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    Digital Tweed® is the work of Kenneth C. Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project. If successful, these posts will inform and entertain, and at times also annoy. A little dissonance can be a good thing.

Presidents Confront Technology
March 4, 2011 - 4:30am

The lead article in today’s edition of Inside Higher Ed presents the results of the 2011 Presidential Perspectives survey. I’m pleased to report that The Campus Computing Project worked with the editors of Inside Higher Ed on this survey. More than 950 presidents completed the questionnaire, making Presidential Perspectives one of the largest surveys of campus leaders in recent years

The goal of the Presidential Perspectives project was to understand how colleges and universities have been dealing with the financial challenges posed by the current economic downturn. The survey provides information about the most pressing issues that confront colleges and universities, the strategies used cut costs and increase revenues, the role of various constituencies in helping presidents maneuver during the downturn, the likelihood that the new Congress will act on issues that are important to higher education, and the effectiveness of campus investments in information technology.

Before discussing the technology data, let’s talk about the presidents. As a group, these 956 men and women (median age 60; mean age 57) have come of professorial and professional age concurrent with the transition of information technology on campus from unique to ubiquitous. Although they may not be blogging and tweeting, they have more than a passing familiarity with the increasingly critical role of technology in the campus infrastructure and operations: instruction, management, scholarship, and services.

The survey data present presidents as ambivalent about the impact of the significant sums their institutions continue to invest in information technology (IT). That even a simple majority of the presidents who participated in the Presidential Perspectives survey do not view key components of the continuing institutional investment in IT to be “very effective” should be a cause for concern among campus technology advocates, campus IT officers, and the firms that provide technology resources and services to higher education.

Library resources and services emerge at the top of the list of "very effective" campus investments in IT. But even here the numbers are not overwhelming: just half (51 percent) of the presidents participating in the survey assess the campus investment to support IT for library resources and services as “very effective” (scale score of 6 or 7; scale: 1=not effective; 7=very effective).

Ranked second as a “very effective” IT investment by just under half the survey participants is administrative information systems/services (48 percent), followed by on-campus teaching and instruction (46 percent), and online/distance education courses and programs (45 percent). “Data analysis/managerial analytics” ranks fifth (42 percent).

Moreover, as is always the case with the higher education enterprise, a single (and simple) number masks significant differences in and across sectors and segments. Some examples:

  • Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of community college presidents rate the IT investment supporting on-campus education as “very effective” compared to just a third (32 percent) of public university presidents and just a seventh (13 percent) of private university presidents.
  • Community college presidents also lead in their assessment of the role of IT in online education: two-thirds (68 percent) view the IT investment to support online courses and programs as “very effective,” compared to two-fifths (39 percent) of the presidents of private master’s institutions, a third (34 percent) of the presidents of private universities and a just over a fourth (27 percent) of the presidents of public universities.
  • Fully half the leaders of public and private universities assess the IT investment to support research and scholarship as “very effective” (51 percent public; 55 percent private) compared to a fourth of their peers in public and private master’s institutions and a fifth of the presidents in private baccalaureate colleges.

In aggregate and also by sector and segment, these data about IT issues provided by the Presidential Perspectives survey do not bode well as "measures of success." Indeed, what emerges from the survey is a portrait of campus leaders who appear to be dependent on, captive to, but also ambivalent about the continuing investment of people and money required to acquire and support a full range of campus IT resources and services. And IT really is a significant investment: despite the recent budget cuts that have wrecked havoc on many campus IT units, data from the 2010 Campus Computing Survey reveal that total campus expenditures on IT – dollars for hardware, software, services, and personnel – now consume about 5-8 percent of the total institutional budget (range: 4.8 percent in public four-year colleges to 8.4 percent in community colleges.).

So is there an “action step” that emerges from the Presidential Perspectives data on the effectiveness of IT?

For campus IT advocates, technology officers, and the firms that provide IT resources and services to colleges and universities, the action steps involve better evaluation and communication: the continuing evaluation of the of impact and benefits of IT, coupled with continuing communication about what IT does well and also what IT must to better. Too, here as elsewhere in academe, campus officials must recognize the need to use data and information as a resource (i.e., how do we do better?) instead of as a weapon (i.e., who do we punish?).

Forty years ago the President’s Task Force on Higher Education (The 1971 Newman Report) chided the academic community for the “widespread tendency to trivialize the problem of efficiency in higher education.” The Task Force went on to write that efficiency “is not only a financial problem, but an intellectual one. The questions about efficiency lead to a host of questions about teaching and learning, and the ultimate questions about the nature and purpose of higher education.”

The continuing campus conversation about information technology is, at one level, a conversation about efficiency: how do we do better, and how we can use technology resources to enhance instruction, scholarship, campus management and operations, and campus services. The great strides in technology we have experienced over the past three decades notwithstanding, the Presidential Perspectives report provides a compelling statement that campus leaders believe we can – indeed must – make more effective use of technology resources. And here the issue is not the false choice between the legacy of high touch vs. the promise of high tech. Rather, the quest is for tech-enabled high touch – the best of both "touch" and "tech" to improve and enhance the work of academe.


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