By Sramana Mitra and guest author Shaloo Shalini
In the multibillion-dollar market of higher education in the United States, we see an interesting trend whereby a combination of IT people and college communities are playing the role of an active “lead user” and using the cloud computing paradigm to make campus life simpler and information accessible for students through handheld devices. In this interview, we have some insights for you on evolutionary application integrations happening at Westmont and in higher education, from dispensing efficient IT infrastructure for effective collaboration to simplifying campus processes and other real-world tasks. During the interview, Sramana and Dr. Reed Sheard, VP and CIO of Westmont University College, discuss how Sheard has deployed cloud computing technologies and solutions to help the Westmont IT user community move to a higher level of service and helped the college IT team evolve to the next level in terms of business alignment. It is interesting to note that there has been explosive growth in the number of Apple devices in the higher education world, with applications taking a lead in terms of the user base compared to pure browser-based or Internet applications and the absence of Amazon’s Kindle, which is positioned as the textbook of the future in higher education but still needs a volume of textbooks to be made available on it and still lacks the ease with which iPad users can make notes and collaborate.
Dr. Reed Sheard is the vice president for college advancement and the chief information officer at Westmont College. Dr. Sheard arrived at Westmont in 2008 from Spring Arbor University and has extensive experience working in higher education and leading technology corporations, including Apple. He holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Sioux Falls, an M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Seattle University.
Westmont University College is a nationally ranked liberal arts college in Santa Barbara. Westmont provides a rigorous academic program set in a Christ-centered community. Vibrant arts activities, a tradition of volunteer service, and strong intercollegiate and intramural sports enrich the college experience. Westmont College is at the forefront of technological transformational age for education, where technology in the hands is becoming a critical component in the learning environment. The college has gone public with its use of cloud computing for application integration. It is using a cloud integration platform from Cast Iron Systems to secure two-way exchange of real-time information between Salesforce CRM, Westmont’s on-demand constituent relationship management application, and its Datatel enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, which runs on the college’s private network. According to the IT organization, future projects may include an internal cloud-based student information system that would provide confidential personal data, class schedules, and class lists that connect to the institution’s Moodle system. This new system helps Westmont students and faculty to be able to access college information on their iPhones and in the Google and Amazon clouds.
SM: Dr. Sheard, welcome to the “Thought Leaders in Cloud Computing” series on our blog. Can you share some background information on Westmont so that our readers can become familiar with the cloud computing adoption scenario? What was the size of the IT problem at Westmont before you adopted cloud computing?
RS: I work at Westmont College. It’s a private, Christian, liberal arts college in Santa Barbra, California, and it was founded in 1937. We have 1,200 students and Westmont is a capital enrollment, undergraduate-only college with 70 percent of our students going on to graduate school. We have a long tradition of academic excellence, students who go out and serve in all four corners of the planet doing a number of things: hard sciences, social services, church-based ministries, education, law, medicine; our students are involved in a number of areas. I serve as a vice president for college advancement as well as the chief information officer. I am the first CIO in the school’s history, and I was hired to try to bring alignment between the school’s academic excellence and its technology. In spite of the tremendous effort put in, IT at Westmont had fallen quite a bit behind its academic achievements, and this is why I’m on board to try and address this specific issue. My staff numbers 19 people, and they are divided into groups that deal with servers and networks, college software, support, and academic technology.
SM: Great! That’s the stage for the rest of the discussion. Dr. Sheard, when did you come on board at Westmont?
RS: October 4, 2008, just a little over two years ago.
SM: What was the IT department like or IT strategy when you came in? Could you share what were the problems the college was trying to solve using technology?
RS: The college had an interesting goal for IT, and it was that they had attempted to use primarily open source software to build an entire IT infrastructure. The team that worked on it is a very good team, but it was drastically understaffed and underfunded at the time of the problem scenario. What happened over time, as they grew piece by piece in this open source–based infrastructure, to build this whole thing out, was that part of it became unstable. Without an overall strategy, the team was fire fighting and team running over 100 percent just to keep things up and working. Every time there was a problem, it would often go on for a while. So things like instability in the network, e-mail outages, storage outages, backup problems, issues with signing on to the network, wireless performance, all the things you would expect. Issues such as these kept showing up – the standard enterprise service issues. The IT department was having a very difficult time in bringing stability to these areas. In addition, there was virtually no time to think about what was next or look at the bigger picture in terms of IT functions or to begin work on things that perhaps would matter for where the college is going, not just to make things run more reliably.
SM: Was there any adoption of cloud computing–based technologies back then? When you came to Westmont in 2008, what did you decide to move to the cloud, or what cloud strategies did you decide to implement?
RS: When I arrived at Westmont, there were no cloud initiatives, and a cloud strategy did not exist at all. It was actually a very pragmatic decision. If you remember, October 2008 was really the first stages of the economic implosion that was beginning to happen around the planet. The IT here was very traditional when I came in. Let’s just take one of the areas, which was e-mail. The setup was very unstable; we didn’t have enough staff to deal with it or [build] the right infrastructure. In traditional terms, to solve any such IT issue, you would do research on what you should buy, get the hardware and the software for it, bring in outside resources or hire additional people, and fix it. That is a classical way of dealing with an IT-related issue in an enterprise. With the economic implosion affecting everybody, including Westmont, that simply was not an option. To hire additional people or to get additional funds was not possible, yet IT had its task of having to stabilize this very important resource – e-mail – for the college.
So, looking to the cloud was really just a necessity for us. We had to think differently about how we wanted to address that particular area, and that is what led us to begin to do some work. Not just on e-mail, but also on spam filtering with Google, archiving with Google, and mobile. At that point Google did not have handheld wireless syncing or over-the-air syncing between calendars, contacts, and e-mail. We were figuring on how to do that. We moved into that just this year, out of practical necessity, and in a very short period, with minimal funds spent by the college, we were able to move from e-mail that at one point had been down for five straight days [to something more stable].