Digital Tweed: Shameless Self-Promotion

Fall 2005 marks the 15th anniversary of The Campus Computing Project (www.campuscomputing.net)—of my Campus Computing Project. Campus Computing is the largest continuing study of IT planning and policy in American higher education. Later this month, at the October 2005 Educause Conference in Orlando (www.educause.edu/e05), and the League for Innovation Conference on Information Technology in Dallas (www.league.org/2005cit), Campus Computing will release the results of the 16th Campus Computing Survey.

Some months ago, as the 15th anniversary began to loom large, I offered my friendly editors at Campus Technology the option of an exclusive interview to celebrate this notable occasion. Okay, to be honest, I flooded them with e-mails and I pleaded with them: This is a big deal and a magazine interview would convince my mother I really am doing honorable work. But the editorial content for this issue, I was told politely but firmly, had been carefully planned months earlier; precious space in the magazine was already allocated. However, the Digital Tweed column (now in its sixth year) is mine. So I decided to throw my own party, be my own interviewer, and generate my own sound bites. Here then, dear reader, is an interview with myself, to mark the 15th anniversary of The Campus Computing Project. These are the questions an informed (Campus Technology) reporter would have asked.

What is The Campus Computing Project, and why should I care? When asked to explain the Campus Computing Project, I often comment that we have data, and that as the director of the project, I am the equivalent of the one-eyed guy with glaucoma in the land of the blind.

We've seen a dramatic shift in the focus of campus IT organizations from product and technology issues to service issues.

But is there any meaning in this awful metaphor? We have data! In fact, Campus Computing collects data on a wide range of campus IT planning and policy issues. When the project began in 1990, there were lots of opinions about campus issues, but there were really were no data about a wide range of IT planning and policy issues, especially in the context of the nascent “microcomputers” that were popping up all over campus and creating some havoc for some of the traditional IT folks. When the project began in 1990, the focus was on IT planning and policy issues affecting academic computing—teaching, learning, research, and scholarship—with a special interest in the evolving role of what were then called microcomputers.

How has the focus of the annual Campus Computing Survey changed over time? Good question. Survey respondents (typically, campus CIOs) who remember the early questionnaires would no doubt say (complain!) that the survey is now longer, and it is. As the technologies and accompanying IT issues have changed, so has the survey. For example, the arrival of the Web in the mid-1990s was a catalyst for a number of new questions, as was the development of course management systems. When portals emerged in the late 1990s, we began to track portal deployment and, concurrently, some two dozen features and services on campus Web sites, such as online registration, library resources, and ePortfolios. A few years ago, the emergence of P2P file sharing promoted new questions about copyright issues. And in 2005, we added a new set of items about security issues and classroom response systems (“clickers”). Yet, also important over the past 15 years is that the boundaries that separate “academic” from “administrative” computing have changed dramatically. Once separate operations (empires?) on many, if not most campuses, today the operations, if not integrated, are often “merged” into an office of Information Technology Services, under a single senior campus technology officer. And it is harder to distinguish “academic” from “administrative” services. Is online registration an academic or administrative service? Course management systems generate lots of transaction data that could be linked to other “administrative data” for institutional research an analysis.

What’s the biggest challenge you confront, in your annual survey process? Without question, the biggest challenge is getting people to complete the questionnaire each year. Everyone (or it seems as if everyone) wants the data the survey provides. But often, it feels like pulling teeth to get people—CIOs and senior campus technology officers—to complete the questionnaire. We depend on the “kindness of strangers,” (college and university IT officers) for the institutional data that campuses use for benchmarking purposes. And institutions and IT officers use our data to help address some key IT issues: How are we doing compared to our peers? What are we doing well and what must we do better? Many campus officials complain about the rising costs of IT.

What have you learned about IT expenditures over the past 15 years? I’m not sure anyone really knows just how much money any one college or university really spends on IT. It’s probably like the CIA budget: You would need a team of very skilled forensic accountants to come up with an informed assessment of total campus IT spending—central and departmental expenditures, hardware, software, personnel, etc. A lot of the IT spending is decentralized in academic departments and operating units. And much of the true personnel costs often are not tagged as an IT expense (such as the graduate or work-study student who d'es IT support for an academic department or research project). That said, we do know that campus IT spending consumes lots of money, about 5 to 7 percent of total institutional spending (according to data from Campus Computing); that’s probably double the number from 15 or 20 years ago. We track some data on IT spending, but the best data available are from the annual Educause Core Data Survey Report (www.educause.edu/coredata).

Has campus IT leadership changed over the past 15 to 20 years? IT leadership has changed significantly over the past two decades. We’ve seen a dramatic shift in the focus of campus IT organizations from product and technology issues (Which products? Which is the “best” computer?) to service issues (How do we provide these resources to students, faculty, and staff?). Concurrently, the IT leadership has changed. With due respect to IT officers (then and now), in the early years of the so-called, much-hyped “computer revolution in education,” campuses would hire “heavy metal” guys—generally men with engineering or computer science degrees—to “manage” and contain the computer/ technology issues on campus. Technology was seen largely as a product problem. Today, a new generation of campus IT leaders recognize that technology really is a service issue. Moreover, many CIOs or senior campus IT officers now come to IT from the faculty ranks, and without computer science or engineering degrees. This new generation focuses on planning, policy, programs, and people. They don’t ignore the bits, bytes, and network stuff, but they recognize IT as a service issue. Also, and interestingly, many of the new IT leaders are women, not “heavy metal” guys. Some examples of this new generation who come to the CIO position from the academic side of the campus house: Diane Balestri (Ph.D., Literature) was CIO at Vassar College (NY) and later, Brown University (RI), before her untimely passing a few years ago; Diana Oblinger (Ph.D., Plant Sciences), was CIO for the University of North Carolina system before her current VP appointment to Educause; Lev Gonick (Ph.D., Political Science) is CIO at Case Western Reserve University (OH); Polly McClure (Ph.D., Botany), is the CIO at Cornell University (NY). Educause President Brian Hawkins (Ph.D., Organizational Development) was the CIO at Brown more than a decade ago. These individuals and many others have followed different paths to their current IT leadership positions. But those paths also document the significant shift in campus IT issues and organizations from a (narrow) focus on IT products to a (broad) concern with IT resources and services.

Any final comments? My sincere thanks to the many individuals who have supported The Campus Computing Project by completing our annual survey. Unsolicited e-mails and conference hallway conversations suggest that the project has proven useful to the campus community. And for those of you who have passed on the invitation to participate in the annual survey: We keep lists and know who you are.

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