DENVER — Information systems may be growing increasingly mission-critical in higher education, but that has not shielded campus IT departments from the budget cuts that have swept college campuses in the wake of the recession.
This according to the latest installment of the Campus Computing Survey, an annual study by the Campus Computing Project. Kenneth C. Green, the project’s director, willpresent the findings today here at the 2009 Educause Conference.
Nearly half of the survey’s 500 respondents — including more than two-thirds of public universities — have pared down their IT budgets in 2009. That figure represents a reversal from 2008, when about half reported budget increases. Only 21 percent put more money into information technology this year. For the first time this decade, financing information technology registered as one of the most pressing concerns among campus technologists.
The cuts appear to be coming at a time when a number of colleges are revamping their IT systems. About 40 percent of respondents said they had reorganized academic computing in the last two years, and a quarter said they anticipated doing so in the next two — including 15 percent of those who had just done so.
It is telling, perhaps, that when respondents were asked what they believed to be the single most important issue facing colleges right now, the two most popular answers were financing IT (15 percent) and upgrading or replacing networks (16 percent). “Budget cuts wreak havoc with efforts to respond to the rising demand for IT resources and services,” Green wrote in an analysis released with the survey findings.
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“I get the sense that the IT department is kind of like the library: In down times, we won’t order as many books, in down times we can cut back," he added in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. "And it just doesn’t work, because there’s a cumulative hit on the infrastructure, there’s a cumulative hit on resources.”
On the instructional side, scaling back on IT spending can create a "hollow promise” to students, Green said. At the same time as the recession has prompted institutions to pare their budgets, it has driven enrollments up. Colleges have to respond to the new demand by adding courses. “But concurrently," Green said, "if you’re adding courses, but you’re not adding academic counselors, vocational counselors, IT support for students and faculty, it really is a kind of Potemkin village. We’re saying, ‘We’re going to let you into the classroom, but the support services which have been part of that learning experience — either online or on campus — aren’t going to be at the level they once were.'”
Not surprisingly, public institutions and community colleges were more likely to expect stimulus money to help sustain IT resources on their campuses, while private, four-year colleges were pessimistic about how much they would benefit from government assistance.
The problem of financing system improvements when most colleges are reluctant to spend money is not the only issue weighing heavily on the minds of higher ed technologists. In past years, the survey turned up a clear answer to the “most important issue” question. In the early part of the decade, it was the integration of instructional technology. That gave way in 2004 to concerns over network and data security.
This year’s responses, however, were all over the board. Staffing, back-end information systems, user support, instructional integration, and distance education each got 10 percent of the vote. Data security, the top issue since 2004, did not register in the top seven (though security was one of the few IT functions that saw more investment than downsizing in 2009).
Of course, IT security issues have not gone away. In fact, colleges reported slight increases in most types of security breach. Hackers remained the most prevalent threat; just under half of respondents cited hacking incidents.
Data exposures in “distributed computing environments,” or “cloud” services, also rose slightly. However, the many higher education officials that have fretted about entrusting e-mail and other information systems to cloud providers might be comforted by the fact that fewer than 20 percent of colleges reported such leaks.
Green’s presentation also notes the sluggishness with which most colleges have developed strategic plans for dealing with IT disasters over the last seven years. Private four-year institutions, especially, have dragged their feet, with the percentage of disaster-ready colleges virtually unchanged from 2002.
Learning management systems continued their gradual colonization of college classrooms, with respondents now reporting that between 50 and 60 percent of their courses use them. Industry giant Blackboard, fresh off its acquisition of competitor Angel in May, still dominates the LMS market across all types of institutions, with the only notable challenge coming in the market of private, four-year colleges, when the open-source provider Moodle has managed to grab a 25 percent share.
The year's biggest education technology conference has given a number of companies cause to tout how they are adding options to the e-learning market. Moodlerooms on Tuesday revealed that it plans to challenge Blackboard on its own turf. The Moodle spin-off is rolling out a pay-to-play LMS product, called Joule, which Moodlerooms says will cost 75 percent less than Blackboard. “If [colleges] choose to drop Blackboard… that’s their option,” said Moodlerooms CEO Martin Knott at Educause. “The market is craving for options.”
Blackboard, meanwhile, has rolled out several new features. The company today announced it is collaborating with Microsoft to bring students alerts and allow them to access their Blackboard courses via their Web browsers, without having to log in to the system separately. It also unveiled a Blackberry-friendly version of its smartphone application, Mobile Central. Earlier this week, Blackboard said  it was partnering with Google to let its customers access Google Apps for Education via their Blackboard accounts.