Report: Few campus IT leaders see AI as a top priority
Technology, and its importance in the classroom, have garnered increasing attention at most colleges and universities in recent years, transforming from a helpful learning tool to an indispensable part of higher ed infrastructure. That attention grew in the last year thanks to the explosive growth and public adoption of artificial intelligence tools.
For chief technology and chief information officers, the AI landscape is rife with caution. According to Inside Higher Eds 2023 Survey of Campus Chief Technology/Information Officers, most respondents reported embryonic use of the technology, if they used it at all. Only 16 percent of CIOs described investing in AI as a high priority or essential for their institution. At least a third of respondents each said they are considering experimenting with artificial intelligence (38 percent), machine learning (34 percent) and adaptive learning (34 percent).
Questions exploring the role and impact of AI were new additions to this years annual survey, which examined the technology and its place within institutions. CIOs answered questions about their institutions efforts to use the growing suite of technological tools and capabilities.
Digital transformation remains a challenging area for CIOs, who reported resistance among faculty and staff members and a lack of financial investment. While nearly three-quarters of CIOs (73 percent) called digital transformation a high priority or essential for their institution, only about half (51 percent) said leaders at their institution feel the same way. Also, roughly a quarter (24 percent) of CIOs said their institutions had incomplete or ineffective digital transformation goals, and 27 percent cited a lack of centralized coordination.
More About the Survey
The survey was administered online in August and September. Out of the more than 1,900 emails sent, roughly 140 respondents completed the survey partially or fully, yielding a 7.4 percent response rate. The margin of error is 8 percent. The survey excluded specialty colleges, including Bible colleges and seminaries with a Carnegie classification of 24 and institutions with fewer than 500 enrolled students. The respondents hailed from a nearly equal number of private versus public institutions, with 72 public, 66 private and two for-profit institutions.
In addition to addressing emerging technologies, the survey revisited topics from last years inaugural CIO survey. Cybersecurity, a realm of uncertainty a year ago, saw improvements. The proportion of CIOs reporting that they were moderately, very or extremely confident that their institutions cybersecurity practices could prevent ransomware attacks rose from 73 percent to 82 percent.
The survey was conducted in partnership with Hanover Research and released in conjunction with the start of the annual Educause conference. Inside Higher Ed regularly surveys key campus leaders on pressing topics ranging from admissions to student success. A copy of this years CTO/CIO report can be downloaded here. To view the free Nov. 8 webinar discussing the surveys results, register here.
AI and Emerging Technology
Artificial intelligence has pervaded the public consciousness since OpenAI debuted its chat bot ChatGPT in November 2022. Since that launch, AI has been increasingly on the minds of students and employees at higher education institutions.
Despite AIs seemingly ubiquitous presence in conversation, few academic technology leaders consider it critically important. According to the survey, only 16 percent of CIOs said investing in AI is a high priority or essential for their institution. More than two-thirds of respondents (69 percent) called it a low to medium priority.
It could be too early for too much investment in AI, according to Stephen Harmon, executive director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
The technologies you look at in terms of institutional investment are often too new to merit substantial investment, particularly AI and quantum computing, he said in an email. We dont know where these technologies will end up, so as a CIO, I would be reluctant to invest heavily at a production level.
He instead suggested experimenting with the technology, which, according to the study, is a common theme among higher education technology officials. The survey found 38 percent of CIOs are considering experimenting with AI, with roughly the same number of respondents (34 percent) considering machine learning.
Theres less interest from CIOs when it comes to quantum computing, the multidisciplinary practice of using quantum mechanics to solve complex problems faster than traditional computers. Nearly two-thirds of CIOs said the technology is not in their short-term plans. But more than one-third of CIOs (34 percent) of public doctoral institutions said they made meaningful investments in quantum computing. Only 6 percent of private doctoral institutions said the same.
It could take time. Harmon pointed toward other technologies, such as immersive learning and virtual reality, that have been in the public eye longer than AI and yet still have not reached a level of usefulness for an enterprise-wide adoption.
The survey did reveal larger concerns with the implications of AI. More than one-third of respondents (36 percent) said they were either very or extremely concerned about the impact of large language models such as ChatGPT and Bard. Public institutions had slightly more concerns than private institutions83 percent of CIOs at public institutions had moderate to extreme concerns. More than six in 10 tech leaders at private institutions said they were very or extremely concerned.
Despite these concerns, only 10 percent of responding CIOs said their institutions have teams to address AI ethics and security, and only 7 percent have policies in that area.
The limited focus on AI security and ethics is concerning, said Fiona Hollands, senior researcher at Teachers College at Columbia University and founder of EdResearcher. In a world where committees are rife, establishing oversight committees and drafting policies seems an obvious place to start preparing for the inevitable incursion of AI into many aspects of higher education, she said in an email.
The survey does show a discrepancy between investment and broader use of AI. While most CIOs report not making large investments in AI, four in 10 stated that their institution is in the beginning (38 percent) or advanced (2 percent) stages of using generative AI technology for instructional purposes. Nearly the same number of CIOs (37 percent) said their institution is in the beginning stages of using generative AI for simple administrative tasks. Roughly a quarter (28 percent) of CIOs said their institution is in the beginning or advanced stages of using generative AI for research assistance.
While the very new concerns over AI remain largely unaddressed, CIOs said their institutions are investing heavily in cybersecurity.
Higher education has come under fire in the last year after repeated hacks and data breaches and institutions paying large, undisclosed sums in ransom demands. Many of the hacks were spurred by the MOVEit breachin May, a ransomware group claimed it stole data by breaching MOVEit, a software product used for file transfers, and security experts estimate the information of millions of people may have been affected.
Of the surveyed CIOs, 82 percent said they are moderately to extremely confident their institutions practices can prevent ransomware attacks. Thats on par with 2022s responses, when 51 percent said they were moderately confident, 20 percent said they were very confident and 2 percent said extremely confident.
The most used cybersecurity offerings are multifactor authentication for all employee accounts, with 93 percent of respondents requiring it. Similarly important to CIOs, 92 percent reported updating their software within the last year to help with cybersecurity practices. Most respondents (83 percent) also said they required cybersecurity training for full-time administrative staff.
Fewer campus technology leaders took other cybersecurity measures. Only 34 percent said they had archived all data in the last 12 months to help cyber practices, and just a quarter of respondents (25 percent) had employed a white-hat hacker to flag vulnerabilities in the systems.
More than two-thirds (69 percent) of CIOs said they had a chief or senior technology officer primarily responsible for overseeing cybersecurity. Having a dedicated cybersecurity leader was an exception compared to other digital areas. According to the survey, fewer CIOs indicated they had an officer overseeing privacy (36 percent), online education (28 percent) or innovation (23 percent).
Online Learning and Infrastructure
Online learning and its needed infrastructure, once a unique offering for institutions, have become a mainstay of higher education. According to the survey, 83 percent of CIOs said their ability to offer high-quality hybrid courses has increased since the pandemic, with 71 percent agreeing their online offerings have significantly improved. That same number (71 percent) said their institutions will sustain the ability to offer high-quality online courses.
While 84 percent of CIOs say their institution provides the technical support needed for creating and teaching online courses, many said institutions are not rewarding technology-minded faculty. Fewer than half of the institutions (49 percent) provide additional compensation for the development of online courses. When it comes to tenure and promotion decisions, only 42 percent of institutions consider experience teaching with technology. And only four in 10 CIOs (37 percent) say institutions reward faculty and staff for contributions made to digital pedagogy.
However, most CIOs are satisfied with the technology infrastructure itself. Nearly every respondent (92 percent) rated their Wi-Fi and wireless networks as good or excellent. Nearly as many (89 percent) said their learning management system was also good or excellent. A little over half of institutions (61 percent) had centralized data warehouses to store data.
When it came to other infrastructure, though, satisfaction slipped. With mobile apps and services for students, faculty and staff, just 33 percent rated them as good, with 54 percent stating they were fair or poor. More than three in five (62 percent) rated IT training for students as fair or poor. IT training for faculty had only slightly better numbers, with 47 percent rating it fair or poor.
The majority of CIOs (68 percent) said their institution makes data analytics a priority, and 69 percent said the institutions use the data effectively to inform important decisions.
It does make one wonder how important decisions are made if they are not data-informed, EdResearchers Hollands said.
There is a heavy focus on digital transformation within institutions and its impact on positive outcomes across campus. The survey did not provide a definition of digital transformation, a trendy phrase with broad potential definitions. Educause defines it as a series of deep and coordinated culture, workforce and technology shifts that enable new educational and operating models and transform an institutions operations, strategic directions, and value proposition. The Science and Information Organization states that it is an organizational change realized by means of digital technologies and business models with the aim to improve.
Of the CIO respondents, 73 percent said they personally believe digital transformation is an essential or high priority for their institution.
Nearly four in five of respondents (78 percent) said their institutions are focusing on using digital transformation efforts for student success, citing it as a high or essential priority. That work is visible as universities adopt a range of tactics, from telehealth partnerships to boost mental health to using third-party vendors to engage remote learners.
Three-quarters of CIOs said using student data for better learning or retention insights is a high or essential priority, and 64 percent view it as a high or essential priority for teaching and learning.
According to the survey, more public institutions (85 percent) prioritize utilizing data to boost student success as a high or essential priority, compared to 70 percent in private institutions.
Despite the heavy focus and perceived necessity, 60 percent of CIOs said their institution has not set specific goals for digital transformation. Of the CIOs that said their institutions did have goals, most (77 percent) added it would take one to three years to accomplish the most pressing ones.
It was disappointing to see that not a single respondent indicated their institution has already completed the digital transformation projects it considered most important and that 60 percent reported their institution has not set specific goals for digital transformation, Hollands said. The main problem may lie with the incentive structure for those who control [higher education institutions]. Faculty members, who often hold the balance of power, are under pressure to earn tenure, publish, and raise research funding and therefore may not prioritize efficiency of institutional operations or changes to the status quo.
Some of the roadblocks, respondents said, are the lack of funds available, coupled with resistance from faculty and staff. There was also the issue of lack of centralized coordination, with 27 percent of respondents citing it as an issue and 24 percent saying goals were incomplete or ineffective.
Despite 30 percent of CIOs believing digital transformation is essential for their institution, the same respondents said only 15 percent of leaders at their institutions hold the same belief. Those numbers held largely steady across both private and public institutions.
Georgia Techs Harmon was unsurprised at the digital transformation findings. Senior leadership may rightly be more concerned with other things than digital transformation, particularly if they are at institutions that are facing declining enrollments, he said.
I think we are beginning to see a division among [higher education] institutions between those that are growing and those that are not, he said. Growing, or at least stable, institutions have more capacity for infrastructure and innovation advancement, and the gap between those that are able to invest in these ways and those that are not may be widening.
Staffing and Remote Work
Organizations in the technology sector have long touted their flexible work environments and high salaries, making it tough for higher education institutions to compete when hiring and retaining employees, according to the technology leaders surveyed.
Salary is the top concern when it comes to hiring, with 91 percent of CIOs stating it is the No. 1 issue when it comes to recruiting, and keeping, employees. More flexible remote work policies at other organizations also make it harder to compete, according to 55 percent of CIOs.
The capabilities for remote work in higher education are there; 75 percent of respondents stated they strongly agree their institutions have the tech to make flexible or remote work viable. The expectation of flexibility has increased post-pandemic, according to respondents, with 86 percent stating employees expect more flexibility in working when and where they want.
However, only 41 percent of CIOs said their institutions have policies that encourage remote or flexible work, which could lead to problems with hiring or keeping employees.
Unlike the sweeping cuts that many colleges and universities seem to be experiencing, most CIOs (62 percent) report their institutions did not cut back on the central IT budget during the 202223 year. And 47 percent of respondents had a budget between $1 million and $5 million.
About half (49 percent) of respondents said their 202324 central IT budget should stay the same as the prior academic year, 23 percent expected their budget to be somewhat higher, and the remaining 23 percent expected it to be somewhat lower.
The money is, in part, being put to good use, according to the respondents. Roughly three in five (61 percent) of the CIOs surveyed said their institutions investment in services and IT resources in on-campus teaching and instruction are very or extremely effective. About the same amount (57 percent) said the IT resources are being used effectively in student recruitment, with 54 percent saying the same for IT resources in student financial assistance.
When it comes to IT resources in other uses, the satisfaction begins to dip. One-third of respondents positively viewed investment in IT resources for learning/managerial analytics, 29 percent viewed it positively for IT resource use in faculty research and scholarship, and only 22 percent were happy with IT resource use in alumni engagement and activities.
However, public institution CIOs rate the investment in IT resources pertaining to learning and managerial analytics more positively than their private institution counterparts do, with 42 percent calling it very or extremely effective, compared to 23 percent of those at private institutions.
- Nearly half (48 percent) of CIOs agree that senior administrators at their institution treat the central technology unit more like a utility than a strategic partner, a slight decrease from the 52 percent that somewhat or strongly agreed with that sentiment in 2022.
- Nearly two-thirds of CIOs are in the presidents cabinet, similar to 2022, and 94 percent said they expect to remain in the cabinet. Of the CIOs in those positions, 71 percent were added to the cabinet before 2020.
- More CIOs from public institutions (35 percent) than those from private institutions (12 percent) indicate that more than 100 employees are managed by their institutions central IT department.