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Strategic Directions | Feature

Education and the Business of Information Access

A Q&A with John Robinson

The evolution of personalized information access in higher education — the way a university's constituents access information and services relevant to their education or pertinent to business with their institution — is, of course, now a story measured in decades. Given how quickly technology shifts and turns today, it's of great value to consult with someone who has been, and still is, a particularly active participant in the information technology industry since the early beginnings of computerized information systems for higher education.

Back in 1968 John Robinson and his business partner Dave Duffield started the first software firm (Information Associates) to offer administrative systems specifically for colleges and universities. Duffield is now the co-founder of Workday and Robinson is co-founder of rSmart. Both continue to pursue innovation and change at the forefront of information systems and platforms.

CT caught up with Robinson at a recent technology conference. We asked him for his perspectives on significant changes in information access over time. Here, he reflects on the evolution of personalized information access — taking us from early monolithic, batch-process administrative systems to the distributed, search-based, and individualized platforms our students and other higher education constituents expect today.

Mary Grush: What is the most important driver of change for education programs and institutions?

John Robinson: Future learning designs, and the ways learners interact with their education institutions, are and will continue to be advanced most by technology-supported access to information. Information access is the most important driver of change, and we are seeing some of the "most changed" technologies and processes in the realm of information access.

Grush: Broadly, how is information access changing and affecting change in education institutions? 

Robinson: Our education system is in the process of enormous change — and of course, information technology plays a key role. Most importantly, improvements in information access are opening the doors to new experiences that will ultimately mean greater success for our learning communities.

Mobile and search-based platforms, along with distributed strategies that break down information silos, are presenting us with a sea change in what we have known as "information access". 

Interestingly, because education was not the first to embrace many of these technology directions, the influence for change is coming from outside our education institutions. Some analysts even point to student adoption of popular new communications capabilities and credit students for "leading" education institutions to change their very traditional patterns. But there's a bigger picture to be appreciated here.

Yes, students are accustomed to using mobile devices, search capabilities, and related digital technologies in their every day communications outside of their college or university. Such student work habits are indeed helping to fuel change and spark the imagination of leaders at our learning institutions, and so they are contributing, in part, to the promise of finally updating some of our entrenched processes in education.

But let's consider the bigger picture: Probably the most common factor in all the technology change we see going on around us is the ability for individuals to access information easily and directly and find the relevant services and resources they need to complete their business or a task at hand. Common commercial services may have been first to employ some of these new technologies widely — I shouldn't have to mention the search-based technologies of Amazon, Google, and others here — but the education sector may have the most to gain from really developing these technological capabilities for their constituents.

Grush: Can you give an example of an institution that has developed that more direct, search-based information access for its constituents? 

Robinson: Indiana University took a major leap in this direction when, in recent years, it recognized that its students were becoming discouraged in their quest to find campus information because of the navigational challenges presented by IU's 10-plus-year-old portal. So, the university developed, and deployed in 2013 a totally new information access design that has now replaced the portal that was once believed to be state of the art for their students, faculty, administration, and community. IU's portal was officially retired as of 2015.

IU's work to replace the portal with a "one click" search-based information access design lead to much exploration into many new, not otherwise thought of capabilities that are allowing the university to create a more acceptable campus support capability for its constituents. This is the changing face of information access on our campuses — and it's just the beginning.

Grush: Are other institutions beginning to follow suit?

Robinson: IU's design efforts and striking new information access capabilities, now in the hands of their students, faculty, staff, researchers, administrators, alumni, and all university constituents have not gone unnoticed. IU was awarded several recognitions for innovation this past year. And yes, other colleges and universities are beginning to follow suit. IU is now being joined by many institutions that are collaborating in the further advancement of this modernized information access capability.

But in the education sector in general, we are still early in the adoption of individualized, search-based, information access capabilities. Institutions are just beginning to discover the opportunities — the real value proposition is not yet widely recognized.

Happily, now that it is becoming actively used, this new strategy is showing its ability to open avenues for students to access people, resources, and information at just the right time to help enhance their learning experience. Though we have seen information access breakthroughs in the past, this one will prove to have particular impact, ultimately enabling our institutions to make the next steps in the creation of real-time education platforms.

Grush: Will most institutions be able to approach search-based information access capabilities — in terms of technology implementation and costs?

Robinson: First, I should say that yes, any institution can adopt, implement, and operate this new strategy easily and inexpensively.

However, not many have really reflected yet on the principles inherent in taking such a direction. They may be passing it up, at least for now, viewing it as just another piece of technology. Perhaps they think they might as well continue merely tweaking their existing portals and other technologies already in place to provide "campus-wide" access and interaction.

But others have discovered that it is completely workable to run the old portal technology alongside the newer, search-based platform until such time as the institution sees fit to retire the portal.

And some have taken the opportunity to probe these technology directions and have come to the conclusion that it is important to support their current and future infrastructure by embracing the chance for a new, dynamic interactivity throughout their institution — these are the early adopters of individualized, search-based, information access capabilities. These institutions will be among the first to benefit from modernized information access strategies.

Again, it is still early. But as adoption accelerates in the future I will be watching this shift and sea change with anticipation.

Grush: How does this type of technology impact the departments and/or the service owners within the institution?

Robinson: From a departmental or service owner's perspective, they now have the freedom and flexibility to determine the types of resources and services that they make available and how they can become more freely received by their intended audiences. As well, current technologies are enabling very perceptive analytics, providing direct feedback to help the providers understand whether their intended messaging is being met. This empowers the service providers to focus on that which is important to their users.

Grush: What is the most important impact that the adoption of new information access technology will have on higher education institutions?

Robinson: Throughout the past 40-plus years that I have been involved in working with some 600 institutions, it has been most gratifying to have experienced and been part of a very obvious evolution — that being the inevitable change that has taken place in one's ability to access information. And the change is striking.

For me, "information access" started with the storied, voluminous paper reports generated monthly from data on punched cards. These stacked reports could be measured in inches, or in feet! And they were only as timely as the batch processes allowed. Then we experienced the more selective reports accessed from sparsely placed "green screen" devices in administrators' offices (usually available at inconvenient times). Later we saw kiosks, which were more publicly available. And finally, personal computers were connected to mainframes — some even with dashboards and relevant analytics. Still ahead we'll see such developmental markers as even greater mobile access than at present, federated identity used widely, and timely predictive analytics.

But perhaps the most important impact I can point to at this time, here now at some institutions or anticipated, is that of having a much more acceptable access environment, allowing our colleges and universities to come into the era of 'personalizing' education and the students' learning process — a shift that could not be made without information access platforms becoming easy to use, inexpensive to operate, convenient for all involved, and expandable without adding undue complexity. The bottom line will be that this access capability will continue to encourage the transition to individualizing (personalizing) our learning environment and interactions with our institutions. This will be the catalyst for higher education's newest, but stable and sustainable education programs, and for more opportunities for effective planning for our education system. And that is why people need to recognize the potential of the business of information access in education.

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