Transforming the Academic Enterprise: A Conversation with Graham Spanier
Graham Spanier offers Syllabus a
president's view of technology integration and discusses the impact of
pervasive technology at Penn State. An amateur magician in his spare time, this
energetic technology champion is working his magic on one of the nation's
largest comprehensive state universities.
Syllabus: As president of Penn State University, you have
a very high-level view of technology integration on campus. How do you see technology
today, in 2003, impacting and supporting institutional goals, and how d'es this
figure into top-level strategic planning?
Graham Spanier: I think higher education has been transformed
by the deployment of new information technologies. We see it in almost every
corner of the university—in our administrative systems, in our Web sites,
in our online applications, in distance education, and in resident instruction
classrooms. As far as strategic planning, we consider information technology
as an integral part of our planning activities. The information technology budget
is a rapidly growing area within the university budget, and while it may have
slowed down somewhat in the last couple of years, I think it will continue to
be a growing part of our budget.
D'es technology impact your planning across the entire enterprise?
Technology is no longer isolated in discrete areas, and part
of what we're able to do with more advanced information technologies is to connect
areas together that weren't previously connected. I think a very good example
is in university libraries. People used to think about libraries in terms of books
and journals, but now the library is at the hub of many information technology
activities on campus and it is connecting people from their homes, from their
offices, and between academic units, allowing people to collaborate in new ways.
I also think one of the most important trends in higher education—in fact, it
may be the most important trend that nobody is talking about—is the convergence
of distance education and resident instruction.
S: So would you say that technology is changing the institution
as a whole?
GS: I think so, but it's not as clear as saying that the technology
is causing the changes. A lot of this change has been bubbling, and technology
is a response to the needs of faculty and staff out there, so it's a two-way
S: You mentioned the library. Where at Penn State are you
seeing the most technology change—in the realm of academics, or research, or
student life, or operations and administration?
GS: I think we're seeing it in all of those areas. It would
be hard to rank order them. Certainly researchers have always been on the cutting
edge of new applications, and a lot of our most advanced applications are showing
up on the research side first. But our registrar, our folks in finance and physical
plant, people who oversee our Web site, and our public relations folks are also
very much on the cutting edge of using new technologies to get their work done.
S: Can you give me an example of this kind of technology change
at Penn State?
GS: One very good example at Penn State is something called
eLion. Our nickname is the Nittany Lions so that's where the Lion comes from.
This is a system for our students where they can do advising online. They can
receive information, look at their transcripts, register for courses, find out
what their grades are, even do hypothetical degree audits if they were to change
their major or if they wanted to see what the grade point might be in the semester
ahead if they got certain combinations of As, Bs, Cs, and Ds.
S: Are the lines blurring between administrative and academic
systems? And if so, what are some of the key technologies at the intersection
of the two?
GS: Yes, the lines are blurring. Library systems, assistive
technologies, eCommerce, Web services, and the course management system are
all areas in which we are very active here at Penn State.
S: Do you have an enterprise portal?
GS: Yes, we have a portal service that's available to our
students, faculty, and staff. It can be highly customized, with different levels
of access depending on what you are doing. If you're a faculty member, you can
go in and get your class list and assign your grades. Students can't have access
to that, but they can go in and find out what their own grades are. And in most
courses now, when a student takes an exam they get their results back electronically
after the exam with comparisons to how they fit into the class overall.
S: Are you connecting better with alumni electronically?
GS: Yes, absolutely. If you go to the alumni section of our
Web page, you'll find direct links to our alumni association, to things that
you can purchase online, our alumni travel program, fundraising, how you make
a gift, corporate connections that Penn State Alumni Association has. We have
at Penn State about 100,000 of our alumni who receive an e-mail from the university
every day, so we have something called the Penn State Newswire that g'es to
any alumnus who's signed up and they get all the news from the university on
a daily basis. We have several specialty newswires. If you're interested in
diversity you can sign up for the diversity newswire; you can get the sports
newswire; you can get the news coming out of the university in particular areas.
S: D'es that make the alumni more involved in the university
GS: Yes, they're very aware of what happens; they stay connected.
Oftentimes they'll read a news item and then weigh in with me with their opinion.
One of the new services we have is called OnLion seminars. It's a free monthly
seminar featuring Penn State's faculty who explore various topics of interest
to Penn Staters so the alumni can go online and participate in those seminars.
That's done in cooperation with Penn State World Campus, which is our virtual
distance education system.
S: I know that Penn State World Campus is relatively new compared
to your university's long history in distance learning initiatives.
GS: Right. The World Campus is about five years old now, whereas
we started correspondence in 1892, which was the year rural free delivery started
in the United States.
S: And where are you now with Penn State World Campus?
GS: We're now up to about 10,000 students who are taking courses
through the Penn State World Campus, and these are primarily Web-based courses.
The number of students continues to increase on a fairly steep curve. We have
about 30 different fields in which someone can get a certificate or a degree,
and I think we have about 192 different courses right now.
S: Penn State's main campus is geographically somewhat far
from population centers. Is IT helping to keep Penn State's 24 campuses connected
to each other and the rest of the world?
GS: We're geographically right in the middle of the state.
Some people used to say that Penn State was equally inaccessible from all points.
I think we've transcended that, but there's no question that through information
technology people all over the world feel Penn State is very greatly connected.
Certainly our campuses are connected to each other, but we also have offices
in all 67 of Pennsylvania's counties through our Cooperative Extension Service.
We have research sites all around the state, so we operate at about 100 different
locations altogether around Pennsylvania. But through our World Campus and through
the accessibility of our IT systems, our servers, our network, we're as in touch
as you could be. Penn State now transmits as many as four million e-mail messages
a day. There are very few entities of any kind in the world that have that much
e-mail traffic, and that comes from about 110,000 active users.
S: I can tell you that from the outside it certainly feels
like Penn State is connected, very well connected to the world, and it sounds
like it feels that way from the inside, too.
GS: Yes, it d'es. I think we're now up to about OC12-level
connectivity in our bandwidth, and everybody on campus has a computer. We have
very extensive training programs, workshops of every imaginable type done through
our Information Technology Services group. So another area that has evolved
is the very high level of collaboration between people that we used to consider
running the computer networks and the computer systems with those running what
we used to think of as the telephone system. Those folks are all now part of
the same enterprise and working very closely together.
S: What d'es the 21st century student look like, and what
are their expectations for technology at the university?
GS: Well, they're very good at multi-tasking and expect all
of the services to be available at once. They're going to want to be doing instant
messaging while they're looking at e-mail, while they're writing their homework,
and while they're listening to music that they have downloaded. So their expectations
are high. Today's students are a little impatient and don't want to wait, so
they expect to have very high-speed connectivity. And they still assume that
we will have public service or public access laboratories that will include
software that may have special applications that might be too expensive for
them to own individually.
S: Can you link technology with accountability in terms of
how technology can help achieve the institutional mission?
GS: I think you have to look at IT simply as a tool for getting things
done. I don't think a university is necessarily any more or less accountable
by having the best IT out there. But there are some things you can do with IT
that can help. We have in place some systems, for example, in terms of research
accounting and managing budgets, which allow supervisors or research administrators
to monitor cash flow and do auditing that they probably would not have been
able to do as well in the past, so IT can help there. We in the central administration
can monitor at any moment what courses students are registering for, what classes
are filling up the most quickly. We can look at this very easily and get the
big picture and find out places where we have to deploy more resources, to add
more sections, or begin to think about closing something down. Back in the old
days you'd have to do a run overnight or over the weekend and look at the printouts
and painstakingly go through them—very labor-intensive. IT allows for better
use, better accountability and efficiency if you match up what's available to
how you do business, and we do quite a bit of that at Penn State.
S: It seems like with technology you have a lot more data
available with which to make decisions, but everything is changing so fast
GS: In some ways, with all the data I have at my fingertips now I can't
even keep up with it all. Right now I'm sitting in front of my computer screen
and I have one icon that takes me to the development database—all of our
donors—and I can at any given moment see which development officers are
having meetings with which prospects today and see their notes on the meetings.
I can then look at the alumni database and I have information on all of our
alumni. I have the office of administrative systems business database; I can
be looking at expenditure flows and how bills are being paid. I can look at
the academic information system and see what's happening with courses and student
demand. I could just spend my entire day at my desk watching everything that's
happening. We're actually at the point in our evolution, I think, where our
systems are allowing us to do more than we might even be inclined to do, but
I consider that to be a very good situation.
S: D'es technology increase the potential to expand distance
learning and extension programs and how do you address these possibilities,
while maintaining focus on the four-year residential experience? Are you serving
a changing population?
GS: I don't think they're mutually exclusive at all. We don't have
a narrowly tailored mission to resident undergraduate students only, so what
we're doing in distance learning is important. What we're doing in the cooperative
extension and other outreach programs is important for us. The population that
we're serving is changing somewhat, it is very diverse, and it's becoming broader—it
g'es well beyond Pennsylvania now.
While a lot of our World Campus enrollments,
for example, are in Pennsylvania, we have people enrolled from every state in
the U.S. and from about 40 different countries at this point. So the question
for us as a state university—where we receive some appropriation for education
programs—is if the state cuts our budget, can we continue our outreach
activities at the same level that we always have? That's becoming more and more
difficult. And programs like the World Campus, we operate on a completely self-support
basis. At Penn State we ramp that up very carefully, very slowly, without a
lot of hype; and indeed a lot of universities have gotten into that business,
have lost a lot of money at it and failed. We did not want to be in that situation.
S: Do you see a pervasiveness of technology now, much more
than when you became president of Penn State?
GS: Yes, I think we certainly see more of it now than eight years ago.
It creates more transparency—people know what's going on at the university
and feel free to weigh in. But what it's really done is it's allowed us to do
more with less. We can reach more people and educate more students; faculty
are able to transform the kind of instruction they provide in their classroom.
They're able to disseminate more information to their students in alternative
ways, which allows more of the classroom time for interaction, group projects,
and working on things that students wouldn't have had time in the classroom
to work on before because they were just sitting there listening to the faculty
S: Do you think that technology is enabling the kind of changes
that really are going to have people working in different ways than they used
GS: Oh, I think so, yes. I remember even as recently as eight
years ago people who were diehard opposed to technology taking over their life—now
they are doing e-mails in the middle of the night and have to check their e-mail
every hour, can't stand to be away from it.
S: We've titled this conversation "Transforming the Academic
Enterprise." Looking down the road five or ten years at higher education in
general, can you make any predictions about what some of these transformations
might be? Will we still recognize our institutions?
I think we still will recognize our institutions. I think over the next five
to ten years the changes won't be quite as dramatic as they have been over the
last five to ten years. If you really go back and think about how IT and its
uses are different now than they were then, it's quite remarkable. I think we'll
continue to see some of those changes, but they won't be quite as dramatic because
we've accomplished a lot already; but there will continue to be changes. I think
we'll see, for example, changes in the greater deployment of IT in the residential
instruction classroom; I think that will be a very important one. I think we
will have students living in the dormitories of their residential campuses who
will get up in the morning and do some of their classes from their rooms in
the residence halls or they'll do quite a bit of their work there but also go
into a classroom setting.
We'll see that whole continuum of how much of their
classroom work is being done outside of the classroom as opposed to inside of
the classroom. I think that's going to be an area of significant change. Of
course we'll see more deployment of wireless technologies. I think we'll see
a growing integration of computers, laptops, PDAs, cellular telephones, and
wireless technologies. I think as all of this comes together in a more useful
way, we will discover growing educational uses for these technologies, and that
will perhaps result in some further transformation. But none of this is going
to put your traditional residential colleges and universities out of business.
That's what a lot of people think the conclusion of all of this is. I heartily
disagree. I think that in the end the technology will become useful tools to
make it a more interesting and important experience, but nothing's going to
beat the whole idea of 18- to 22-year-olds being in a community with a lot of
people like themselves. That's going to continue to be an important part of
the traditional educational experience.
S: Are you seeing more of the "lifelong learner"
at Penn State—alumni and other learners who may come back after graduation
for courses or continuing education programs, maybe for the rest of their lives?
Well, certainly. We see a tremendous amount of that now in terms of our alumni
connected to us. What we're also going to see from the non-traditional students
is people who may come to campus for a weekend at the beginning of a semester
or perhaps an intensive two- or three-day experience; then they're going to
go off and do the rest of their course or updating or continuing education activity
on their own in an interactive way from a distance; and finally they'll come
back at the end of the semester for exams, papers, and presentations. It again
g'es back to challenging this idea that somehow it's one way or the other, with
our focus on either traditional residential students or distance learners. I
don't think that's so; I think we're going to see a melding of these and a convergence
of future technologies for education.
[Editor's note: Graham Spanier will give a keynote on Dec. 10 at
the Syllabus fall2003 conference in Cambridge, Mass.]