Developing an IT Infrastructure for Students’ Heads, Hearts & Hands

Paul Nast, Chief Information Officer of John Brown University (JBU), joins Dr. Jeff Borden in this episode of Connected Campus. Paul shares how the JBU’s mission to aid in a student’s holistic development has influenced his views of IT as a business partner, deepened JBU’s interest in digital connectivity, and inspired a “coopetition” with peer universities.

 

The Goal of Forming “Student Connections” Shouldn’t Be Strictly Academic

When some higher education professionals talk about forming stronger student connections, the focus on retention and academic success can overshadow the key reasons students attend an institution in the first place. As a smaller school, John Brown University (JBU) understands that its key differentiators are personal development and counseling offered beyond the standard curriculum. 

“One of our mottos is ‘Head, heart, and hand’. And that speaks to the intellectual, the spiritual, and the professional development that we focus on for students,” said Paul.

For Paul, this has translated to finding innovative ways to engage with students on multiple fronts. He understands that the JBU experience is the university’s primary value proposition, not a piece of paper they receive in exchange for graduating. “That value is something I think we have to work very hard to continue to communicate as we recruit new students and their families to the JBU experience.

“I don’t want to stop at the experiences that we typically think of, like the classroom experience or the relationship with faculty. As an IT professional, I need to also think about the digital experience as being a part of that equation. That’s why our department’s big theme is to create delightful experiences for students, faculty, and staff.”


Paul knows that IT can offer so much more than making sure the internet is always on. They want to be an integral part of the JBU student experience by connecting students seamlessly with the resources they need to become successful people–not just successful graduates.

Now Is the Time to Invest in Digital Technology

With the financial instability introduced by COVID-19, some of JBU’s less essential projects were put on hold. Expanding their digital footprint was categorized as a critical business need, and projects went forward as planned.

JBU had engaged with Campus prior to the pandemic to provide students another means to connect with one another. Once the pandemic hit, they faced the possibility of closing their campus and realized that expanding online education made a lot of sense. JBU needed to accelerate their digital development rather than change any investment plans.

“The pandemic created a climate that really cried out for a digital platform where students, faculty, and staff alike could engage with and connect with one another.”

When discussing Campus, Paul said, “A digital platform provides another reason to engage and stay engaged–not only just to find resources or to have sort of a link farm to get to resources. We needed a platform where students could engage with one another outside of the classroom and outside of their interpersonal relationships.”

Do Smaller Institutions Have an Advantage?

Being a smaller institution allows for more personalized advising relationships between students and the broader faculty. 

“All of our faculty also fulfill the role of advisor. If a student goes into a particular academic program, the faculty will help a student chart out their academic career. However, they’re also going to invest time in the student as a person and help with their professional and spiritual development.”

“We’ve seen faculty members consistently go beyond their self-interest. They might actually counsel that student to leave a given program and suggest an alternative, as an example.”

JBU also uses analytics to alert faculty to students at academic risk, but it’s not their only focus. They want to empower students to make a positive impact on others. At JBU, they work very hard to support students’ intellectual development, professional development, and spiritual development.

What’s on the Horizon for Smaller Institutions?

Many who are familiar with Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education’s series of reports are very concerned about the predicted drop in high school graduates. Religious institutions are also impacted by the significant drop over the last two decades in church attendance.

“For faith-based schools, it’s no secret that we’ve already seen a decline in admissions and our culture overall. The decline in church attendance impacts the number of students that would be specifically interested in a faith-based school or a Christian education.”

This challenge has created some exciting collaborations between peer institutions. Instead of focusing on one another as competitors, they focus on the similarities in their goals, missions, and struggles. Paul told us it creates a stronger connection.

“We want the success of one another. I think the more that we can do to help each other, the better. You can see some of the benefits coming about from the consortium arrangements we’re seeing. By banding together, they’re building greater political and financial clout. Universities with the same values that can find ways to work together are setting themselves up for greater success.”