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Looking Backward Looks Like Looking Forward - to 2004!

I know, I know, everyone else is writing predictions about what's going to happen in 2004, or even in 2007. So, just to be contrary I decided to take a look at the top higher ed/news story generators in 2003, based on our weekly scan of what's being written in the higher ed and general news media about IT issues at colleges and universities.

Guess what? The more I look at last year's stories, the more I see the same stories - or at least the same story categories - we'll be reading in 2004. Here's a backwards/forwards look at the top higher education information technology stories, as defined by media coverage in 2003, followed by a toast and a wish that the bad news stays away from you in 2004!

This story had legs, and the ripple effect continued from late August through the end of 2003. Students returned to campus and brought with them their computers and viruses and worms - and we had to fix things for them. It was a customer relations nightmare and it was tons of extra work hours for IT staff as we worked to educate the users, fix their machines, and manage the effects of their infections on our networks and our data. We learned a lot, but there will be new bugs to test what we've learned in 2004, and very likely new vectors.

The Buyout
After years of coping with PeopleSoft implementation and with many campuses having their eggs in the PeopleSoft basket, higher education IT managers (and budget officers) were alarmed when Oracle made its bid to acquire PeopleSoft. It wasn't quite the full "Chicken Little" reaction, although in some ways such a reaction was deserved. However, we're all tip-t'eing into 2004 as we hope that government agencies and stockholders might yet put the kibosh on this merger.

As Kenneth C. Green recently put it, with more and more students coming onto campus in 2003 from homes where they already had their own wireless networking, and with wireless showing up at gas stations in the Midwest, many institutions decided to opt "for a 'just do it strategy,' focused on deployment first, followed by planning." I bet that this is a trend that will continue to increase in 2004, with more universities and colleges following the Case Western Reserve model and being collaborative regional wireless hubs.

Following some kind of perverse Moore's Law, everyone's spam intake increased in 2003. No one disagrees now that it's a problem. But how to handle it? We implemented client spam filters, server-side spam filters, network spam filters, states and the federal government passed legislation. North Carolina even went out of state to arrest spammers. Yet the low cost to spammers of sending spam, combined with the interest of many large companies (and Congress) to allow what some call spam but what they want to send to us anyway, kept the problem insoluble.

P2P and Legalities
The Recording Industry Artists of America got tough. Although many see P2P as the last gasps of a dinosaur music industry, students got sued and taken to court, and institutions got subp'enaed, Napster came back to life with a special deal at Penn State, and the top court in Canada decided that it was legal there to download MP3s, just not to serve them up. Various methods (Napster included) for making music downloads available for a reasonable price were flown as trial balloons. The upshot is that no one really knows where we are, legally or technologically. Will the Nittany Napster deal please students? Will iPod recover from its non-replaceable battery issues? What creative things will the RIAA show us in 2004? I think we'll see some of the same policy issues getting more scrutiny in non-musical areas.

Open Source
Open source - the various software programs and the idea - gained broader acceptance in 2003, with the rise in popularity of Linux being a major part of the deal, and with Red Hat and others offering special licenses. With broader acceptance, though, came a closer look at the true pros and cons. Look for institutions to be clearer in their statements about what their choices are with enterprise solutions in 2004 and for a little more diversity in operating systems on campus as a result.

Financial Crisis
In the third year of the financial downturn in the US economy, higher education budgets were getting chopped right and left. Luckily, presidents and provosts still understand the priority that information technology has within higher education. That, plus the growing pressure for more IT amenities from "customers" has kept IT budgets in relatively good shape. Look for impacts on IT budgets to vary more from state to state in 2004, especially as public institutions in the harder hit states, get hit even harder. We may yet feel the negative impact of this in IT departments.

Student/Customer/Consumer Expectations
This was the year of freshmen who were expecting everything. It's amazing how fast their demands stopped when midterms and then finals hit! But the tsunami of student expectations will continue, fueled by the incredible sales of info tech items during the holiday season. Expect even greater challenges this year - increasingly from the repercussions of the technology they bring with them on campus which exceeds our administrative procedures and policies. There'll be students showing up in class this year with their own data projectors!

Not Quite Getting It Right
Upgrades to library systems that left out data, wireless network extension initiatives that found asbestos, hackers getting into academic information systems and changing grades, changes to Web-based email systems that created incompatibilities with student computers . . . all of these are the typical stories that come from times when we find out we didn't plan quite carefully enough for a change or an upgrade. When you consider how much gets done right, the first time, it's amazing how few of these stories we have to read about.

A Toast!
Here's hoping that all of you read no such "problem" stories about your own campus in 2004, and that whatever your choice of enterprise software path was, you stick to that path and prove it to have been the right path. For 2004 I wish that for you that your endowments hold and that the budget cuts stay away (and so d'es the RIAA). May your wireless be ubiquitous and may the PeopleSoft buyout die a quiet death. May your antivirus systems be current, your firewalls strong, and your users intelligent and educated - and here's hoping that a few more spammers go to jail in 2004!

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