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2011: The Year Ahead in IT by Lev Gonick

January 3, 2011

It’s difficult to make sense of changes and dynamics beyond our control. There are seismic shifts under way and many of them have various impacts on the university campus, teaching and learning, the research agenda, and yes, information technology.

While many university CIOs share collective angst and various manifestations of existential crises about our relevance and influence, there are larger contexts and micro-dynamics at play that warrant reference in this annual prognosticating of the year ahead. (For previous years’ versions, click here and here.) A myth is a larger-than-life story that serves to create a narrative filled with symbols, heroes and assertions of truths. Many of our inherited myths are crumbling around us. The challenge is to understand the dynamics leading to change and to be positioned to contribute to the creation and socialization of new myths, relevant for the year and decade ahead of us.

1) The Big Picture: The State of the Global Economy and What It Means for IT on U.S. College Campuses (or, globalization and localization). Is it possible to reconcile the twin myths that (1) there is global restructuring under way that privileges so-called emerging economies and (2) the counterpoint, namely that the global economic crisis is cyclical and the U.S. economy will bounce back, eventually? While both assertions are at play, university presidents, boards, and influencers from faculty to mayors are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place if, and as, they try to place equal bets on both dynamics at once. The long-term health and well-being of our universities is inextricably linked to the health and well-being of the cities within which we work, research and live. As we continue to experience, our cities, knowledge clusters and regional economies are closely coupled to the dynamics of the world economy. As strategy begins to emerge, university technology leaders can and should play a strategic role to architect, enable, and help lead global engagement and collaboration strategies. In the next year we will see a critical mass of universities leveraging technology in new and innovative ways to create engaged learning strategies and more robust business models to enable universities to advance their strategies for sustaining our universities, the scholarly mission, and the student experience in the global era. At the same time, strategic IT efforts can be instrumental in the university’s relationship and strategy at the city level through partnerships, innovation activities, industry and commercialization relationships, and attending in demonstrable ways to the priorities of the communities around us.

2) How do you spell opportunity? A-U-S-T-E-R-I-T-Y (shared services and entrepreneurship). Public investment in higher education has become a victim of the general fiscal crisis of the state. No matter whether one reads the prospects of this as being cyclical decline/recovery and/or fundamental structural realignment, a “new normal” is likely to crystallize in the next year or so ahead — with the outcome being multiyear predictable austerity measures impacting all segments of the higher education ecosystem. If economic austerity weren’t enough to give indigestion to the president’s cabinet, growing demands for accountability from accrediting agencies and federal oversight bodies will necessarily increase and grow bolder even as the rhetoric and hyperbole from campus defenders and apologists persist. The consequences on IT are equally predictable. Double-digit budget cuts will be the norm for many administrative units on campus, including IT, for several years to come. So too will the usual demands for further transparency and justification of central IT investments in technology. These scenarios will remain our lived reality, along with the myth that financial discipline alone can lead our way to recovery. Alternative scenarios and new narratives are possible, including (1) advancing long-overdue shared service models on the campus for IT and other administrative service organizations (see slides 20-33), (2) legislatures and boards demand and expect shared service models between campuses for IT services and demand a demonstrated reduction in duplicative services among all administrative organizations on campus, and (3) generating interest in moving IT from nothing but a cost center toward challenging IT to have its own profit-and-loss statement and become a revenue generator.

3) Operational Excellence Is Good Enough (leveraging the cloud for strategic reengagement). For decades the Holy Grail for IT managers has focused on operational excellence. In the year ahead, operational excellence becomes a necessary but insufficient condition. More so than ever before, and largely related to the first two mega-trends, operational excellence must be tied to creating organizational capacity. Part of the capacity will be necessary to backfill holes in the general institutional financial books. The other challenge is to position IT to be strategic and to be positioned to demonstrate value-added services and a solutions orientation across the university. This calls for heavy lifting and the difficult task of rethinking the basic organizational structure of IT divisions within the university. For more than a quarter of a century IT has been organized along functional lines; IT services for infrastructure, IT services for application development, academic technology and so on. This traditional model has run its course. To become strategic and to demonstrably provide value-added AND generate additional financial capacity, IT needs to focus on new solutions architecture and alternative sourcing strategies for building and running much of IT on campus As secular, market-based IT trends like cloud services and software as a service continue to both shape and respond to the new realities on the college campus, IT organizations on the campus need to be poised to enable universitywide capacity to leverage new technologies. There is a distinct risk to IT organizations in our universities if they continue to cloak themselves in the guise of the fully integrated, full service, all services model for the campus. Leading IT organizations are aggressively positioning themselves through strategic effort to shed what were once considered distinctive and unique sets of service lines in order to re-imagine and reinvent their roles and responsibilities on campus, while of course owning operational excellence.

4) We Go to University to Learn (mobility, simulations, gaming, and unified communications). For many knowledge and creative workers, sometime over the past decade we woke up to realize that we no longer go to our workplace to work. Work follows us and is enabled through the growing pervasive availability of connectivity, tools, and solutions that make it viable to have an office at Starbucks, the airport, a park bench, or the library. The nature of work, the workplace, spaces, building, and architecture are all in a dynamic flux to accommodate these new realities. Less popularly understood, but equally true, is the reality that we no longer go to university to learn. The great myths of the inalienable value of “place” for learning is melting away and many students have significant cognitive dissonance when it comes to exactly what is learning in the confined space of a schedule and the four walls of a classroom.

While the rhetorical debates will continue, blended learning models based on hybrid pedagogies of face-to-face interactions with online exploration, discovery, reflection and mentoring are emergent realities. Universities will necessarily continue to grapple with how best to lean into these new realities. Leading institutions will embrace the change and seek to shape the evolving meaning of excellence through faculty innovation and demonstrated student success. There are a host of technologies that have contributed to this new reality so far and are likely to shape it moving forward. Mobile platforms extend where and when learning takes place. Gaming and simulation technologies can advance problem-based learning, hands-on learning, and play-based learning. How and when simulation and serious gaming technologies are experienced as part of the learning environment need not be a trade-off between pedagogical design and serendipity. New platforms will emerge that support both real time and asynchronous learning opportunities across multiple mediums, from traditional classroom experiences to online, large-scale online collaborations to personalized interactive video and telephony conferencing, and field-based, lab-based, or classroom based learning, either in stand-alone mode or in various permutations of integrated learning environments. Nascent experimentation leveraging these new technologies is poised to help frame new and powerful myths that might attract, engage, and retain student interest and time on task, two critically important conditions associated with deep learning.

5) Content is King… No, No, Platform Is King … No, No (learning management, publishing, and learning middleware). The perennial debate on the hierarchy of value and the most important determinants of educational success is derived from a series of powerful myths that are informed by and help to reinforce competing world views, reward and incentive systems, and efforts to shape the future of the education economy. Technology sits at the crosshairs of the debate. There are those who advocate a fully coherent, integrated, and fully specified theory of learning that should envelop assessment, content, platform, services and support systems, and outcomes analysis. Others advocate a more laissez faire and componentized plug-and-play approach to the future architecture of the learning environment. Platform players continue to position their offerings as “neutral” to the competing approaches. The platforms wars will continue to heat up in the year ahead, but only because the market place is fully saturated and disruptive entrants are positioned to challenge the monopolistic behavior and positioning of the dominant offering.

A second platform dispute regarding traditional textbooks and e-books will continue to evolve. New models for the publishing industry will continue to evolve, although the motivations for providers to take anything but an incremental approach to the changes in the market place are unlikely to lead to significant change among traditional content players. As the e-book industry begins to move from core functionality to feature development, there is a distinct possibility that we will see new emergent kinds of multimedia books in which more enriched, dynamic, and network-enabled learning materials and interactive experiences will be embedded in the presentation of text, charts, pictures, and video content. Given the maturity of the traditional course management platforms, the lethargic character of the academic publishing industry satisfied with its annuities in traditional textbooks, and the early state of e-books for learning, a new set of players in the area of student engagement, assessment, and support is likely to offer to stitch together the layers between the content and platform providers. This learning middleware play is as rich with possibilities as it is immature with requirements.

6) I Used to Walk 10 Miles in Snowshoes to School (rich media and 21st-century learning). It is hard for many to imagine a learning environment that is not text-centric and largely two-dimensional. We are the products of more than a thousand years in which text was treated as a sacred medium and in which, at least over the last century, powerful myths and economic interests associated with text became deeply embedded in our education system. Of course, higher education is a particular system that asserts universal principles while privileging and creating a dominant ideology of what constitutes literacy, citizenship, and the good life in the image of ourselves. Students of the history of science acknowledge that the intersection of the technology (printing press) and the supply chain of that economy have been contributing influences into what has evolved as our education system. Early on in the history of the Internet, the preponderance of Internet traffic was, not surprisingly, text-based. Telnet, DNS, newsgroups, FTP, and e-mail were all extensions of the dominance of the text-centric world we have known.

This year video, video-conferencing, and video-based collaboration will become the dominant form of Internet traffic in terms of percentage of total traffic on the Internet. Over time, we will see a maturing of video for learning take place. Early and exciting niche players are using basic video-capture tools and traditional mini-lecture pedagogies to deliver learning objects in multiple languages to learners all over the world. Homeschoolers, self-directed learners, family and peer enabled learning are turning to learning animated by video to support their needs. Popular platforms have turned a handful of university lecturers into rock stars with hundreds of thousands of downloads of great theater for learning. Still others have begun to experiment at cottage-industry scale with the exciting proposition of engaging students in a new form of learning based on digital storytelling through student video narratives. While industry remains focused on lecture capture, there is a groundswell of exciting new experimentation going on in the rich media for learning space, and around that we will see new technologies like multi-institutional video for learning cloud services, new learning theaters for integrated global learning, repositories for searchable learning moments nested in video content, the integration of student-initiated handheld video content and the mashing up, rating, ranking, and comment of students own perspective on their learning experiences.

7) If We Hang In There We Will See an ROI on Our 8- and 9-Figure ERP Implementations (new models for administrative systems). The myth of business support infrastructure in higher education is the tale of unsupported, discrete legacy programs, kludged together and webified over time, finally surrendering to a new architecture of big, unwieldy, supposed fully integrated services and enormously costly ERP systems. At many universities the insatiable demand for feeding and caring of ERP is a sacred cow. More recent focus on business intelligence and decision support tools has been an effort to help IT and university business and administration realize and remember that moving from data to information and onto intelligence was the aspirational goal of ERP in the first place. A decade ago, visionaries in the higher education IT community saw the strategic opportunity to focus on developing open source administrative systems as a long-term alternative to the commercial ERP systems in order to take control of our administrative systems’ destiny. Just as open source higher education ERP systems began to roll out into production, the entire approach of campus IT caring and feeding these behemoths began to be challenged by the emergence of new programming languages and new business models that evolved into software as a service. While the conversation has largely focused on proprietary ERP versus open source ERP, this year will we will see the first meaningful fruits of administrative systems as a service, hosted, supported, and delivered on a subscription basis at a fraction of the cost of the proprietary alternatives without the need for the depth of technical bench strength required from the open source ERP. One instantiation will be hosted open source ERP systems that, while not fully architected (yet) to be SaaS-enabled, still shifts many pain points off campus. The second promising direction is represented by the first wave adopters of commercial SaaS offerings in traditional ERP areas like Human Resources and General Ledger Accounting. Universities committed to focusing on business intelligence and the maturing role of business analysts will be in a position to leverage the emerging SaaS services for administrative systems.

8) Consumer Sovereignty Can Be Stopped at the Gates of the Campus (governance and enterprise program management]. There is a persistent and internalized myth that the university campus is (or at least should be) a place that is on the cutting edge of technology innovation and adoption. Faculty, students, and staff have been conditioned to expect that well-designed, multiplatform, fully integrated technology with nearly unlimited customizations and superior graphical user interfaces should be the norm. That environment is their experience in their lives as private consumers — and no longer the reality of most university IT services providers. Frustration with the lack of agility, available resources and talents has led to a growing position that IT needs to get out of the way other than provisioning reliable network access, limited security and related regulatory and risk-mitigation roles. All other services, so the new mythology suggests, can be accessed with better customer satisfaction through alternatives sources beyond the campus. On the other hand, the wish list of solutions, initiatives, and development projects for IT continues to outpace organizational capacity by orders of magnitude. The unenviable challenge of attending to rising expectations associated with consumer sovereignty, within a constrained environment and real and present dangers associated with budgetary clawbacks, now needs to find an appropriate governance model for making tough choices on direction, priorities, and rationalizing available resources against nearly insatiable demands. While IT governance and project management offices are nothing new, there is significant momentum under way to revisit the assumptions that the issues at hand are IT governance and IT project management. In the next year and beyond, we will begin to see evidence of more integrated campus-wide approaches to governance, common priority-setting, and the emergence of university-wide program management. The inherited and silo-based and hierarchical functions within IT and across the university as a whole will need to give way to project-oriented and tightly choreographed project teams that can advance integrated solutions on big challenges like sustainability, business process management, customer service, internal and integrated consulting service abilities. Those campuses that directly confront these new challenges will be able to demonstrate that beyond consumer sovereignty, there are distinctive value-added services that IT and its partners across the university can deliver that distinguish it, and help to plant the seeds of a new myth of a differentiated experience economy available only at the best universities.

9) Overcoming the Myth of the University as Open. From the 10,000 research scientists and engineers from over 100 countries working on the hadron collider exploring the origins of the universe, to the billions of dollars from hundreds of national and private agencies investing in translational medicine to advance personalized medicine and advancing our knowledge of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, many of the big challenges of our time are cross-disciplinary and multi-institutional, and all of them are leveraging information technology for data collection, analysis, and dissemination. The underlying economics of our disciplinary-based institutional arrangements are rarely facile enough to advance these grand challenges. Many faculty view their departments and the university as a whole as oftentimes rate-limiting to their aspirations to take on these global challenges. How the university acknowledges and rewards open collaboration, data sharing, and unprecedented knowledge dissemination, all enabled through information technology, will help distinguish those institutions and their faculty to attract and retain outstanding researchers.

While university administrators can provide incentives (or disincentives) and lend vision to those who might provide philanthropy or external funding for such an approach to 21st century global research questions, it is faculty and faculty governance that will evolve innovative institutional arrangements to enable research breakthroughs — both on the campus and above the campus through collaborative scholarly societies. In small ways IT can support initiatives for data sharing and make it easier for others to share data both on and between campus research groups. In the year ahead IT can join our colleagues in facilities to create open data repositories reflecting our common commitments to climate change and sustainability initiatives on campus. In addition to trying to affect behavioral change on campus, the resulting open data sets will model the value of openness and sharing for advancing the research and administration of the university. Comparative, cross-campus analyses would and should follow. Closer to campus, university CIOs should consider this year following the lead of the federal CIO in developing transparent and common approaches to an for campuses ( and the university sector as a whole (

10) American Global Competitiveness and Research and Education Networks (IT and its contribution to reducing the town-gown divide). A full third of the $7 billion in federal stimulus for broadband went to research and education. Next year the real work begins all across the nation as architects and network engineers begin the daunting task of doubling the size of the network to connect more than 130,000 educational, research, and other public sector facilities across the nation. This is the single largest investment that has ever been, and will likely ever be, made in research and education networks in this country. How the narrative around the national effort known as UCAN is told and internalized is likely to focus on the myth of advanced next generation networks being vital to American global competitiveness. After all, many of our international institutional partners and competitors continue to invest — along with their national, regional, and local governments — in next-generation infrastructure to attract and retain faculty researchers, graduate students, and creative entrepreneurs. The lighting up of the next-generation advanced network will launch globally competitive industries and bring America back as the “Comeback Nation.”

An equally compelling narrative can be developed to leverage this next generation infrastructure to advance the research activities of our great universities AND attend to the priorities of the communities around us. The result of the new advanced 100-gig network being built across the country could render meaningful a new myth of “impacting global by acting local.” For example, extending enhanced and advanced network-enabled university research and academic curriculum programs to focus on increasing wellness and health outcomes through neighborhood network connected health hubs and home-based wellness education can lead to better and more timely education, identification, intervention and reduction in important health outcomes measures. A rich and diverse research program could inform this effort and include wellness outcomes and examining new models of health economics. Another example might be to focus on improving STEM education outcomes for young people through peer, mentor, and collaborative community partnerships enabled over the advanced networks. The next-generation network will enable us to bring the nation’s best science museums to learners, organize town hall debates over science policy, and stimulate public awareness about STEM and workforce development opportunities delivered from a community center, church, or home. In a series of smart grid research projects (the Case Connection Zone is one such undertaking), university researchers in partnership with industry and public utilities can contribute to educating and enabling residences to reduce their consumption of nonrenewable energy, contributing to the planet and the pocketbook. Augmenting the research agenda of our great universities through deliberate community intervention strategies can be accelerated through choreographed activities of the research community, IT and network engineering, and a commitment to supporting evaluation and at the same time catalyzing innovation, attracting investment and supporting the value of quality of life. Being globally competitive becomes a derivative rather than the objective of the build out of the most ambitious networking project of our generation.

Challenging a myopic view of the year ahead is no small challenge. It is indeed difficult to make sense of dynamics beyond our control. As uncertainty and constraint become the oxygen we breathe in the year ahead, those organizations that can embrace the ambiguity and leverage changes in the environment to adapt will not only assure survival but refocus the relevance of IT to the mission of the university itself.

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.

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