Outsourcing, Open Source and Budget Cuts

Annual survey of campus IT departments finds more spending reductions and embrace of cloud-based e-mail -- and mass adoption of emergency notification systems.
October 29, 2008

It turns out information technology wasn't immune to the past year's worsening economic conditions. As colleges across the country adjust their budgets and prepare for possible belt tightening ahead, support for campus network and computing functions could take a hit.

The evidence can be found in the 2008 Campus Computing Project survey of IT in American higher education, released today at the annual Educause conference, held this week in Orlando. The survey also highlights trends that show no signs of slowing down, such as outsourcing of e-mail services and adoptions of mass notification systems for security purposes, and pinpoints some changes to watch for in the future, such as the acceptance of open source and use of clickers in the classroom.

This year's survey, culled from 531 respondents over the Web from September to October of this year, covers the spectrum of institutions from two-year public colleges to doctoral research universities. As with last year, the No. 1 issue on IT administrators' minds is network and data security, with 20.3 percent saying it topped their list of concerns. But, in a reflection of the changing economic landscape, they worried nearly as much (16.7 percent) about retaining and hiring staff. That's especially the case at public universities, where it's the top concern.

“Rather than the one very clear priority we saw in 2000 -- instructional integration at 40 percent -- the 2008 data reflect competing, critical priorities: IT security, retaining staff and financing IT resources," Kenneth C. Green, the project's founding director, said in the report.

Almost half (45.4 percent) of public universities reported IT budget cuts this fall, up from 16.3 percent last year. For public four-year colleges, those numbers are 44.4 percent; 16.7 percent last year. Fewer private institutions -- between 22 to 23 percent -- reported cuts, while 24.6 percent of community colleges reported decreases to their IT budgets.

“This new round of IT budget reductions come[s] just as many campuses were beginning to recover from the budget cuts that marked the economic downturn during the first years of the current decade," Green said in the report. "The demand for technology resources and services continues to rise, even as the dollars supporting these resources and services are cut from institutional budgets.”

Other highlights in the report continue patterns seen in previous years. More security incidents on campus continue to result from thefts of computers containing sensitive data as well as intentional employee misconduct, a trend the survey first picked up on last year. While hacking and network attacks continue to be the most-reported security breaches, the frequency of such incidents continues to decrease, from over 50 percent of responding institutions in 2005 to just over 25 percent this year.

Ever since last year's shooting deaths at Virginia Tech, colleges have been scrambling to update their emergency response plans and install instant notification systems that contact students via text message, e-mail and even physical loudspeakers. The survey reports that a year and a half later, nationwide progress is almost complete -- with 5.5 percent of respondents reporting that they don't have such a system in place, compared to 25 percent last year. (That number is highest for community colleges, at 13.1 percent without a system, and lowest for private universities, at 2.3 percent.)

Still, Green cautioned that 76.6 percent of responding institutions have "opt-in" systems, requiring students to sign up for the notification system. If only a third of students do so -- not an unreasonable assumption -- "the benefits and effectiveness ... are clearly limited," according to the report.

Meanwhile, although enterprise, license-based learning management platforms continue to dominate the higher education landscape (56.8 percent use Blackboard, down from 66.3 percent last year), the potential for increasing open source adoption remains. For the first time, the survey asked respondents about their likelihood to adopt open-source solutions such as Moodle or Sakai. Almost a quarter, 24.4 percent, reported a high likelihood that their institutions would migrate within five years, by 2013. The numbers were significantly lower for other open-source applications, such as content management systems and human resource management software.

As it stands, Moodle is used at more than twice the number of colleges than Sakai, with 10 percent adopting the former institution-wide compared with under 4 percent for the latter. The discrepancy owes mainly to private four-year colleges, which overwhelmingly choose Moodle, while public universities favor Sakai in almost a reverse pattern. The two solutions are divided about equally in other sectors.

Other findings in the report:

  • As more institutions pass off their e-mail services to third-party providers, Google continues to dominate. About 75 percent of private research universities that do so outsource to Google as compared to Microsoft, although competition is much closer at public universities and community colleges. Excluding community colleges, depending on the type of institution, between 40 to 50 percent of colleges outsource their e-mail services or are in the process of doing so.
  • The use of clickers is rising, although they continue to be relatively rare classroom tools. At community colleges, especially, their use doubled over the past year -- to just over 4 percent.


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