The Year Ahead in Higher Ed Technology
What happens when tough economic times combine with fatigue across the campus community hyping the latest “killer app,” and the growing intolerance of disruptions to services occasioned by security-related activities? I think the intersection of these three realities represent the most important challenges for campus information technology leaders in 2009.
We have not seen three years of negative economic growth since the birth of the Internet. We are one year into the global recession and the crystal-ball gazing under way on most campuses is not producing rosy scenarios. Chief information officers at most universities are closing in on “core” operations as they respond to cost cutting requirements after more than five years of marginal growth.
CIOs are portfolio managers. Like their counterparts, CIO portfolio management is really about meeting three goals: operating effectively, satisfying customers, and selectively engaging in innovation (R&D). In the sort of three-year downturn that most experts envision, tough decisions will be required to perform strongly in all three of those areas.
For many university technology leaders, the emergence over the past couple of years of Web 2.0 technologies represented a confluence of maturing underlying technologies combined with the rise of what we asserted was the first really promising set of mass collaboration tools. Here we were sitting on the precipice of the long promised “transformational” potential of technology to the education enterprise -- and then the economy tanks.
In reality, the economic downturn is only one reason that the campus community is less enamored with Web 2.0 tools than most of us technologists. For many across the university the rate of change in introducing ever more exciting technologies has left them, to put it diplomatically, breathless. In reality, the hype over Web 2.0 is only the most recent instantiation of the long held view that we technologists are amusing ourselves and the rest of the campus to death, forever one gadget or applet away from the ultimate breakthrough.
Finally, whether it is the latest Facebook virus, botnets instigated from far flung corners of the world, or the now predictable “urgent” security fixes from our favorite vendors, there is a real sense across the campus that the “bad guys” are winning the war. What was simply a nuisance that could be solved with a bit of end-user education and throwing some hardware at the problem has emerged into our own full fledged war on the forces of evil on the Internet. Like recent international conflicts, most on the university campus are ready to conclude that we have neither a strategy for winning this war nor an exit strategy.
Combined, economic blues, end-user fatigue, and a growing sense of collective vulnerability to the forces that would seek to harm us has the campus technology community facing its biggest set of challenges in 25 years.
Against that sobering backdrop, here are my top 10 IT trends for higher education for 2009:
1. To The Cloud and Beyond. Watch for significant moves in the university space in the use of Internet-based, or “cloud,” technology that goes well beyond e-mail services. I expect we'll see the emergence of shared storage utilities and a range of “web services” in 2009 following industry trends, campus economic pressure, and ecological considerations. While the same resistance points will find their way into campus deliberations, resistance is too expensive, distracts us from where we can bring real value, and ultimately futile. But for the most regulated storage requirements, there really is no alternative.
2. The Consumer Reigns Supreme. There has been an academic debate in most large organizations for five years about how we were going to manage the growing presence of consumer technologies within our enterprises. No more. The tsunami is here. Those of us still debating the merits of attending to Facebook, iTouch/iPhone, streaming media, massive player online gaming, mashups, and virtual reality platforms are staring at the wall of this tidal wave of consumer technologies. New trends in 2009 will likely include the first college-centered breakthroughs for mobile computing after mass notification. Watch for location-based technologies and presence technologies embedded in mobile smart phones and other devices (like wi-fi enabled iTouch) to lead to the first set of scalable campus applets.
3. Streaming Media for Education Goes Mainstream. Students expect it. Teachers accept it. Network engineers will have to live with it. Academic technologists need to figure out how to scale it. In the next 12 months, I think YouTube, iTunes U, and the plethora of campus-based services for academic streaming media are going to hit main street. Economics plus assessment data now provide compelling evidence that student success is positively associated with the integration of streaming media into the capture and review of traditional learning models of instructor-centered delivery. In the next year I expect that we will see significant acceleration of efforts associated with video/speech to text technologies to provide real time transcripts for purposes of enhanced search capabilities. I also expect that large repositories of meta-tagged and transcoded academic assets (classes, recitations, seminars etc ...) will begin to emerge allowing for federated searches and mashing up of learning content by students and faculty alike.
4. SecondLife Goes Back to School. Initial exuberance and hype led to hundreds of universities experimenting with 3D Virtual Worlds three years ago. The user-generated universe requires new pedagogy and curriculum considerations. Academic technologists and the education community has learned a lot over the past several years. Look for new functionality and education-centered technology capabilities over the next year. The net result should be an exciting and provocative set of new collaborative capabilities to help enable more campus control and flexible tools for learning. Dust off your avatar and get ready for one of the most important collaborative learning platforms to make inroads in the year ahead.
5. e-Book Readers Disrupt the College Text Book Market Place. Early predictions of the demise of the college text book market in 2008 were highly exaggerated. Sony and Amazon (among others) are in the e-Book Reader space for the long haul. Early this year, expect to see new hardware form factors reflecting a more mature and robust technology. More important, I think we'll see pilot activity among the book publishers and the e-book publishing industry to work with the campus to create relevant tools for learning embedded in their core technologies.
6. The IT Help Desk Becomes An Enterprise Service Desk. Long underfunded and staffed with underpaid students, the IT help desk word is going to hit an inflection point this year, I think. Customer service matters. Truth is that with a few important notable exceptions, most campus help desks are not our strongest service lines. An emergent group of higher-education focused companies have entered this space and are offering a compelling value proposition for many campuses. On some campuses, the Berlin wall between IT help desks and facilities and other customer service organizations are also coming down. The trend line is about to hit a take-off point.
7. Course Management Systems are Dead! Long Live Course Management Systems! Proprietary course management systems are heading for a brick wall. The combination of economic pressures combined with saturated markets and the maturing stage of the life cycle of these once innovative platforms means that 2009 may well be the year of change or a year of serious planning for change. Relatively inexpensive and feature-comparable open source alternatives combined with some now learned experience in the process of transition from closed to open systems for the inventory of repeating courses makes real change in this once bedrock of education technology a growing possibility. As product managers and management view these trend lines, I think we might see incumbent players make a valiant effort to re-invent themselves before the market drops out from underneath them. Look for the number of major campuses moving (or making serious threats to move) from closed systems to open ones to climb in the year ahead.
8. ERP? What's That? No, I don't think the large enterprise resource planning systems that undergird our budgeting, human resources and other major administrative systems are going to fall off the face of the earth like antiquated dinosaurs in the next 12 months. I do think that ERP upgrades that many campuses are now facing, planning, and staging are going to need to be re-positioned. At a minimum, I think we will see decisions made to delay major upgrades for 18-24 months. It is also possible that pressure will grow in this next year on the duopoly of these integrated systems providers to re-open their maintenance and other fee schedules in exchange for continuing multi-year commitments from the campus community. We will also see new models mature in the hosting of ERP services both as shared services among the campus community and as a commercial service offering. For these glacially moving systems, change is happening. It's just hard sometimes to see the rate of change until you're looking in the rear view mirror 10 years from now.
9. In God We Trust -- Everyone Else Bring Data. Decision support software and data warehousing tools have been available on campus for well over a decade. While cultures of evidence are not well rooted in the decision making on many university campuses, the growing pressures for better decision making in the context of budget pressures is compelling the campus to make better decisions. The small priesthood of campus analysts with skills to support decision making have more job security than most. At the same time, look for new reporting tools and growing expectations that metrics, scorecards, and data analytics will be used to drive tough decision making on campus.
10. Smile, Interactive High Definition Video Conferencing moves from the Board Room to the Research Lab and the Lecture Hall. Facing budget pressures and public pressure to go green, corporations around the world are investing in next generation video conferencing. Moving operating dollars into infrastructure investments in this collaboration platform technology has led to significant reductions in travel costs, better space utilization, and a growing conscientiousness about carbon footprints. As businesses continue to look for capabilities to support global operations, video conferencing has become a daily part of many companies. The logic facing corporations now confront the university community. Over the past 18 months some public universities have been mandated to reduce their carbon footprints. Most everyone else is facing growing operating pressures pinching travel and other budget lines. New students care about pro-active green initiatives as part of their university experience. Over the next 12 months look for double digit growth in campus adoption of next generation video conferencing tools, including integrated collaboration technologies.
One more trend for good measure. Substitute this one if you disagree vehemently with any of the other items above.
11. The campus data center goes under the scope . Most every campus technology leader has been zinged for disaster recovery and business continuity planning. Add to this that there is exponential demand among the research community for computational research space to support high performance computing. The facilities community is under growing pressure to distribute the costs of power consumption on campus. Data centers consume disproportionate amounts of space, cooling and power. Finally, growing green is a campus imperative leading to potential operating savings through virtualization, data center optimization, and new greener strategies. Board audit committees and senior management are going to hold technology managers accountable for robust data center operations in a highly constrained budget environment.
I don't know about you but my holiday gift wish list includes an extra bottle of Tylenol 3, a Teflon flak jacket, and a hope that structured innovation remains part of the campus IT portfolio. Against multiple pressures, focus on structured innovation remains our best hope of remaining central to our campuses’ strategic missions and activities.
Lev S. Gonick is vice president for information technology services and chief information officer at Case Western Reserve University. He blogs about technology at Bytes From Lev, where a version of this essay first appeared.