Campus IT Collaboration Evolves

Are folks in higher education inherently more collaborative than people elsewhere? As someone who has spent most of his adult life in and around the Academy and views higher education as a good thing, and as someone who views collaboration as a good thing, my "working conclusion" default is that people in higher education are indeed inherently more collaborative than others. On the other hand....

A couple of things I have recently read have caused me to think a little bit more about higher education and collaboration. One is a sneak peek at an ECAR study currently underway, provided by a 12-page document titled, "IT Collaboration: A Preview from the 2007 ECAR Study."  Another is a section of the book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann. The latter book also managed to give an earlier life hero of mine, the physical anthropologist Ales Hrdlicka, clay feet that he didn't have before.

You see, in an earlier life I attempted to be an anthropologist, nearly finishing my Ph.D., and in the process was awarded the first ever Ales Hrdlicka Award by the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA), in 1976. Hrdlicka has sort of been a minor hero of mine ever since. However, in 1491, Mann explains in excruciating detail how Hrdlicka used his position as the editor of the AAPA's journal for 24 years in the early part of the 20th century to stomp all over any finds by others that supported early dates for humans in the Americas, a conclusion he was actively against. No collaboration there.

I knew about the "dinosaur wars," in which early paleontologists competed with each other, as much master showmen as scientists. But I didn't know that my hero, Ales Hrdlicka, rather than collaborating with others, actively worked to discredit their findings.

Sigh.

On the other hand, scientific papers nowadays are known for their long, long lists of co-authors, and the strong emphasis by the National Science Foundation on funding collaborative work wherever possible, especially across disciplines, indicate that maybe things have changed.

The ECAR report, especially, is encouraging. I've followed such large-scale collaborations as Sakai and Kuali for years, and the initial results of the survey, still underway, support that there is a lot of collaboration going on in higher education IT.  

The data collection so far has consisted of three surveys. First was an initial survey, to all Educause member institutions, to determine which colleges and universities are engaged in IT collaboration and how much. The researchers then asked two targeted groups to complete additional surveys. One group consisted of institutions heavily involved in IT collaborative efforts and the other of colleges and universities that had not participated in significant IT collaboration within the previous two years.

Interestingly, the survey defined four types of "collaboration" that, as a whole, go further in accepting an interaction as collaboration than I would have assumed. Oe of these definitions--"A single institution that elects to become a recipient of an essential IT resource from one or more institutions"--sure sounds like a "customer" to me.

Sixty-eight and a half percent of responding institutions were engaged in one form of IT collaboration or another. As you might expect, the public institutions were more likely to be involved in inter-institutional collaboration than the privates. Less than half of the latter were collaborating. The majority of non-collaborating institutions were bachelors or masters degree-granting institutions, which might indicate a connection between the research status of an institution and the willingness of its IT staff to collaborate. It could be, even, that being a research institution means having greater numbers of collaboratively minded and curious IT professionals on staff.

I was surprised to find that the No. 1 reason that non-collaborating institutions gave for not being involved in collaborations was self confidence: They simply felt that they had the capabilities and competence to do what they needed for themselves. Is that because they have lesser needs, or perhaps a parallel to what social scientists have found about people who think they know a lot really being among the most uninformed?

Hmm.

One thing I have much appreciated about the higher education collaborations I have been involved in or know the most about is the willingness of stronger, bigger, or better endowed partners to join in with others who are not likely to have as much to contribute. Like Ginger Rogers, you know, as the report starts out: "What do Fred and Ginger, Rogers and Hammerstein, and Abbott and Costello have in common?"

We all know that whatever Fred did, Ginger did backwards and in high heels. She was, in other words, "carrying" him and doing a greater part in that collaboration! I think that probably happens in higher education IT collaborations, too.

About the Author

About the author: Terry Calhoun is Director of Communications and Publications for the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP). You can contact him through CT's IT Trends forum by clicking here. View more articles by Terry Calhoun.

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