Higher Ed Administrators and Tech Teams Must Collaborate To Navigate a Complex Ed-Tech Environment

By Rick Torres, President and CEO, National Student Clearinghouse

Rick Torres, President and CEO, National Student Clearinghouse

There is no bigger transition in business than moving from large for-profits to a non-profit, mission-based technology environment. At non-profits, success is measured by extending your mission of service provision to as many of their stakeholders as possible with relevance and impact. In January 2008, I joined the National Student Clearinghouse to further its mission to benefit education. We serve more than 3,600 colleges and universities that enroll about 98 percent of students in U.S. colleges and universities.

Understanding our stakeholders comprised of students, alumni, post secondary and K12 institutions, and numerous outreach organizations as well as their goals, pain points and limitations are critical for developing technical and service road maps to meet their diversified needs. Our work with education, particularly when we leverage new technologies, requires us to focus on four types of stakeholders: the bleeding-edgers, the leading-edgers, those in the mainstream, and the laggards. The Clearinghouse must serve them all.

In business, they teach that—as you build out your products and services—you cannot be all things to all people. As a mission-driven non-profit, we serve all of education with ubiquitous Software as a Service, Data as a Service, and other service solutions.

My varied experience outside of education helped inform the transition the Clearinghouse has made over the last 10 years to a thriving non-profit serving our education stakeholders with technical solutions. Nearly 25 years ago, higher education helped form the Clearinghouse with a simple principle in mind: establish a trusted and secure environment through which we can relieve the administrative burdens related to school compliance-based activities for the benefit of students, administrators, institutions, and the federal government.

“As a mission-driven non-profit, we serve all of education with ubiquitous Software as a Service, Data as a Service, and other service solutions”

During this time period much needed technical disruption to the status quo was greatly needed. This resulted in our saving school administrators, students, lenders, and the U.S. Department of Education time and money while improving the accuracy of data maintained in the National Student Loan Data System, which is supplied by the Clearinghouse. 

And the technological disruption is growing. We are in the midst of, as Klaus Schwab discusses in his book the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a period in which digital and multiple other technologies are fusing to revolutionize and impact all disciplines, especially education.

In my assessment, however, the education community has been overwhelmed with technology platforms and solutions. One of the main issues has been the relative lack of interconnectivity between platforms and the need to manage multiple vendor relationships, each adding complexity to an already overburdened staff. Given the amount of juggling that staff has to manage, the mood on campuses is one of outright frustration. This has led to a focus on reducing platforms and a search for technical innovations that can reduce administrative work burdens on the IT staff and others while improving the overall student experience.

Building crosswalks as platforms evolve has become a huge challenge… bridges…EDI to XML to PDFxml to JSON also On-Premise to Cloud…hybrid solutions and the move to decentralized networks without a central authority.

Open Badges and the wide open issuing of credentials have the potential to create market confusion on quality and validity of artifacts. Even with block chain, as digital artifacts become currency, the risk of fraud grows along with the burden on requestors to know what is real.

The key challenges and greatest opportunities for IT service providers and innovators are to create the scaffolding and technical frameworks necessary to enable the most complete empowerment of educational constituents. This allows education to take advantage of the promise of advancing technology, when they are ready to do so, in a pragmatic and clearly identified roadmap. This is the commitment the Clearinghouse makes everyday to our many stakeholders.

In providing SaaS solutions to the education industry, it is really important to understand that schools have a wide range of capability. In our case, the Clearinghouse must have the technical flexibility to accommodate a wide variety of capabilities among our constituents. In other organizations, and businesses, I assess that the service provider has a greater ability for more ubiquity in their solution offerings. This places a lot of pressure on product management teams to have a very good sense of institutional readiness so they can evolve and assure they have the right product roadmaps to facilitate institutional orclient evolution. One major difference is the approach to managing personally identifiable information and academic records.

As software development has moved from waterfall to agile methodologies, and the pace of innovation accelerated, assuring that teams are equipped to evolve their delivery on a reliable points-based system has grown in importance. We try to maintain a healthy tension between point demand (coming from our various business service lines) and point production from the technical teams supporting those lines. Managing this healthy tension, in tandem with building the organizational capacity to throttle up and down based on project urgency and roadmap commitments are also essential. This is particularly relevant when working to achieve goals within a balanced work life eco-system.

The list is long in seeing where IT services are headed in education and other industries. In education, standards to meet the evolving digitalization of records and support student mobility are two key areas to address. Education is also following in the footsteps of healthcare around demands for portability, security, privacy and transparency. IT platform service provision to education will continuously need to thread the needle to assure that they can serve institutions on the bleeding edge. This includes establishing nodes on the blockchain to deposit educational artifacts created today and a decade or more from now. A key factor will also be minimizing the number of platforms schools need to manage, while increasing the use of APIs to connect legacy data sources.

In all of this, privacy, security and transparency are becoming the mantra of the day. While it looks for more efficient and effective solutions, higher education needs a firm set of requirements around the privacy of student records and transparency and visibility into any privacy commitments. In general, education needs to step up its security. On October 23, The Wall Street Journal published an article on hackers targeting education. There is a lot education can learn from the financial sector about how to manage relationships with vendors that seek, for example, to provide solutions behind the firewall. What protections should they have in place, and what obligations should they put on the vendors to validate that platform changes will not compromise their system?

These are some of the issues keeping higher education leaders and their technology staff awake at night, as they seek to deliver their education mission, and the Clearinghouse is with them every step of the way.

Rick Torres is the Chief Executive Officer and President of the National Student Clearinghouse, a position he has held since January 2008.

Prior to joining the Clearinghouse, Torres spent his career in the private sector, both in the U.S. and abroad, spanning several industry sectors, including health care, financial services, and fast-moving consumer goods in leadership positions, including finance, sales, marketing, operations, technology, and executive management for PepsiCo, Philip Morris/Kraft Foods and Capital One.

Throughout his career, he has served on several boards, including the John Tyler Community College Foundation, National College Access Network, and the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy, and the American Association of Community Colleges, where he is currently on their Commission on Economic and Workforce Development. In addition, Torres was a founding member and sits on the Executive Committee of the Groningen Declaration Network Group, a multi-national group of leaders dedicated to developing a trusted international data exchange ecosystem.

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