One More Year, and 'The Technology is [Still] the Easy Part!'

One of the more challenging parts of working within a higher education institution, especially (but not only) in the information technology arena, is coping with what the students "bring with them" to campus. In the 1960s through the 1980s, probably the most troublesome "things" for administrators that students brought with them, excluding political beliefs and sexual behaviors, were their cars. We certainly haven't solved that one. (Wow, we don't have a very good history of coping with what the students bring with them, do we?)

For the last decade, what the students have brought with them that has most required the attention of the IT staff are their personal technology tools and their expectations about the IT functionality they'll have while on campus. Some of what older folks might consider "technology" that has to be provided for them, they just consider essential and expected parts of the environment. Going back to cars, for a moment, the annual Beloit College Mindset List notes about this year's incoming class, the"Class of 2011": "They have never "rolled down" a car window.

Other choice, related items from this year's list include:
13. "Off the hook" has never had anything to do with a telephone.

14. Music has always been "unplugged."

35. Stadiums, rock tours and sporting events have always had corporate names.

44. Thanks to MySpace and Facebook, autobiography can happen in real time.

66. The World Wide Web has been an online tool since they were born.
The folks making decisions about the school of public health at the University of Iowa might be interested in item 35, and some of might take issue with the World Wide Web having been an online tool since 1989 (as opposed to the Internet). Even so, they've certainly grown up using the Web, and the other items listed above also say reams ("What's a ream?") about these new campus inhabitants' inherent expectations.

I could easily go curmudgeonly on the "rolling up" windows item, as I try with each new car I purchase to not get that option and it's harder and harder to find. I still recall when my children were young a tragic car accident in Ann Arbor where some teenagers drove into a pond in a subdivision and could not get out of their car because the electric windows would not work once submerged. I've hated electric windows ever since. Maybe that's why my daily drive to work is currently a 1963 Corvair Monza convertible. Okay, maybe that's my No. 1 car, just because it's fun, and mine's not for sale. But, I digress.

Each of the IT-related items listed above has been and/or continues to be an issue for campus staff. Interestingly, each one has primarily been a problem not because the IT part of it was difficult, or even technically challenging for us, but for other reasons. Each tends to prove Terry's First Law of Campus IT: "The technology is the easy part."

No. 13
"'Off the hook' has never had anything to do with a telephone." Does one human being even have enough fingers to tick off the issues that have been presented to us by the evolution in telephone communications over the years? Ever had to deal with any of this short list of issues?
  • Students whining about a residence hall not having good satellite communication;
  • Losing money on your phone system because the students are calling home on their cell phones and not using your service, or paying for it; and
  • Coping with VoIP demands on unprepared networks.
No. 14
"Music has always been 'unplugged.'" OMG, I don't really even have to go into server loads and network traffic, all I have to do is say "RIAA" and, right away, you understand that for this one it really isn't the technology that has been the hard part:
  • Can you say "Napster"; or
  • "RIAA"; and what about
  • Third-party agreements for provision of music services now considered essential, but so redundant to what the students already have that it's maddening to have to spend time on it!
Now, where did any of that cause us significant challenges that it took technology to solve, as opposed to serious thinking, policies, lawyers, dollars, and, oh, I said "lawyers," so more dollars.

No. 44
"Thanks to MySpace and Facebook, autobiography can happen in real time." I think that no one will deny that we're still dealing with this. And what we're dealing with is not the technology; it's what the students are doing with it. Frankly, I think we're incapable of ever replicating this kind of stuff in house for, say, our alums. I think we should be providing it, and we're behind on that, but that's not a technology issue; it's an issue of understanding expectations, value, and paying the price.

I've been spending more and more time in MySpace, Facebook, and now LinkedIn, and the more time I spend in LinkedIn, the more I feel that colleges and universities are missing a bet that someone else is going to make a bundle on, and we'll be paying the dollars for the bundle. One example is Epsilen, the online environment that The New York Times has bought into and is promoting as, essentially, the academic version of LinkedIn. I highly recommend poking around in there, it's pretty cool--combining lots of features of course management, digital media access, virtual portfolios, and social networking--and you're about to hear more about it.

No. 66
"The World Wide Web has been an online tool since they were born." Well, maybe not quite. Depends on how you define it. I know that in 1993 I was trying to decide between Gopher and WWW, but even though the consuming public may not have known about it, technically the World Wide Web was created in 1989.

You can decide for yourself: How much of what you've had to cope with, professionally, about the Web has been (a) a technology challenge, (b) a dollars challenge, (c) a policy challenge, (d) a content provision and monitoring challenge, (e) a branding issue, or (f) some combination of the above, but definitely with the "technology" part being the easiest part?

Interestingly, that's probably because the Web lets users do so much, which brings me to Terry's Second Law of Campus IT: "The less you let users do, the easier your job is, and vice versa." More about that in the future.
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