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Is That a Petabyte in Your Laptop, Or Are You Just Glad to Be Alive (In 2034)?

Former University of Michigan president James Duderstadt is a rare bird who is a widely recognized and highly respected academic, teacher, researcher, administrator, leader, and politician – all rolled into one very big, active person, with a very big, active, hard drive.*

He’s currently director of the Millennium Project at the University of Michigan, and chair of the steering committee on the Impact of Information Technology on the Future of the Research University within the National Academy of Sciences. He also holds down a couple dozen other roles.

Earlier this week, he spoke on, “Navigating the University through the Stormy Seas of a Changing World,” at Passports to Planning, my day-job employer’s annual international conference in Miami Beach. Reading between the lines, there’s a lot of good news for campus information technology staff.

* While you read this, try to guess how large the storage space on his personal desktop is. The answer’s on the next page.

What’s some of that good news? Well, a lot of it derives from what he told the audience about computing power and speed. Nothing that hasn’t been said before, but coming from him, it’s credible: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Duderstadt has a terabyte of storage space on his personal desktop, completing whacking out my notebook’s 100M (60 internal, 40 swappable), yet he says that’s nothing. It’s likely that our children – well, his and my grandchildren, actually – will have “thousand dollar” notebooks with petabyte (slightly more than 2 to the power of 50 bytes ) processors which will have the computing speed and power of the human brain. The bottom line there is that IT is a growth industry, especially when it comes to teaching and learning.

In the near term, there are more and more adult learners – who are leading the shift to higher education being delivered interactively, collaboratively, and often virtually – all using IT tools. Meanwhile, the lines are blurring between levels of education like K-12, postsecondary, and adult learners. This, of course, is part of what’s driving the virtual portfolio movement that many of us are either working on or following the development of closely.

In the intermediate term, Duderstadt says that to plan for what our institutions need to do for teaching, learning, research, and administration, we should assume the existence in 2010 of what now seems to us as infinite bandwidth and processing power. During those next few years, information technology will become the primary interface between people, between people and their environment, and between people and institutions. The message, again, is that we’re in a growth industry, and that’s good.

Even better, much of the rest of the world, even the research world, is adopting some of the working styles and processes of IT workers. So we’re role models. In particular, we are ably demonstrating cross-institutional collaboration, which higher education IT leaders have used successfully for decades.

It's not easy to brag about this, because while it's significant, it has also been inevitable. That’s because the process of developing the kinds of tools – including the Internet itself – that we create is inherently collaborative. Duderstadt sees that kind of collaborative work moving into many other disciplines in the very near future. The National Science Foundation, for example, has recently focused on looking for cross-institutional collaboration as a significant factor in its review of grant applications.

The best news may be that our leaders and visionaries in higher education are finally beginning to realize what some of us have been preaching for a long time, that information technology is the medium and the environment of teaching and learning in the knowledge age. When our leaders drop back and think about key values (which is not often enough!), they’re starting more and more to bring in IT folks at the beginning of the discussion.

Sometime soon the NAS project, Impact of Information Technology for the Future of the Research University, is going to convene top-level discussions to which teams of higher ed leaders will be brought in. There’ll be presidents, provosts, chancellors, and CFOs. But they’re also planning to bring along the CIOs as well. And that’s really good news for everyone in higher education information technology work.

You can download a complimentary MP3 of Duderstadt’s presentation at

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