Digital Leadership and the Transforming Role of a CIO in Higher Education

By October 2, 2018 March 10th, 2021 No Comments

CCM Uses a Combination of Technology and Data to Make Important Decisions that Support Student Success

When Dr. Anthony J. Iacono attended the University of Central Florida in the early 1990s, the only way he could look up information was to walk to the library and manually find books via the card catalog. He would search for desired volumes across shelves and floors, take the pile down to the circulation desk and they’d be checked out by the librarian. There was no Internet option for instant information and data searches were slow processes.

Technology has drastically changed how education is delivered, especially at County College of Morris (CCM) in Randolph, New Jersey where Dr. Iacono has been president since September 2016. Over the past 25 years, students and faculty have learned to expect certain technological abilities and instant knowledge. Required texts can be discovered online from a desk at DeMare Hall or while enjoying a meal at Cohen Café. Every minute, data pours in from multiple technology systems and social media accounts, furnishing colleges like CCM with huge quantities of data sets. The information gathered becomes a life source in solving problems and creating solutions, especially when tackling issues often found in higher education.

Using Data to Thrive

Dr. Iacono thrives on the information and data provided by technology. Under his guidance, CCM is creating strategic technological solutions that will better support faculty and administrators in their roles and focus on student success across 45 associate degree programs and a full slate of certificate and workforce development programs.

These decisions are intentionally designed to support healthier retention and graduation rates for the county college. In 2017, CCM was named one of the best two-year colleges in New Jersey in terms of graduates who earn the highest salaries at mid-career. Additionally, CCM is consistently and continuously recognized as one of Washington Monthly magazine’s top county colleges in New Jersey.

“I’ve seen the power of technology and what it can do. Our goal is to educate our students and not frustrate them, because sometimes going through the educational process can be challenging for students,” Dr. Iacono said. “We don’t want rigor in that student’s life anywhere except in the classroom. The rest of the experience should be a place where they’re informed, they’re empowered, and they can really fulfill their goals. Technology can be a big driving force of making that happen. Part of the success factor is understanding what’s happening while it’s in motion, not after a semester has ended.”

This philosophy is one reason Rob Stirton was hired in August of 2017 as CCM’s new Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness and Chief Information Officer. Stirton’s prior background at previous schools made him a match for having a strong understanding in instructional technology but also data systems and how they can be combined for use in student success and across the academic spectrum.

“I wanted an individual who could come in who had a thorough understanding of data and how to use data, but also had a thorough understanding of technology, which can be a hard combination to find,” he said. “We were absolutely delighted to find Rob Stirton, who has this background and it has worked extremely well. Things are moving very quickly for us at CCM.”

Grooming Students for Success

As the VP of Institutional Effectiveness, Stirton says the category itself really isn’t about technology. It’s combining the technology with data and conversations with people to ensure that CCM is ensuring that they’re focused on grooming student success by aligning their resources and mapping processes.

There has been a huge push in CCM’s social media efforts and overall messaging with students, constituents, and the broader market. This push to share information via social media is due partly to the amount of people always online for resources and knowledge. CCM’s use of social media allows professors and students to interact with people across the nation so they can learn and share with them. Furthermore, the broader messaging strategy allows CCM to connect better with their students, while using social media to partner higher education with the greater community as a whole.

The importance of building relationships within the community via social media has helped CCM, as they make deliberate efforts to connect with individuals like the former director of Choose New Jersey, groups like New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program as well as fellow Edge members. Communicating with every student, community member or fellow educator isn’t always easy, but Dr. Iacono feels relationship building can be accomplished well through cyberspace.

“Social media is a good way to get your message out and to bring new friends and partners in,” Dr. Iacono said. “When you meet people you’re connected with via social media and you sit down with them, it’s like you’ve known them for a bit longer so it can definitely accelerate the process.”

Virtual relationships are strengthening CCM’s ability to provide quality education to its students. Education sits at the heart of every career that exists, so using social media to interact with the numerous industries, businesses, and communities throughout New Jersey and around the world brings forth positive results. Data is driven from these interactions and administrators are able to look back and see what information is valued over others and how to better connect with the different entities they interact with at CCM.

“We’re always looking for new partners and new ideas. We’re always looking to strengthen what we do to fulfill our mission as completely as possible and social media makes it a lot easier,” Dr. Iacono said. “We also want people to know what we’re doing here at CCM and so communicating outward helps people better understand us.”

A Working Partnership

Part of the reason for CCM’s technological success is their ongoing partnership with Edge. This relationship provides access to membership benefits that are being implemented in the appropriate places. CCM uses the purchasing consortium and appreciates the partnership amongst state institutions and colleges. Dr. Iacono says he finds value in how educators can connect with each other from across the state and solve problems together.

“Edge centralizes our conversations about technology in the state and I think that’s really important,” he said. “We have the opportunity to sit around the table to discuss the issues and to share solutions. We can learn from each other, and ultimately we’re strengthening not only each of our institutions by collaborating, but we’re strengthening the educational environment throughout New Jersey as a result.”

Some of the technology CCM has begun using for its data sets is for-profit business models and features and functions templates. They are also in the process of selecting administrative software that any department can use, which would include strategic planning software or student appointment scheduling software and allows every division to have representation. The comprehensive approach to using cross-functional tools eliminates different pieces of software across the campus and helps CCM discover if what they’re doing is meeting enterprise needs. Extraction and analysis of the provided data will ultimately help make more informed decisions.

“We have a vision for CCM’s technology and its foundation is data, so when I mention the student planning software, the goal is to reduce the landscape of systems containing disparate data and moving towards fewer, but unified and intentionally aligned systems.” Stirton said. “It helps ensure the data becomes part of the predictive modeling and helping students achieve whatever educational goals they’re trying to achieve.”

Besides looking at data, Stirton also creates face-to-face opportunities with colleagues at CCM. These open discussions about technology and hearing suggestions and improvements have been very helpful in knowing what is taking place across the campus. Putting a face and voice to the technological process eliminates new technology tools or a particular process from being forced onto a particular entity where it may not work. People also understand the value of the data and that it’s the prism where numerous decisions are being made at the school. This knowledge has been especially helpful as CCM builds a completely virtual campus.

“I’ve received nothing but positive feedback from the campus and being the new guy that’s reassuring. We don’t want to drive technology on someone without their input,” he said. “There’s so much technology available that it helps to receive input firsthand and makes sure we’re maximizing everybody’s time.”

Humanizing Digital Transformation

In many ways, CCM has added a human element to its digital transformation. By creating more open communication amongst staff, staff members are able to make better qualified decisions to issues that come across the table. CCM’s commitment to digital transformation also means working on partnering the tech enthusiasts with those who haven’t been as tied into technology. Dr. Iacono said it’s important to keep people educated in an ongoing conversation and a part of a collaborative decision-making process.

“We work with smart people and we want to hear from them. We want their ideas and they teach us a lot as well,” Dr. Iacono said. “Everyone has a different opinion and viewpoint, but the base effort is to do it ‘with’ people rather than ‘to’ people.”

CCM’s digital transformation has also included building a data warehouse for business intelligence. The goal is to provide access to CCM faculty, student services, and employees for all available operational reports and data. The reports will be available 24-7, allowing them to constructively use the information in whatever decision they’re trying to make or problem they’re attempting to solve.

CCM’s data warehouse will also be helpful across departments and will speed up the process of generating reports, without the wait time. The data will be organized properly and make analyzation much quicker, more precise, and more thorough. A user can look at user-specific filters that can go across demographic variables. The new technology makes Stirton’s job much easier as he aligns the information systems to make sure the data resides where it can be extracted and brought into the data warehouse.

“Our goal is to get our operational reporting automated because that’s what computers do and then allow people to be the analytical engine because that’s what people do,” Stirton said.

The other goal Stirton has for the future is to get the data into the hands of CCM’s decision-makers so they can make strategic decisions that truly impact student success, impact enrollment and retention, while achieving CCM’s strategic plan. Easy access to the data helps drive the conversations and the related actions.

However, CCM has ambitions beyond building the data warehouse and getting the operational reports in order. They would like to put together predictive analytics with a level of certainty that’s needed for students to be successful. These models would help them look at a set of students, or even one specifically, and find out if they need extra support in an area.

“The predictive analytics is going to significantly change our ability to drive performance and ensure student success,” Stirton said. “Access to this data early in the student lifecycle process will allow CCM to combine our early alert systems with the statistical modeling to help us identify an individual student who may be at risk. We can then provide the exact support the student needs to be successful. “

“We’re very enthusiastic in making CCM one of the absolute best schools across the nation and we look forward to continuing to partner nationally with any number of different partners from various industries, businesses and other educational institutions,” Dr. Iacono said.

It isn’t hard to see this taking place at CCM and why they’re continuing to raise retention and graduation rates every year, while being recognized by others in forms of awards and honors.

For more information on how to use your current data sets in higher education, contact Dr. Iacono or Rob Stirton.