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IT Issues & Strategic Viewpoints in Higher Education

The Syllabus2004 higher education technology study was presented at the Executive Summit.

The study was conducted among selected IT executives and professionals of director level and above from 52 colleges and universities across the country: doctorate-granting institutions, master’s colleges and universities, baccalaureate colleges, and associate’s colleges. Recorded telephone interviews were conducted during a 12-week period; anonymity was ensured. Rankings were determined by a weighting system that assigned a value to each topic, from 1 to 8 (lowest to highest), according to level of importance. Assigned values for each ranking were multiplied by the number of participants who gave them that particular ranking. Survey interviews, tabulations, and analyses were conducted by Paul M. Hartrey and Mary A.C. Fallon of Criterium Communications.

2003 - 2004 Topic Rankings: Comparative Analysis

1. Course Management
Systems (CMS)

Course Management
Systems (CMS)
2. Network Security
Network Security/Privacy
3. Enterprise Resource
Planning (ERP)
Portal Technologies/eServices
4. Portal Technologies
5. Mobile/Wireless
6. ePortfolios
ePortfolios/Student Assessment
7. Broadband
Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)
8. eCommerce Cost of Content/Publishing

Course Management Systems and Open Source

Six years have passed since course management system vendors began selling products to universities. Today’s customers often feel shoved into a corner by their expensive CMS investment because the system is too costly, unstable, inflexible, and too clumsy for most faculty to learn and use effectively. The July 2004 public release of the Sakai Project’s collaboration and learning environment software was anticipated to shake up the market by those surveyed, not simply because it offers an open source alternative to commercial products, but because it provides much needed negotiating leverage when talking price to the two CMS firms, Blackboard and WebCT, that dominate the campus market. In addition, colleges are encouraging less dominant vendors to embrace the Open Knowledge Initiative and Sakai standards, to produce products with a greater competitive edge. The next 12 months should be seminal as some major universities assess both Sakai software and their vendor’s response as they consider whether to replace one system with another.Key findings from the 14 universities interviewed:

  • While 93% of colleges surveyed buy commercial CMS products, on average only 30% of their faculty use CMS to create Web sites, manage their courses, and integrate the Web into teaching and learning.
  • CMS products from the vendors Angel (, Desire2Learn ( and eCollege ( were uniformly praised by their users. In contrast, WebCT ( and Blackboard ( were routinely criticized for skyrocketing prices, bugs, and ease-of-use problems.
  • Vendor performance during the 2003 to 2004 academic year in problem areas was rated as bad or worse than the previous year by more than half of those surveyed.
  • Pricing and scalability are the most important factors when buying CMS.
  • Pricing is the CMS flashpoint. No university expressed satisfaction either with the cost of CMS products from market leaders WebCT and Blackboard or their sales practices.
  • 13 of 14 interviewed believe the release of the Sakai Project’s ( collaboration/learning environment software and the Open Knowledge Initiative standards will positively impact the market by providing an open source option to commercial products that could drive down prices.
  • Slightly less than half of those interviewed don’t believe OKI and Sakai will directly impact their college’s situation, largely because campus IT can’t provide sufficient support for open source applications.
Network Security/Privacy

The balance between openness and security is very tough to achieve. Fifty-two colleges and universities surveyed this year identified network security/privacy as the second most important major issue out of eight. This year’s ranking held steady with last year’s. Key findings from the 18 universities interviewed:

  • Denial of service and identity theft top the list of concerns. Faculties haven’t yet grasped that improved security d'esn’t hamper research, teaching, or learning.
  • Passwords scribbled on Post-it Notes, and other human errors are as big a threat as viruses and worms.
  • Preventing, detecting, and responding to security breaches is a tougher job than ever before and requires a wide array of technologies at multiple levels coupled with aggressive education strategies aimed at students and faculty.
  • Universities have raised the bar for effective minimum security levels among students, faculty, and staff; compliance, of course, remains a continuing challenge.
  • Balancing mandates of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Patriot Act is not an issue.
Portal Technologies and eServices

The promise of Web portals that offer each individual a dynamic and customized window into a university’s Web content remains an unfulfilled dream. While the use of multiple portals is gradually becoming part of the higher education Web site structure, none of the 12 universities interviewed offers a central portal that users can tailor to their specific information needs. Only five out of 12 institutions report having portals for a few departments or education programs accessed by students, faculty, and staff. The rest are either in the process of implementing portals for specific professional schools within their universities or are studying the issue.

Reflecting the flurry of ongoing implementation and study, portal technologies and eServices climbed up in importance, ranking third among eight issues for the 52 colleges and universities surveyed this year. Last year, the categories were separate, and respondents ranked portal technologies fourth and eCommerce eighth (last) in importance. Key findings from 12 universities interviewed:

  • Providing single sign-on and linking to administrative systems are by far the two most important factors about implementing portal technologies.
  • Developing interoperability between systems, and clarifying roles and responsibilities to determine who can access systems are the most significant data integration issues IT faces.
  • Buying via eProcurement is very common and performing very well.
  • eCommerce is as prevalent as eProcurement; paying tuition and books is most common use.
  • Overwhelmingly, colleges don’t know if their eCommerce solutions have a positive return on investment.
Mobile, Wireless, and Broadband Technologies

Wireless access to campus networks continues to spread as the use of laptop computers accelerates across the campus. Mobile/wireless/broadband technologies ranked fourth in importance among eight issues for the 52 colleges and universities surveyed this year; this result is in line with last year’s survey results. Key findings from the 11 universities interviewed:

  • Six campuses have a wireless overlay, and five have wireless regions on campus. While laptop computer use continues to grow rapidly, growth of handheld computers and tablets is negligible.
  • Security and authentication rank as top concerns.
  • Campuses have plenty of bandwidth.
  • Cellular technologies are not part of strategic IT plans.
  • Colleges are educating students about file-sharing, not policing for illegal use.
Budgeting and Infrastructure Replacement

After several years of tight budgets brought on by a severe national economic slump, the IT budget picture seems to be improving. Twenty-one higher education institutions report an increase in their IT budgets this year, 16 reported budgets are the same as last year’s, and 15 saw their IT budgets decline. Even with increases, college and university IT budgets aren’t robust enough to fund everything IT needs to do.

Budget and infrastructure replacement ranked fifth in importance among eight issues for the 52 colleges and universities. This is a new category for the Syllabus survey. Key findings from the 11 universities interviewed:

  • Budgets for network security, portal technologies and eServices, course management systems (CMS) and open source, enterprise resource planning (ERP), and mobile, wireless, and broadband categories were positively affected by this year’s budget priorities.
  • 75% of colleges don’t predicate information technology spending for academic departments on student enrollment for each department.
  • 66% of colleges do multi-year budgeting.
  • Most colleges allow IT capital expense budgets to
    deviate by 10%.
  • Colleges report that technology fees are the most common IT budget supplement.
ePortfolios & Student Assessment

The electronic portfolio is an emerging learning technology that has grassroots support from certain disciplines, such as law, education, and fine arts. But ePortfolios won’t be universally adopted until course management systems are used universally by faculty to manage teaching and learning, according to the universities surveyed. The institutions surveyed don’t expect an all-faculty adoption of ePortfolios for student assessment to happen for five to 10 years, even as a supplement to traditional grading. And while potentially very helpful to the learning process and to college graduates seeking jobs, they won’t replace the earned credit system for at least 30 years, if ever, according to the colleges surveyed.

ePortfolios and student assessment ranked sixth in importance among eight topics for the 52 colleges and universities surveyed this year. Key findings from the 14 universities interviewed are:

While 10 out of 14 universities report using ePortfolios, this alternative student assessment method is used by only a few pioneers at these institutions.

Protecting student/faculty information and maintaining ePortfolios over time are the two most important issues for survey respondents.

  • Half the colleges surveyed use commercial applications to create ePortfolios. The other half build them using the non-proprietary, open source electronic portfolio software developed by Open Source Portfolio Initiative (OSPI).
  • The current earned credit grading system is too entrenched to be replaced by ePortfolios.
Enterprise Resource Planning

The use of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems is maturing on campuses as universities meld human resources, student information, payroll, financial records, and other information into a complex backbone accessed in real time, 24/7. ERPs are considered vital to college operations, but for users they can be tough to swallow. The biggest complaint colleges have is that vendors haven’t invested enough to make systems easy to use. One sign of market maturity is that ERP ranked seventh in importance among eight issues for the 52 colleges and universities surveyed this year, a significant drop compared with last year when respondents chose the topic as their third most important issue. Key findings from the eight universities interviewed:

  • Seven out of eight colleges bought commercial ERP software.
  • Strong leadership and buy-in at all levels are the top two issues when evaluating ERP systems.
  • Ease of use is the ERP issue that troubles colleges the most. 70% of the colleges buy from an ERP vendor that offers an integrated solution.
  • Migrating legacy data and integrating software from ancillary vendors into the ERP are the most common integration problems.
  • 60% of the colleges believe the consolidation of ERP vendors won’t affect them.
Cost of Content/Publishing

While “Generation E” is ready for digital content, neither publishers nor faculty are delivering, report 11 college and university IT executives interviewed about cost of content and publishing. Commercial publishers are very slow to offer libraries of high-quality digital content including textbooks, slides, and other learning aids, despite the vast proliferation of computers and Internet popularity among students and faculty. The tipping point will be solving issues of money and control. The publishing industry hasn’t figured out how to make a profit from digital content, and university faculty aren’t getting paid much to make their own. Meanwhile, Generation E waits.
Fifty-two universities surveyed overwhelmingly ranked the cost of content and publishing as the least of their concerns among eight issues. More than half of those polled ranked it dead last. Only three institutions ranked it among their top three concerns. This topic is new to the Syllabus survey this year. Key findings among 11 institutions interviewed:

  • About half the colleges say textbook publishers are trying to sell them digital content, but few faculty are buying.
  • Even when faculty do buy commercial digital materials, they supplement, not replace, their own.
  • Only 5% to 30% of the faculty at 11 universities surveyed publish digital materials.
  • Very few universities pay faculty for creating course materials.
  • Faculty get some staff support for creating digital content, but colleges are tightwads about release time.
  • Few institutions use templates, course management systems, or guidelines to ensure faculty publish course content in the same way.

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