• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


The End of Technology

Campus computing and EDUCAUSE’S top ten list.

October 29, 2016

Remember the big splash that Francis Fukuyama created with the 1992 publication of The End of History? Intentionally provocative, the book posited that with the fall of the Soviet Union the Marxist interpretation collapsed. Fukuyama, a conservative, came to bury Marxism, not to praise it.  

In a similar vein, I posit that we are at the end of technology qua technology. Obviously, like Fukuyama, I don’t mean the total and complete end of technology just as he did not mean all of history.  But I do mean in its messianic sense. Technology is not, nor should it be, a disruptive force.  It is time to shift our focus from “technology” to  business process.  The data points have been popping up for years.  Critics have assessed the “transformative” nature of technology for some time.  Even the latest high wire act in this pantheon, MOOCs, are in zooming out.  We have been talking about what we do as a “utility” for some time.  The shift in backgrounds of CIOs from academic doctorates to business has occurred.  And most recently, the Campus Computing Project noted that technology budgets have not rebounded since the recession.  I don’t expect that they will.  It is time to shift our focus from technology to business process.

From the mountain top, we can now see the leveling out EDUCAUSE’s Top Ten Issues tells the tale, and particularly well. The categorical “Differentiate, Invest, and Divest” offers a smart approach.  For empire builder type personalities, it might not appeal to expansionist sensibilities.  But for those who take a sober look it bespeaks a common truth. And yet, there is a silver lining.  If IT can shed some of the responsibilities that senior institutional leaders defaulted onto it, then it may not require quite so many resources. As someone who works directly in information management, I think this is a very healthy shift.  It would be great if IT could get enterprise application integration off of its main plate. Both areas require a quality of central organization and coordination that require broader institutional scope. For those who still are asked to take on the responsibility without either the authority or the resources to go with it, it can be a source of never-ending headaches. 
By the same token, one would not want to cut too deeply into the bone at the expense of those areas that hit the top of the list, particularly “academic technologies.”  Institutions must take “Optimizing Educational Technologies,” and “Student Success” seriously, especially in light of the needs that the Faculty Survey on Technology suggest are still underserved. Enterprise systems and academic technologies need a line-item budget treatment.  Bad memories of that awful PeopleSoft implementation two decades ago in some institutions still prejudice funders against IT in ways that adversely affect institutional missions. IT leadership must make the distinctive case.  Herein lies the main point of this post: it is time, finally, to get off the messianic track of technology “transforming” education in broad strokes and get down to brass tacks of those integrative business processes that serve our missions best.  

Not surprisingly, Information Security heads the top of the list. It has been in the top 3 or 5 for 10 years now. In the world of no global internet governance, undeclared cyber warfare, organized cybercrime's success, don’t expect it to fall off anytime soon.  But I do have a couple of mitigating thoughts. Cloud computing offers an opportunity.  Not even our best funded IT programs can match the level of security that major players exercise in this space. Microsoft, Google, Amazon, etc. have some of the most advance information security programs on the planet. Why compete? Increasingly those vendors also come to the table with contract provisions that signal their understanding of our compliance needs. For systems with well-baked corporate presence, there is no reason to keep those functions on premise. Off load them and breathe a sigh of relief! 

Also, take note of the distinction between Information Security and Information Management.  Bravo!  Institutions that fail to make this distinction will, in Wordsworth words, “lay waste our powers.”  Information security specialists should work with but can not, and should not, be information managers for a campus.  That role is too overarching and complex. The highest levels of the university must empower information stewards seated at the forefront with an army of specialists to assist: institutional counsel, law enforcement, risk management, compliance, a data protection office/r and/or privacy office/r as well as the CISO.  Moreover, this distinction between information and security management should focus Information Security's tasks, such as behavioral and systems analysis, penetration testing, authentication/middleware deployment, and network management, even if external challenges mean that perfection does not exist.   

From the institutional perspective overall, integrative business process binds the “Differentiate, Invest and Divest” categories. Already I sense hairs rising on the back of some people’s necks. When I was doing a lot of consulting, one CIO told me, essentially, to lose the term “business.”  “Faculty don’t like it, it’s offensive to them, it will start a debate that will take our message off track.” As a sometimes faculty member myself, I get from where in the creative process of teaching and research some object. But as a historian of higher education and an administrator, I don’t know a better word to use for the functions within institutions that do exactly that: run the “business” of the institution.  And as a consultant, it is my observation that it may be precisely that tension around the very concept of business that keeps higher education caught perpetually in the mental trap of disruptive technologies instead of moving onto, well, you know, THAT WORD + process. How can we mend this fence?  

Technology’s end, then, is not really an end but a transition to a new era of thinking about our work. If I got your attention with a provocative title, just as Fukuyama did with his, I hope that it has been useful to draw attention to potential meanings of the Campus Survey and the EDUCAUSE’s Top Ten List.  Technology was never supposed to be the be all and end all of higher education.  Let’s bury that thought.  Light a candle or raise a glass as a ritual to mark the change upon us so that we can do what ultimately we care about the most: supporting our missions first and foremost.


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