Allan Chen – Muhlenberg College
Walking through the green campus of Muhlenberg College, CIO Allan Chen sees students race across the campus from a contemporary dance class to an introduction to neuroscience class.
Since joining the liberal arts institution in 2015, Chen has always appreciated the way the Allentown, Pennsylvania-based college encourages students to dictate their path—a mindset it also applies to technology.
“There is a culture of the liberal arts that permeates at every level and leads to an eclectic perspective on how the college gets things accomplished,” he says. “In terms of IT, we are more nimble and projects can be on different schedules.”
In the last five years, Muhlenberg College has launched a new ERP, learning management software (LMS) and has significantly expanded the college’s Wi-Fi. On each project, Chen says his team adds a personal touch that mimics the individual attention students receive from teachers at the liberal arts college.
“We can actually go out and talk with the faculty on a regular basis and get them involved in new innovative ways,” he says.
Many of Muhlenberg College’s projects are also motivated by the shifting role of technology in higher education.
“Instead of just keeping the lights on, there is an expectation that we have to be innovative and impactful with our efforts,” Chen says. “I think Muhlenberg is doing a great job of staying at the forefront.”
To keep this up, Muhlenberg turns to partners like ISS Solutions, a customized technology lifestyle management solutions company, to provide timely and responsive hardware, desktop, server repair and maintenance.
Chen says the support is crucial to the infrastructure of the college, but also has a significant impact on student scholarship and productivity.
“It may sound dry, but if it took us a long time to get a new hard drive, fix a student’s desktop or get new memory, that would cause serious problems for us,” he says.
“The key thing for us is using technology to improve not only the educational side of the college, but the learning experience as a whole.”
This foundation means Chen and his team feel comfortable launching new projects, such as Canvas, a learning management system that is used by more than 3,000 universities, school districts and institutions in the U.S.
Muhlenberg piloted the software in spring 2016, and fully launched the program the following fall. The soft launch gave Chen and his team time to help faculty understand the advanced features and potential of the new system.
Canvas allows instructors to post course materials online and allows students to receive course updates by email, text, Twitter or LinkedIn. The software also uses an integration platform meaning that Muhlenberg can integrate Canvas with other products, making it scalable and flexible according to the institution’s needs.
Still, Chen says his favorite part of the new software is that teachers can interact more directly with students, using audio or video feedback on assignments, for example.
“As a liberal arts institution, we emphasize the personal touch; so with Canvas, teachers can engage with students on a much more individual level instead of just handing back a marked up assignment,” he says.
Wi-Fi for all
Last year, Muhlenberg decided it was time for another upgrade, and is launching the institution’s first ever ERP software. Chen and his team are implementing Workday, enterprise-level software that integrates all the college’s financial and human resources data onto a single platform.
“As a unified system, we can seamlessly connect all this information. So when [someone] takes a vacation, those days are immediately communicated to HR and then to finance and payroll,” Chen says.
Teachers and administrators aren’t the only ones benefiting from a new ERP.
Muhlenberg College is an early adopter of Workday Student, a spin-off system that organizes students’ grades, registration, advising and financial aid onto a single platform. It is expected to launch in summer 2019.
While Chen could go on about the college’s sophisticated LMS and ERP, he knows that at the end of the day, students care about one thing above all: Wi-Fi.
“They consider it as necessary as air. So we’ve taken it upon ourselves, since we deployed Wi-Fi in the first place a number of years ago, to dramatically expand and increase the network and capacity to meet the needs of today’s students,” Chen says.
Since it was launched in December 2015, the expanded Wi-Fi has allowed students and faculty to be more connected and has improved the quality of their work, Chen says. More recently, the IT department has been using the network as a platform for other services.
In 2016, Muhlenberg College launched an internet television application that gives students the ability to stream shows on their mobile devices and connect to one another through social media.
Chen says this is an example of how his department is supporting the social side of higher education, showcasing the “Muhlenberg College liberal arts mentality” at work.
“People think there is this divide between technology that is aimed at teachers, students and administrators, but at the end of the day, everything we do is about how are we enabling improvements or how are we directly creating improvements to help teaching and learning?” Chen says.
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