Not So Special

May 12, 2010

That technology is transforming higher education is hardly news. Amid exploding online enrollments, widespread confidence in the future preeminence of electronic textbooks and all-digital libraries, the ascension of IT administrators to the vice presidential ranks, and the assimilation of the social Web for learning and research purposes — there is no shortage of academics who will readily observe that technology is a driving force in academe.

It is less frequently, however, that higher-ed technologists discuss the inverse of this truism. So when Greg Smith, CIO at George Fox University, wondered aloud on his blog whether higher education is still a driving force behind innovations being made in the tech industry, it pricked the ears of some of his colleagues.

“Of course we have always known that there is no money in Higher Ed, but we always had influence,” Smith wrote. “What is now apparent is that Higher Education has lost [its] influence. The influence born from the student computing experience that would shape their technology buying habits as they moved into the work force. Why exactly has this happened and what might the long term effect be?”

The post has prompted different responses from academic technologists. Some disagree with the premise that higher education ever had any special sway with major tech companies. Others object to the broadness of the statement and, in interviews with Inside Higher Ed, tried to lend nuance to the question of how relationship between commercial technology vendors and colleges has evolved over the last few decades.

But even if Smith’s point was flawed, it was not irrelevant. The observation that higher education is now reacting to popular technology and not the other way around, says Martin Ringle, CIO at Reed College, “puts [a] finger into the heart of the matter of where information technology in higher education is these days, and where it’s going.”

How Much influence?

Some experts cautioned against romanticizing the past; campus technologists did not, at any point, have Steve Jobs on speed dial. Sure, back-room technologies such as authentication software did grow out of research universities, which were operating open networks at scale before anyone else was, says Greg Jackson, vice president of policy and analysis at Educause. The relatively loose restrictions universities placed on users made their networks interesting to the tech industry, he says. Companies such as Apple have also considered it instructive to seed campuses with various gadgets, step back, and see what happens.

But as far as higher education being a key strategic market for the tech industry, “I don’t really think it was ever as true as people think it was,” Jackson says. In general, campuses did not, and do not, behave differently than other markets: “Data center and server architecture; the nitty-gritty of how networks work, for the most part; how they buy personal computers and how they’re configured and the software they use… none of it is terribly special,” he says. And as Smith pointed out in his catalytic blog post, there are plenty of other markets that bring in more cash. Take away colleges’ Petri dish function, Jackson says, and "higher ed has never been terribly special.”

If academe is not “special” to the tech industry, it might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. When they started out, companies such as Microsoft and IBM created higher ed advisory boards that “were given great latitude to find the kind of functionalities they needed in both hardware and software,” Ringle remembers. They would also offer products to colleges at massive discounts, he says, sometimes as high as 80 percent.

These days, colleges are fortunate if they can swing tech discount rates that are a third of that, Ringle says. And while the big tech companies still have advisory boards, the conversation around those tables has also changed. “In [the old days], the companies would come to you and say, ‘What do you guys need?’ and prototype it and show it to you,” he says. “Today, they build what they want to build. Then they ask for our feedback, and our feedback may or may not get traction.”

To put it more bluntly: “Twenty-five years ago, high-tech companies were asking higher ed, ‘How can we help you?' ” says Ringle. “Today, they are asking higher ed, ‘How can you help us?’ ”

Gatekeepers No More

So, what happened?

Here there appears to be at least some consensus among the experts contacted by Inside Higher Ed and those who replied to Smith’s initial essay.

As far as the giveaways go, there is less money. “This is a recurring complaint every time there is a downturn,” Kenneth C. Green, director of the Campus Computing Project, of Smith’s suggestion that the tech industry has turned away from higher ed. “When there’s a downturn in the economy the tech companies have less resources to be generous with higher ed.”

They also have less incentive. Colleges are no longer gatekeepers to a massive market of young adults who are just beginning to form their computing habits and brand preferences. “If you go back 10 years ago, students looked forward to coming to campus and getting their first new computer,” says David Todd, CIO at the University of Vermont. “These days, for many students this is their second or third computer… they’ve already developed their brand allegiances.” Or lack of brand allegiance, Todd adds — software that students use most widely for school projects, such as the Microsoft Office suite, can be run on multiple operating systems.

Students are still impressionistic when it comes to more sophisticated technology, Ringle points out: A junior high student might have already begun identifying as a Mac or PC person, but she will not likely have chosen whose econometrics software she prefers. But, in general, college campuses are no longer the battlefields upon which tech companies win customer loyalties, experts say. The new battlefields have swing sets.

That makes higher education not so much a supplier of technology as much as accommodators of the tech accessories students and faculty are bringing to campus. They have already made their choices. “That means universities are increasingly reactive to the choices their students and faculty are making,” Ringle says. “And those decisions are being made as consumers, not as students and professors.”

Looking Ahead

The higher ed technologists contacted for this story were quick to emphasize that tech companies do not deserve criticism for refocusing their development energies as technology and the way people consume it has changed.

And yet, for some there is still a sting. “A lot of folks are looking around, saying, 'Why aren’t we the first ones to see iPads?' ” says Jackson, the Educause vice president.

“You always like having a sense that people are paying particular attention to you,” says Todd, the Vermont CIO. “In higher ed we do really important things… and so we’d like to think that we deserve special attention. But in fact I think in this case that time has gone.”

The best things higher ed can do now, says Lev Gonick, CIO at Case Western Reserve University, is to forget about what it used to offer tech companies and focus on what it can offer them now. “The only way to regain a strategic market position is to keep focused on differentiated and distinctive offerings that focus on what we do and who we are in the academy,” Gonick says.

In his touchstone blog post, Smith noted that while colleges no longer control the technology on their campuses, they do control the information. “That’s why Google cares the most about us now,” he wrote.

Information, says Todd, might be higher ed’s new ace in the hole. “That is the area where universities can still deliver larger numbers of pairs of eyes to companies like Google or Microsoft,” he says.

It is no coincidence, he says, that e-mail services are one thing that tech companies are giving away to colleges for free. And Green notes that the amount Google and Microsoft are saving colleges through these giveaways are “astounding” relative to the savings institutions used to get from hardware discounts at the peak of their relationships with IBM and the rest.

But as various companies develop new computing tablets to compete with the iPad, higher ed technologists probably are not counting on getting mock-ups in the mail or freebies on their doorsteps. They will have to wait in line like everyone else.

For the latest technology news from Inside Higher Ed, follow Steve Kolowich on Twitter.

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