Information Technology

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Pitt put into place the basic components for planning and reviewing information technology (IT) at the University; these included centralizing authority for academic computing in the newly hired head of Computing Services and Systems Development (CSSD); regularizing the financial support system; and developing the strategic plan of May 2000, An Information Technology Foundation for the 21st Century (Appendix B4). This plan set fairly ambitious goals (near cutting-edge state-of-the-art technology for networking systems; reliable, high-speed, 5 easy-to-use network; cost-effective high-quality access; full range of voice, data, and multimedia services) while also making detailed proposals forchanging or implementing particular technical systems. Updates to this plan in 2003 and 2005 and a 2008 executive summary on CSSD by the Provost reaffirmed its large-scale goals, reported on progress on individual proposals, and outlined some new goals while stressing the need for flexibility in ongoing IT implementations.

Planning, Assessment, and Links to Institutional Goals

In May 2000, the Information Technology Steering Committee (ITSC), which had been charged by the Chancellor to recommend policies to address the University’s growing needs in computing and information technology, submitted the University’s first comprehensive IT plan. The plan had as one of its most important elements a framework for decision making that clarified the responsibilities of the central University budget to provide the necessary environment for the operation of the University’s programs; the responsibilities of the schools and other units of the University to meet the special needs of their individual missions; and the responsibilities of individual faculty members, staff members, and students as they planned to use University resources in their work. With this clarity of responsibility and the placement of resources at correct levels, it was for the first time possible for individuals and units of the University to react confidently to opportunities, to make the best choices in allocating scarce resources, and to form cooperative consortia as needs arose. With the implementation of this plan and its updated versions, the University was able, for the first time, to fully integrate computing and IT into the ongoing development of its programs.

ITSC, composed mainly of upper-level academic administrators and staff and chaired by the Provost, reviews IT performances and sets goals for each year. The most significant mid- and long-range strategic planning takes place through this committee. A standing committee of the University Senate receives regular reports on new developments and is primarily a means for interested stakeholders to stay informed about current issues. The Provost-level Council on Academic Computing explores emerging trends and issues in computing and provides feedback to the Provost.

IT poses some special challenges for longterm strategic planning and assessment because of the pace of change across the field, with cycles of rapid innovation and quick obsolescence, hard-to-predict emergent uses with uneven uptake across various academic units, and complex correlations between specific developments in IT’s technological infrastructure and capacities and the larger and quite varied academic and institutional missions IT serves. Even more than in other academic areas, strategic planning in IT is necessarily provisional and concerned with large-scale changes. At the same time, the very nature of information technology makes possible low-cost, real-time feedback about patterns of use, emerging problems, and the effectiveness of various remedies at both local and systemic levels.

Examples of Assessment Used to Improve Infrastructure

CSSD has implemented a rich array of varied forms of assessment throughout its systems as well as regular reviews of its capacities and future directions. A few examples follow:

  • Each week, the Help Desk compiles the top 10 questions/problems in order to resolve them more holistically. This practice exemplifies the low-cost, continuous, and effective self-assessment that is a distinguishing feature of CSSD.
  • More generally, IT staff conduct an ongoing analysis of systemic problems and means of resolving them. More than 130 strategic metrics are currently collected on a regular basis. Most routine problems with the efficient operation of the computing environment are effectively identified and addressed through these protocols.
  • Focus groups and surveys provide regular user feedback. A selection of survey results from April 2009 to September 2010 is included in the working group report.
  • Pitt’s IT systems are benchmarked against peer and aspirational peer institutions. For example, a report on alumni e-mail service situates Pitt’s services against a total of seven peer and aspirational peer universities.

Several case studies provide clear evidenceof the ways that CSSD incorporates a culture of assessment in its regular operations. For example, the review of proposed changes to e-mail kiosks demonstrates careful attention to costs, benefits, and changes in technology. The report details the number and location of existing kiosks as well as the average logins per kiosk per day over a three-year period (academic years 2007–09). It proposes a reduction based on actual usage and informed by recognition of the evolving technological and social environment of e-mail use.

Both the security plan of 2004–06 and the Web portal design proposal of 2010 reveal similar modes of careful planning with attention to technical issues as well as user interfaces. It is interesting to compare the two reports to note the appropriate differences in focus—from system architecture in relation to security to user responses through surveys in relation to the portal design—that demonstrate the flexibility of CSSD personnel in identifying appropriate forms of assessing ongoing plans.

Improving and Defining a Sustainable Assessment Practice

CSSD has articulated a low-cost, real-time, and systematic culture of assessment within its regular operations. There is effective oversight and review, especially by ITSC. When completed, the new strategic plan under development within ITSC will be distributed to the larger University community.