Tracking the Digital Puck into 2004

"Legend has it that when Wayne Gretsky was asked why he was so successful as a hockey player he responded by saying that he always tried to skate to where the puck was going to be, not to where it was.

The notion of a ‘digital puck’ as a metaphor for information technology in higher education seems appropriate: Sometimes the puck moves very fast, sometimes slow; and its movement is often erratic. Moreover, there are lots of people and institutions that always seem to be chasing the puck—
sometimes going to where the puck was, sometimes tying to anticipate where the puck is going."


—"Tracking the Digital Puck"
Kenneth C. Green,
Syllabus magazine, December 2002

This article extends the “digital puck” metaphor that first appeared in Syllabus in December 2002 (“Tracking the Digital Puck”). Then as now, a continuing source for information about the “digital puck” of information technology in American higher education is The Campus Computing Project (www.campuscomputing.net). Begun in 1990, the project is the largest continuing study of information technology in American higher education (Green, 1990-2003).

Data from the Project’s 2003 Campus Computing Survey, typically completed by CIOs or the senior campus IT officer, provide interesting insights into where the digital puck has been in various sectors of higher education, and also the direction of the digital puck is going—in 2004 and beyond.

Digital Content on the Internet
Content and copyright have been big issues for higher education this past year. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed law suits against college students and colleges in an effort to stem the widespread downloading of digital music from the Internet. Music on the Internet was the also the story line for the Doonesbury cartoon published on Sunday, January 12, 2003, [www.doonesbury.com/strip/dailydose/index.html?uc_full_date=20030112], follows one collegian who asks if he can use a fellow student’s PC: his computer was confiscated by the “campus computer police” because “the college is really starting to crack down on music piracy…if they see you’re using too much bandwidth on the main server, they come looking for you.” The student describes himself as a “gypsy downloader, filling my MP3 player wherever I can, one step ahead of the man.”

The good news from the 2003 Campus Computing Survey is that the majority of U.S. colleges and universities have campus codes of conduct that address this issue: As of Fall 2003, eighty percent of American universities, two-thirds of four-year colleges, and half of community colleges have campus policies intended to stem the unauthorized downloading of commercial content—primarily music and movies—from the Internet.

Other data from the 2003 survey reflect the campus commitment to protecting copyright. For example, almost all campuses (92.3 percent) have policies intended to stem the unauthorized duplication of commercial software; similarly about nine-in-ten (87.4 percent) have codes of conduct regarding the fair use of copyrighted content such as books and journal articles.

Indeed, the 2003 survey data confirm that colleges and universities are making significant efforts to respond to the concerns of media industry officials regarding the unauthorized distribution and downloading of music, video, and other commercial content on campus networks. And while not condoning the behavior of students who download music and film, it is also clear that college students—and colleges—have become an easy target for the entertainment industries. For example, although growing numbers of consumers—upwards of some 16 million households—now have access to high-speed networks from home, entertainment industry groups that are understandably unhappy about the proliferation of digital content on the Internet continue to focus on college students as the primary culprits for downloaded content because they represent a large, easily identifiable and easily targeted population. In fact, the notion that all 16 million American college students, ages 17-67, are “wired” is one of the major myths of the Internet: At best the “wired” population—those students with 24/7 access to high-speed campus networks—totals some 1.8 million undergraduates, the students fortunate enough to live in campus dorms.

In contrast, consumer broadband providers—ISPs, cable, and telephone companies including Adephia, AOL, Comcast, Earthlink, and SBC—are far less conscientious about addressing copyright issues with their clientele than are colleges and universities that provide e-mail accounts and Web access for their students, faculty, administrators, and staff.

More Wireless
The 2003 survey data reveal some dramatic gains over the past year regarding campus planning for and the deployment of wireless networks (WiFi). Almost four-fifths (77.2 percent) of the campuses participating in the 2003 survey report wireless LANs, up from two-thirds (67.9 percent) in 2002 and 29.6 percent in 2000. Although most universities had some wireless LANs operating by 2001, the big gains for WiFi on campus in recent years have been among four-year public colleges and community colleges, where WiFi deployment almost doubled between 2001 and 2003.

Other data mark the continuing expansion of WiFi services. For example, a seventh (14.2 percent) of the participants in the 2003 survey indicate that full-campus wireless networks are up and running at their institutions as of Fall 2003, compared to a tenth (10.0 percent) in 2002 and just and 3.8 percent in 2000. Across all sectors, the 2003 data suggest that wireless services cover more than a quarter (27.4 percent) of the campus at institutions reporting wireless networks, compared to less than a fifth (18.3 percent) in 2002 and just 10.9 percent in 2001.

However, even as WiFi grows, many institutions seem to have opted for a “just do it strategy,” focused on deployment first, followed by planning. The proportion of campuses reporting strategic plans for wireless networks rose to 45.5 percent in Fall 2003, up from 34.7 percent in 2002 and 24.3 percent in 2001. The numbers with plans as of Fall 2003 trail the numbers of campuses with some WiFi deployment (77.7 percent vs.
45.5 percent).

WiFi service may be a victim of its own success for many institutions, despite explosive growth of wireless on campuses and in the consumer and corporate sectors. Rising expectations about wireless services are fostered in part by the recent, dramatic growth of inexpensive WiFi in the consumer sector. Students and faculty may come to campus wondering why there is no wireless service in dorms, offices, classrooms, and the campus quad if they already have WiFi at home.

Progress on Portals
American colleges and universities are making steady progress in developing and deploying campus Web portals. The 2003 survey data document the growing number of institutions that now have Web-based campus portals, up to 28.4 percent in 2003, from 21.2 percent in 2002.

Another fifth (20.4 percent) of the survey respondents report that the campus portal is “under development” or being installed in the current academic year, about the same as in 2002. Just under a fourth (24.5 percent compared to 29.5 percent in 2003) of the participating campuses indicate that portal issues are now “under review/discussion” at their institutions, while a slightly higher proportion (27.4 percent) report no portal planning or related activities at their institution (compared to 29.0 percent in 2002).

Other data from the 2003 survey also reflect the campus commitment to Web portals. For example, a third (31.3 percent) of the institutions participating in the 2003 survey have a strategic plan for portal services, up from 24.9 percent in 2002. Survey respondents rate “providing a campus portal for Web-based student services” at 5.7 (scale: 1=not important; 7=very important), up from 5.5 in 2002, and 5.2 in 2000.

However, when asked to assess the campus IT infrastructure, respondents rank campus portals lowest among 13 different IT services (a 2003 portal score of 3.1, where the scale is 1=poor; 7=excellent). In contrast, the two highest-ranked IT infrastructure components are computer networks (5.9), and online library reference resources (5.6).

Campus Services on the Web
Data from the 2003 Campus Computing Survey also reveal continuing gains on various Web-based campus services. One major measure of progress is that the percentage of institutions reporting online course registration, online transcripts, and online course reserves has tripled since 1998.

Over half (53.3 percent) of the nation’s colleges and universities can process credit card payments from their campus Web sites, up from two-fifths (40.5 percent) in 2002, 27.6 percent in 2001, and more than double the number from 2000 (18.6 percent). In contrast, just 5.1 percent of the campuses participating in the 1998 survey could process credit card transactions from their Web sites. More than two-thirds (70.9 percent) of the institutions participating in the 2002 survey report that their campus Web site offers online course registration, compared to just over half (55.4 percent) in 2001, 43.1 percent in 2000, and 20.9 percent in 1998.

While many in the campus community may feel good about the dramatic progress made since 1998, higher education’s primary clientele—students ages 17 to 67—often look at many campus Web sites and portals and find them wanting. Depending on age and experience, for many students the reference point for “services on the Web” will be Amazon, Abercrombie, AFT (American Federation of Teachers), or even AARP (American Assoc. of Retired Persons—where membership eligibility begins at age 50!). These sites, and others (for example, online travel services, banks, credit card companies, and cell phone providers) offer increasingly customized Web-based services that have become the standard against which all others are measured. In this context, it is not surprising that the campus community is still roughly two years behind the consumer sector in many of its “services on the Web” offerings.

Indeed, other data from the 2003 survey support the notion of lagging services on the Web. This year’s survey respondents rated the campus infrastructure for eCommerce and portal services as 12th and 13th on a 13-item list of technology metrics that include network and tele communications services, user support services, online instructional resources, network security, and IT training for students and faculty.

A Declining Priority of Instructional Integration?
As in the past years, survey respondents across all sectors of higher education continue to identify “assisting faculty integrate technology into instruction” as the single most important IT issue confronting their campuses “over the next two or three years.” However, the numbers have dropped dramatically since 1998, falling by half across almost all sectors.
These declines reflect not so much a declining importance of instructional integration as the rising priority of other issues—IT financing, ERP upgrade/ replacement, and wireless—that now compete for the time and attention of the survey respondents, typically CIOs, and also compete for increasingly restricted institutional resources (people and money).

Course Management Systems and ePortfolios
Course Management Systems continue to play a increasingly significant role in instruction across all sectors. The 2003 survey data also indicate that a third (33.6 percent) of all college courses now use course management tools, up from 26.5 percent in 2002, 20.6 percent in 2001, and almost double the level in 2000 (14.7 percent). The survey data also reveal that over half (51.4 percent) of the survey respondents report that their institution has a strategic plan for deploying course management tools, compared to 47.5 percent in 2002. More than four-fifths (82.3 percent) of the participating institutions have already established a “single product” standard for course management software, up from roughly three-fourths (73.2 percent) in the 2001 survey and 57.8 percent in 2000.

The CMS data are interesting as they reflect the arrival of course management tools or learning management software as a core component of the institutional instructional infrastructure: Both the percentage of classes that use CMS resources and the number of institutions that have established a campus standard for a CMS product continue to rise.

As an extension of course management and assessment initiatives, Electronic Portfolios (ePortfolios) are also emerging as a important resource for students and for institutions. Fully an eighth (13.5 percent) of the institutions participating in the 2003 survey offer ePortfolio services on their campus Web sites. However, the aggregate data mask significant variations by sector as ePortfolio resources are available to students at a fourth (24.6 percent) of public research universities, but at less than 5 percent of community colleges.

Continuing Budget Cuts
Two-fifths (41.3 percent) of the institutions participating in the 2003 Campus Computing Survey report a decline in the academic computing budget at their campus for the current academic year, compared to a third (32.6 percent) in 2002, just under a fifth (18.0 percent) in 2001, and about one-eighth (11.4 percent) in the 2000 survey report. The budget challenges were most pronounced in public four-year colleges, where this year budget cuts affected well over three-fifths (62.9 percent) of institutions, compared to half (50.7 percent) of public universities and 47.2 percent of community colleges.

Similarly, the 2003 survey data also reveal a downturn in spending on administrative computing. As above, two-fifths (42.3 percent) of the 2003 survey respondents report a decline in the campus budget for administrative computing, compared to almost one-third (31.0 percent) in 2002, one-fifth (18.3 percent) in 2001 and one-eighth (11.7 percent) in 2000.

Another indicator of troubled technology funding is the growing number of campuses reporting mid-year budget cuts. Fully one-third (32.4 percent) of 2003 survey participants report mid-year budgets cuts this past year, up from a fifth in 2002, 8.0 percent in 2001, and 5.3 percent in 2000. The mid-year budget rescissions averaged 9.2 percent in A/Y 2003, compared to 7.0 percent in A/Y 2002.

Yet the survey data also reveal some interesting funding priorities amidst the budget cuts. For example, even as overall funding for computing declines, campuses are increasing budgets for portals, ERP software/services, and IT security initiatives. These increases in specific lines—security, portals, and ERP services—come at the expense of other portions of already reduced IT budgets, often equipment and consulting services.

Although the majority of survey respondents seem somewhat optimistic that budget cuts will not have dire consequences for key technology initiatives on their campuses, many IT officials are clearly concerned. Almost a third (33.3 percent) “agree/strongly agree” that budget cuts will “severely impede efforts to enhance eLearning” and just over one-fourth (29.7 percent) “agree/strongly agree” that budget cuts will “severely impede/interrupt ERP upgrade/replacement efforts.” One fifth (21.8 percent) of the institutions participating in the 2003 survey report delaying or deferring ERP deployments, replacement, or upgrades.

Taken together, these data and other information from the 2003 Campus Computing Survey reflect the movements of a digital puck that is going, concurrently, in many directions: a continuing campus concern for instruction and the instructional infrastructure, a new focus on administrative systems, and real, long-term pressures on technology budgets and resources.

Unfortunately, the inherent (and now continuing) tension between rising expectations for IT-enhanced instructional resources and administrative services and reduced funding for IT budgets ultimately affects students who come to campus to learn about and also to learn with technology. The recession manta, again heard on many college campuses—do more with less, and do it better—makes for an interesting sound bite but fails to provide a clear path or a strategic plan for IT resources, services, and operations.

[Editor’s note: Visit Casey Green’s new Digital Tweed Blog on www.syllabus.com/blog.]

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