Innovation | Viewpoint

Becoming Pioneers Again: Why IT Innovation is Essential to the Future of Universities

If you surveyed the college students, researchers, and executive administrators on your campus and asked them to list their goals, you would expect to get a few different answers. The student wants to graduate on time in his or her major without taking on massive debt. The researcher wants to make scientific discoveries as quickly as possible in a most cost-effective manner. The administrator might have the goal of getting your institution a top-ten ranking within the appropriate category in the next five years but will undoubtedly be looking to cut costs.

Now ask yourself, as a campus IT leader, do these goals also appear on your list of goals and priorities? If not, you and your staff are quickly becoming irrelevant.

Many of the functions of a standard IT operation will be replaced completely over the next ten years as administrative and systematic academic services will be provided more efficiently and at lower cost by outside providers. This is not a new or original thought. Almost ten years ago Nicholas Carr wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review titled “IT Doesn’t Matter,” which argued that, like electricity, IT services were becoming a commodity instead of a strategic resource. And they will thus attract the problems of all commodity providers of being essential but not strategic. This past May The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote an article titled “The Incredible Shrinking CIO,” which examined the diminishing role of IT on many campuses.

So who cares if the people who patch the servers disappear from campus? Honestly, even IT people don’t care that much about these mundane operational tasks. That’s not the concern. The larger issue is that IT departments in general, and CIOs in particular, can and should be playing a strategic role in the future of universities for the next decade if universities themselves are to meet their own missions.

It’s a cliché to say that technology is changing our lives, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Many of us believe GPS, Google, and a strong cell signal are basic human needs. Our personal lives have been transformed by social media (if you don’t believe it just ask any politician)). And many of us require constant assistance from our Android or iPhones just to navigate our daily professional commitments.

Despite this, the ways in which we create and distribute knowledge at the university utilizes tools that would have been familiar to scholars in the Middle Ages. Classroom lectures, books, and printed journals are still the dominant tools of our trade.

But there seems little doubt that this will soon change, and quite possibly with dramatic effects. Who would have believed five or ten years ago that DVDs for music and software would be an obsolete technology? That Blockbuster video stores or Borders bookstores would be out of business in 2011? That news publications such as Newsweek or U.S. News & World Report would be mere shadows of their former selves?

These companies created and delivered information via DVD, books, and printed periodicals (in the form of magazines and newspapers). Universities deliver information via classroom lectures, books, and printed periodicals (in the form of research journals). With the exception of the classroom lecture—a method of instruction that has changed little since the Middle Ages—the form of delivering information by both media companies and universities is very similar, even if the content is vastly different.

As digital methods of delivering information have become predominant, entire industries such as the music recording industry, journalism, and book publishing are scrambling to create new business models, and there have already been headline-making casualties of those companies that couldn’t make the leap. It doesn’t require an overly active imagination to think that something similar could happen in academia.

In Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, a character is asked how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” he answers. “Gradually then suddenly.” I believe this is how we’ll see technology transform universities around the world.

At Purdue University we’ve been working for the past few years to meet this challenge. We’ve developed a method to data mine information about student academic behaviors to improve student success. We’ve created a suite of “classroom apps” that allow instructors to easily incorporate social media tools into their courses to improve learning and engagement. We’ve developed a collection of tools that greatly improve the ability of researchers to collaborate and develop discipline-specific communities, which we call “hubs.” And we have many more new technologies sketched out in multiple colors on the white boards in our offices.

We are doing this in order to help Purdue University achieve its strategic goals of improving student success, speeding scientific discoveries, and boosting global engagement and service. To the extent that the IT staff at Purdue can demonstrate the ability to help students, researchers, and top administrators achieve their goals, that is the extent to which we are viewed as a strategic resource.

Purdue University may have already begun the process of exploiting digital tools to achieve strategic goals, but that hardly means that that the battle is won or the transition is complete. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, said in a recent interview that we are still in the first minute of the Internet revolution. I agree completely with that. We are five years into what could easily be a 50-year transformation. The issue isn’t whether other universities can catch up to those that are already working on this transformation, but whether you, as an IT leader, are ready to begin.

We need a period of massive experimentation and innovation in higher education. We have done this before—many of the first technologies of the digital revolution were invented or put into first use at universities. There was a time when .edu was the best address to have on the Internet, because it meant you had access to resources that few others could use. We need to become pioneers again, and take advantage of the new digital technologies to make large leaps in our ability to educate students, make scientific discoveries, and deliver knowledge to people around the world.

No single university will be able to develop these technological tools alone. We must work together to develop the tools, perform empirical research to determine the efficacy of the tools, and find ways to deliver the tools in a cost-efficient manner. At Purdue we are always on the lookout for other universities that share this vision and want to work with us to improve these tools.

But the most important partnership will remain that of the university president and CIO. The CIO and the university president are often the only two staff members who have a view of the entire campus. By working closely together, these two individuals can prepare a university for the transformations that are just beginning.

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