Jason Maslanka, Director of IT for Auxiliary Services at UIC, discusses how best to break down departmental silos to bring about technology innovation on his campus. Plus some great advice for those campuses just getting starting out with a campus one card program.
Jason Maslanka is the Director of IT for Auxiliary Services at University of Illinois at Chicago, more commonly referred to as UIC. With record enrollment this year, UIC is a large commuter campus in the middle of Chicago that services about 29,000 students. In his role at UIC Jason has perfected the art of going to meetings—but he’s most fond of attending meetings that are about initiatives and projects that involve technology.
Jason and his team have successfully introduced initiatives like the UIC mobile app by breaking down silos that are so common on large campuses. According to Jason, “…this allows a University to combine resources in a way that a small unit would never be able to do. Can a small unit afford to either pay a third party or hire a mobile developer to create a mobile app? No likely not. But that small unit as a part of 35 other units of varying sizes who all have a need for a piece of a mobile app, or all have a need for a database administrator that’s going to work on compiling data for assessment purposes—those things can happen when you bring people together. The goal is to allow those units who have specific missions in student learning or in revenue generating—whatever their mission may be—to focus on that mission and not focus on administrative overhead.
“Wherever you can find a shared group of people, whether that be sitting under a Vice President or Vice Chancellor or any other sort of large unit, I’m hugely in favor of centralization to a degree. And I think every campus has to find where that line is—where that centralization serves them well and can be agile enough to serve their very specific needs.”
Answering the Need For a Mobile Presence
In 2013, UIC had problem. With almost 30,000 students they did not have any sort of mobile presence. A few apps that students had made that tracked the buses and similar things floated around campus but nothing official, and nothing that brought together all of the stakeholders on campus to create something for students, for faculty, for staff. At that time Jason and other stakeholders started to sit down and look at the options. Those options included in-house development—a difficult proposition. Finding mobile app developers looking to work at a university for university salaries and with all the the burdens that come with working at a university is not an easy feat.
UIC took stock of their in-house resources and took a look at all the companies that provided the sort of product they needed. After a selection process the campus chose the best vendor to meet their needs. However, whether doing it in-house or hiring someone from the outside or whether you buy something that’s “out of the box” to do that for you—it’s how you bring the stakeholders together on campus.
The mobile app project was a perfect example of something that no one unit could have afforded to have produced, but a number of units can. Jason and his team had to balance the needs of the various stakeholders, including what he calls “pure auxiliaries”—units that provide a service but are revenue generating and self-supporting—and those units like Athletics that are not at all an auxiliary.
Even the computer center or campus safety were taken into consideration in trying to think of all the applicable modules. Even units that aren’t considered auxiliaries still want to be in front of the students via the medium they are using, which is their phones for the most part.
By breaking down silos through communication and open feedback, the UIC mobile app project is a perfect example of how a number of people across campus can come together to create something of real value for their students and stakeholders.
The Challenges of Calculating Success
While the UIC mobile app was a huge success in the eyes of the students and those involved with the project, determining precise metrics of success is a difficult measure for any campus.
Currently the only tracking of metrics is very similar to tracking website hits. Different parts of the app are tracked separately and the University can see what modules students regularly use and what they don’t. However this is an area where Jason intends to improve.
Some of the challenge comes down to waiting for the third party vendor to have a solution with more robust metric tracking features. But the other part of the challenge is finding the prioritizing limited resources to track some of this on their own.
Getting student feedback continually with every new class that comes in is extremely important. Without that, the app will eventually lose its effectiveness in two or three years when suddenly it doesn’t have any of the things that their students are looking for.
Jason: “Is there a line to be drawn that says we needed to be in this space because when students go to the Google Play store or the iTunes store and search UIC or Illinois of Chicago or whatever they search as a seventeen year old and get nothing, that’s a problem. And so that problem is easy to identify and easy to solve but now in terms of the actual users who are here, whether it be freshman, sophomore, so on and so forth. How is this affecting them and what they do—are they more involved on campus? It’s certainly not all about revenue by any means. But I think we struggle with that even outside of an app, like how do you measure ROI on student engagement? Yes, you can look at students who are engaged in any number of ways, and then what their grades look like or what their graduation rates are. But even that doesn’t break it all the way down to was it their student employment that assisted with that, was it their participation in being the President of the Young Engineers Club? We’re not able at this point to get further than: engaged students graduate better and unengaged students don’t.”
Jason’s Advice To New Campus One Card Departments
“I would take a close look at what that system might look like in four years. Where are all the areas that can be used, who are you in competition with? Being in the middle of Chicago we are surrounded by things that we don’t control. That’s likely a very different environment than being a campus that is not at all surrounded by things that they don’t control from a business perspective. So take a look at all of that and how will it serve your students. That may not tie directly into the eventual revenue that that program will bring in, but at some level how well that system will serve students will have an effect on the revenue.
Talk to some of the new vendors on the market, go to conferences and see what they have to say. You may not be ready for the big steps of the move towards mobile ordering and payment with your phone—I don’t know that I am either and that’s a world I like a lot. But it can’t hurt to know those things. I wouldn’t just jump head first into doing what’s been done.
We recently took all the readers off of our laundry rooms and housing and part of that was we weren’t charging anything anyway. We used the readers for tracking purposes. Laundry is a lot cheaper than it was fifteen years ago working with those companies, and it was just a service we could provide to students. I don’t know if we’re calculating it perfectly like a business might, but the return on investment of telling students who are coming here to UIC that “hey laundry has no cost!” is something that we felt was worth it rather than collecting three thousand dollars a year—and not even after we pay for all the hardware and the licensing related to having laundry readers.
So think critically about all those things and see where you really need the system to work because it’s also a system that you have to maintain and keep up with. Or else you’re providing even worse service by students not being able to do laundry or print on a Saturday morning or any of the other things that a campus card system does.
Get in touch with Jason at email@example.com or find him on Twitter @_JasonM_. Also check out a couple of UIC projects below: