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Transforming the Academic Enterprise: A Conversation with Graham Spanier

Graham Spanier offers Syllabus a president's view of technology integration and discusses the impact of pervasive technology at Penn State. An amateur magician in his spare time, this energetic technology champion is working his magic on one of the nation's largest comprehensive state universities.

Syllabus: As president of Penn State University, you have a very high-level view of technology integration on campus. How do you see technology today, in 2003, impacting and supporting institutional goals, and how d'es this figure into top-level strategic planning?

Graham Spanier: I think higher education has been transformed by the deployment of new information technologies. We see it in almost every corner of the university—in our administrative systems, in our Web sites, in our online applications, in distance education, and in resident instruction classrooms. As far as strategic planning, we consider information technology as an integral part of our planning activities. The information technology budget is a rapidly growing area within the university budget, and while it may have slowed down somewhat in the last couple of years, I think it will continue to be a growing part of our budget.

S: D'es technology impact your planning across the entire enterprise?
GS: Technology is no longer isolated in discrete areas, and part of what we're able to do with more advanced information technologies is to connect areas together that weren't previously connected. I think a very good example is in university libraries. People used to think about libraries in terms of books and journals, but now the library is at the hub of many information technology activities on campus and it is connecting people from their homes, from their offices, and between academic units, allowing people to collaborate in new ways. I also think one of the most important trends in higher education—in fact, it may be the most important trend that nobody is talking about—is the convergence of distance education and resident instruction.

S: So would you say that technology is changing the institution as a whole?
GS: I think so, but it's not as clear as saying that the technology is causing the changes. A lot of this change has been bubbling, and technology is a response to the needs of faculty and staff out there, so it's a two-way street.

S: You mentioned the library. Where at Penn State are you seeing the most technology change—in the realm of academics, or research, or student life, or operations and administration?
GS: I think we're seeing it in all of those areas. It would be hard to rank order them. Certainly researchers have always been on the cutting edge of new applications, and a lot of our most advanced applications are showing up on the research side first. But our registrar, our folks in finance and physical plant, people who oversee our Web site, and our public relations folks are also very much on the cutting edge of using new technologies to get their work done.

S: Can you give me an example of this kind of technology change at Penn State?
GS: One very good example at Penn State is something called eLion. Our nickname is the Nittany Lions so that's where the Lion comes from. This is a system for our students where they can do advising online. They can receive information, look at their transcripts, register for courses, find out what their grades are, even do hypothetical degree audits if they were to change their major or if they wanted to see what the grade point might be in the semester ahead if they got certain combinations of As, Bs, Cs, and Ds.

S: Are the lines blurring between administrative and academic systems? And if so, what are some of the key technologies at the intersection of the two?
GS: Yes, the lines are blurring. Library systems, assistive technologies, eCommerce, Web services, and the course management system are all areas in which we are very active here at Penn State.

S: Do you have an enterprise portal?
GS: Yes, we have a portal service that's available to our students, faculty, and staff. It can be highly customized, with different levels of access depending on what you are doing. If you're a faculty member, you can go in and get your class list and assign your grades. Students can't have access to that, but they can go in and find out what their own grades are. And in most courses now, when a student takes an exam they get their results back electronically after the exam with comparisons to how they fit into the class overall.

S: Are you connecting better with alumni electronically?
GS: Yes, absolutely. If you go to the alumni section of our Web page, you'll find direct links to our alumni association, to things that you can purchase online, our alumni travel program, fundraising, how you make a gift, corporate connections that Penn State Alumni Association has. We have at Penn State about 100,000 of our alumni who receive an e-mail from the university every day, so we have something called the Penn State Newswire that g'es to any alumnus who's signed up and they get all the news from the university on a daily basis. We have several specialty newswires. If you're interested in diversity you can sign up for the diversity newswire; you can get the sports newswire; you can get the news coming out of the university in particular areas.

S: D'es that make the alumni more involved in the university community?
GS: Yes, they're very aware of what happens; they stay connected. Oftentimes they'll read a news item and then weigh in with me with their opinion. One of the new services we have is called OnLion seminars. It's a free monthly seminar featuring Penn State's faculty who explore various topics of interest to Penn Staters so the alumni can go online and participate in those seminars. That's done in cooperation with Penn State World Campus, which is our virtual distance education system.

S: I know that Penn State World Campus is relatively new compared to your university's long history in distance learning initiatives.
GS: Right. The World Campus is about five years old now, whereas we started correspondence in 1892, which was the year rural free delivery started in the United States.

S: And where are you now with Penn State World Campus?
GS: We're now up to about 10,000 students who are taking courses through the Penn State World Campus, and these are primarily Web-based courses. The number of students continues to increase on a fairly steep curve. We have about 30 different fields in which someone can get a certificate or a degree, and I think we have about 192 different courses right now.

S: Penn State's main campus is geographically somewhat far from population centers. Is IT helping to keep Penn State's 24 campuses connected to each other and the rest of the world?
GS: We're geographically right in the middle of the state. Some people used to say that Penn State was equally inaccessible from all points. I think we've transcended that, but there's no question that through information technology people all over the world feel Penn State is very greatly connected. Certainly our campuses are connected to each other, but we also have offices in all 67 of Pennsylvania's counties through our Cooperative Extension Service. We have research sites all around the state, so we operate at about 100 different locations altogether around Pennsylvania. But through our World Campus and through the accessibility of our IT systems, our servers, our network, we're as in touch as you could be. Penn State now transmits as many as four million e-mail messages a day. There are very few entities of any kind in the world that have that much e-mail traffic, and that comes from about 110,000 active users.

S: I can tell you that from the outside it certainly feels like Penn State is connected, very well connected to the world, and it sounds like it feels that way from the inside, too.
GS: Yes, it d'es. I think we're now up to about OC12-level connectivity in our bandwidth, and everybody on campus has a computer. We have very extensive training programs, workshops of every imaginable type done through our Information Technology Services group. So another area that has evolved is the very high level of collaboration between people that we used to consider running the computer networks and the computer systems with those running what we used to think of as the telephone system. Those folks are all now part of the same enterprise and working very closely together.

S: What d'es the 21st century student look like, and what are their expectations for technology at the university?
GS: Well, they're very good at multi-tasking and expect all of the services to be available at once. They're going to want to be doing instant messaging while they're looking at e-mail, while they're writing their homework, and while they're listening to music that they have downloaded. So their expectations are high. Today's students are a little impatient and don't want to wait, so they expect to have very high-speed connectivity. And they still assume that we will have public service or public access laboratories that will include software that may have special applications that might be too expensive for them to own individually.

S: Can you link technology with accountability in terms of how technology can help achieve the institutional mission?
I think you have to look at IT simply as a tool for getting things done. I don't think a university is necessarily any more or less accountable by having the best IT out there. But there are some things you can do with IT that can help. We have in place some systems, for example, in terms of research accounting and managing budgets, which allow supervisors or research administrators to monitor cash flow and do auditing that they probably would not have been able to do as well in the past, so IT can help there. We in the central administration can monitor at any moment what courses students are registering for, what classes are filling up the most quickly. We can look at this very easily and get the big picture and find out places where we have to deploy more resources, to add more sections, or begin to think about closing something down. Back in the old days you'd have to do a run overnight or over the weekend and look at the printouts and painstakingly go through them—very labor-intensive. IT allows for better use, better accountability and efficiency if you match up what's available to how you do business, and we do quite a bit of that at Penn State.

S: It seems like with technology you have a lot more data available with which to make decisions, but everything is changing so fast …
In some ways, with all the data I have at my fingertips now I can't even keep up with it all. Right now I'm sitting in front of my computer screen and I have one icon that takes me to the development database—all of our donors—and I can at any given moment see which development officers are having meetings with which prospects today and see their notes on the meetings. I can then look at the alumni database and I have information on all of our alumni. I have the office of administrative systems business database; I can be looking at expenditure flows and how bills are being paid. I can look at the academic information system and see what's happening with courses and student demand. I could just spend my entire day at my desk watching everything that's happening. We're actually at the point in our evolution, I think, where our systems are allowing us to do more than we might even be inclined to do, but I consider that to be a very good situation.

S: D'es technology increase the potential to expand distance learning and extension programs and how do you address these possibilities, while maintaining focus on the four-year residential experience? Are you serving a changing population?
I don't think they're mutually exclusive at all. We don't have a narrowly tailored mission to resident undergraduate students only, so what we're doing in distance learning is important. What we're doing in the cooperative extension and other outreach programs is important for us. The population that we're serving is changing somewhat, it is very diverse, and it's becoming broader—it g'es well beyond Pennsylvania now. While a lot of our World Campus enrollments, for example, are in Pennsylvania, we have people enrolled from every state in the U.S. and from about 40 different countries at this point. So the question for us as a state university—where we receive some appropriation for education programs—is if the state cuts our budget, can we continue our outreach activities at the same level that we always have? That's becoming more and more difficult. And programs like the World Campus, we operate on a completely self-support basis. At Penn State we ramp that up very carefully, very slowly, without a lot of hype; and indeed a lot of universities have gotten into that business, have lost a lot of money at it and failed. We did not want to be in that situation.

S: Do you see a pervasiveness of technology now, much more than when you became president of Penn State?
Yes, I think we certainly see more of it now than eight years ago. It creates more transparency—people know what's going on at the university and feel free to weigh in. But what it's really done is it's allowed us to do more with less. We can reach more people and educate more students; faculty are able to transform the kind of instruction they provide in their classroom. They're able to disseminate more information to their students in alternative ways, which allows more of the classroom time for interaction, group projects, and working on things that students wouldn't have had time in the classroom to work on before because they were just sitting there listening to the faculty member lecture.

S: Do you think that technology is enabling the kind of changes that really are going to have people working in different ways than they used to?
GS: Oh, I think so, yes. I remember even as recently as eight years ago people who were diehard opposed to technology taking over their life—now they are doing e-mails in the middle of the night and have to check their e-mail every hour, can't stand to be away from it.

S: We've titled this conversation "Transforming the Academic Enterprise." Looking down the road five or ten years at higher education in general, can you make any predictions about what some of these transformations might be? Will we still recognize our institutions?
Oh, I think we still will recognize our institutions. I think over the next five to ten years the changes won't be quite as dramatic as they have been over the last five to ten years. If you really go back and think about how IT and its uses are different now than they were then, it's quite remarkable. I think we'll continue to see some of those changes, but they won't be quite as dramatic because we've accomplished a lot already; but there will continue to be changes. I think we'll see, for example, changes in the greater deployment of IT in the residential instruction classroom; I think that will be a very important one. I think we will have students living in the dormitories of their residential campuses who will get up in the morning and do some of their classes from their rooms in the residence halls or they'll do quite a bit of their work there but also go into a classroom setting. We'll see that whole continuum of how much of their classroom work is being done outside of the classroom as opposed to inside of the classroom. I think that's going to be an area of significant change. Of course we'll see more deployment of wireless technologies. I think we'll see a growing integration of computers, laptops, PDAs, cellular telephones, and wireless technologies. I think as all of this comes together in a more useful way, we will discover growing educational uses for these technologies, and that will perhaps result in some further transformation. But none of this is going to put your traditional residential colleges and universities out of business. That's what a lot of people think the conclusion of all of this is. I heartily disagree. I think that in the end the technology will become useful tools to make it a more interesting and important experience, but nothing's going to beat the whole idea of 18- to 22-year-olds being in a community with a lot of people like themselves. That's going to continue to be an important part of the traditional educational experience.

S: Are you seeing more of the "lifelong learner" at Penn State—alumni and other learners who may come back after graduation for courses or continuing education programs, maybe for the rest of their lives?
Well, certainly. We see a tremendous amount of that now in terms of our alumni connected to us. What we're also going to see from the non-traditional students is people who may come to campus for a weekend at the beginning of a semester or perhaps an intensive two- or three-day experience; then they're going to go off and do the rest of their course or updating or continuing education activity on their own in an interactive way from a distance; and finally they'll come back at the end of the semester for exams, papers, and presentations. It again g'es back to challenging this idea that somehow it's one way or the other, with our focus on either traditional residential students or distance learners. I don't think that's so; I think we're going to see a melding of these and a convergence of future technologies for education.

[Editor's note: Graham Spanier will give a keynote on Dec. 10 at the Syllabus fall2003 conference in Cambridge, Mass.]

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