own Version of a CDS

Members of the Technology Knowledge Community (TKC) recognized the importance of technology to the profession many years ago. They believed it was such an important part of our work, they were able to successfully add it as a NASPA Professional Competency Area in 2010: https://www.naspa.org/images/uploads/main/ACPA_NASPA_Professional_Competencies_FINAL.pdf Unlike EDUCAUSE, NASPA has no benchmarking tool focused on technology that we are aware of. We believe that a NASPA CDS would be a valuable resource for any NASPA member who needs to make decisions about the use of technology in their programs. A Core Data Service is a natural extension of the assessment culture that has been built in our profession; we think it should be a core product of the organization.

You might be asking yourself “why don’t we just ask EDUCAUSE to adapt their instrument so it can collect this data for us?” First, the overlap between NASPA members who participate in EDUCAUSE and vice-versa is rather small…the connection between organizations is probably not where it needs to be to make this happen (yet). Second, the vast majority of the technology we use in student services – particularly software-based – is not universally important to everyone in our organizations. Third, technology staffing models vary drastically from campus to campus. Hopefully, EDUCAUSE will continue to evolve and the data needs for student affairs will be more fully included. Until that time, however, adapting the concept for our needs at this time makes a lot of sense.

Enterprise Versus Niche Software

You may have heard the term “enterprise” invoked in hushed tones during campus meetings with IT and wondered what it meant. The way the word is used implies great importance. Generally speaking, “enterprise” refers to a product or service that everyone (or nearly everyone) in an organization depends on to do their job. When enterprise services go down, everyone panics. In the higher education software world, enterprise usually means the SIS (Student Information System), HR/Finance, portals, and email/calendaring tools. Enterprise software is expensive and complex, and requires a significant investment in professional IT resources. For many campuses, the responsibility for managing these systems lies with a Centralized IT department. As a general rule, enterprise software feeds, stores, and works on data that is considered to be the “source of truth” for an organization. They’re critical systems by definition.

Doesn’t every operational area in student affairs also depend on software? And isn’t that software just as important to what we do? In terms of complexity and usage, some of our systems rival enterprise software. Do you lead a Career Services department? There are software systems for you. How about Student Housing? You have multiple software options to choose from for managing residential life. Health Services? Check. Judicial Affairs/Student Conduct? Check. Clubs & Organizations? Disability Resources? Assessment? Check, check, check. Our software is important to us, but it isn’t universally important to everyone on campus. That’s what makes student services software niche software.

The bottom line here is that you probably want to know which software packages your peers use most often. It’s a reasonable question you’ve probably asked more than once.

Student Services Technology Support Varies Widely

Despite the fact that technology is enshrined as a NASPA professional competency, there’s little consistency around how we fund and staff it. Support models used by campuses to deliver student services technology vary widely (and wildly). Some campuses have a highly centralized IT division that coordinates services for every functional area on campus. Other campuses have multiple, decentralized technology units. Student affairs divisions may have a large or small technology department – or none at all – depending on the services needed. It’s fair to say that there are as many technology delivery models as there are members in the TKC!

We Have an Instrument That Just Might Work

In 2017, David Sweeney of the Texas A&M University system published the results of a system-wide student affairs software survey. This assessment provided TAMU’s Senior Student Affairs Officers with information about “…the distribution of ‘student affairs’ typical software packages and platforms…” and “…contract data with the aim of finding opportunities to share software across multiple units if indicated and desired.”* David’s survey spurred interest among several of us in the TKC in developing a similar but more expansive survey, with the intention of incorporating other pertinent details. After much discussion, we decided to measure the following:

  1. Institution (size, basic demographics)
  2. Student Affairs organization (services offered)
  3. Student Affairs IT (staffing level, type of support)
  4. Applications and Services

As a group, we felt that all four of these components would be useful for SSAOs (Senior Student Affairs Officers). We also felt that they would present a host of emergent benefits, such as improved collaboration between universities, leveraging our combined voices when communicating with vendors, providing hard data for NASPA’s assessment team, and so on. To that end, we developed a Qualtrics survey, currently hosted by the University of Pittsburgh. The survey is accessed by a link on the SAIT Pros web site at www.saitpros.org. SAIT Pros is a free “non-denominational” association for people who do technology work in student affairs. You don’t have to be an IT geek to join, membership is free, and we host a Slack team where people can share what they know about products, services and processes, all without having to worry about vendors listening in. In our first year of running this assessment, we had 27 participating campuses, which indicates to us that our idea has merit. We asked for TKC sponsorship for a session to talk about this project at the national conference in Los Angeles, which the TKC granted. Thank you, TKC!

Our hope is that the TKC and the broader NASPA community also see value in a “NASPA Technology CDS.” Next steps include reaching out to the Assessment, Evaluation and Research Knowledge Community (AERKC) to identify potential improvements for version 2 of the survey and possible areas of collaboration with the TKC.

Paul Schantz is Director of Web & Technology Services for the Division of Student Affairs at California State University, Northridge. He currently serves as the EdTech representative to the TKC (NASPA), is the Chair of the Student Affairs IT Community Group (EDUCAUSE), and a co-founder of SA IT Pros.

A version of this post was originally published on the NASPA Technology Knowledge Community blog. This project was discussed during a technology session at the 2019 NASPA national conference in Los Angeles.

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