Digital Transformation in Higher Education (Las Vegas 2020)

The University of New Hampshire has transformed our web and mobile applications through the use of DevOps practices over the last four years. DevOps is still not widely adopted within higher education. The typical stories of deploying dozens of times daily or of beating your competitors to market just don’t make sense within the education space, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not significant value to be gained as colleges and universities struggle with fewer traditional students due to demographic changes, challenging funding situations, and questions about the value of a bachelor’s degree given the higher and higher tuition costs. To be successful, we must focus on our mission, which for UNH is to help our students learn. The websites and applications we build and support need to attract and retain our students, help raise donations, and enable our faculty. Our own journey has both gone down and up at the same time. When we started, we were running well over 600 separate websites using at least half-a-dozen different technologies. This is not at all uncommon within the education space as most schools’ web presence evolved and grew organically without plan or direction. We have merged and eliminated sites, standardizing as we go, and focusing on our core framework using Drupal. We are down to around 200 distinct websites, with the main sites for our colleges, departments, and most central services now having identical infrastructure and user experience. Five years ago, all of these sites existed on two servers. Since, those two servers have been replaced with 1000+ Docker containers, fed and managed by CI/CD pipelines, to provide robust, isolated, and scalable infrastructure. Data has been a key part of our journey. Our academic department websites now reference several central sources of truth to automate creation and updating of content. For example, instead of having to manually maintain lists of faculty members along with their teaching and research interests, we now generate those parts of each department website automatically from central systems of record. Achieving this has been challenging, because much of the core data about our faculty, students, and courses has been locked away in highly restricted database systems. Getting access to new data elements previously took months. We now bring that data into our own systems where we can directly access and create with this information. Higher education IT is different from many businesses in that often of our most important applications are not of our own creation. For example, the learning management system (LMS) is the tool that touches every student and faculty member on a daily basis to share course content, enable communication, provide assessment and feedback, and serve as a source of data on student progress. Our LMS is outsourced. It is one of many software-as-a-service applications we use that determine our student experience. We must manage and maintain these applications, even though we don’t create the code ourselves. One of our newest DevOps endeavors is bringing practices like continuous testing and automation of provisioning and configuration management to the SaaS space. We are embarking on this work just as a major transformation is beginning within our entire IT organization, to bring together all of the IT staff across all of the institutions that make up the University System of New Hampshire. Our team’s DevOps journey has us uniquely prepared and ready to scale out across the entire state to take on this new challenge to better support and enable our students.

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David Blezard

Associate Director of Academic Technology, University of New Hampshire

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