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The Cloud Opens the Floodgates for Faculty Innovation

Web 2.0, named in 2004, was the cultural tipping point when virtualization or cloud computing became the emerging default throughout our society and therefore on campus: Though this moment is, and will be understood decades from now to be, the end of one human era--when the entire thrust of knowledge-making was toward permanence and individual authority--and the beginning of another when the entire thrust of knowledge-making is toward conversation and consensus authority, few have any sense of the true disrupted equilibrium we live within every day.

Web 2.0 is probably better described as the global renaissance of the collective conscious, the flowering of the Platonic ideal and the Aristotelian pragmatic, because now, post-2.0, when only the failure of imagination stands in the way of learning and communication, we are experiencing a flowering of knowledge never known before. 

We are so lost in the midst of this flowering that we cannot see the opportunities before us, nor understand that learners and researchers and teachers have been freed of the physical limitations that, for always, have defined all our processes and values. We have been bound by those limitations for so long that we believe they are right and proper. We are as prisoners who have spent our lives in prison and cannot bear not having four walls around us, or those bars on the windows of our curiosity.

Moments such as this are only named long after they have occurred, so we will not know what our moment will be called. But we must know that we are living in a spectacular, unprecedented moment.

This moment is for the professoriate. This is the time to look around and notice that we stand now in a field, not the prison cell (classroom) we have come to know so well. No one else on campus is stepping forward to assume innovation leadership: The cables have been pulled, the computers spread around the campus, policies in place, security systems running, and, out there, in the cloud, humanity begins to learn about virtual space. We are at the dawn of the social learning age. None of our prison routines are appropriate any longer. We don’t need to pretend we are free any longer; we are free.

Over the past 30 years, faculty have assumed leadership in this new learning era on a number of occasions. This is contrary to the experience of technology support staff, who often think of faculty as standing in the way of technology adoptions.

In fact, in those 30 years, faculty have briefly led IT innovation on campus, especially at critical junctures. We faculty have always been the source for innovation in academia and in this renaissance are again.

When Did Faculty Lead In The Last 30 Years?

When the personal computer began to populate campuses in the early 1980s, many previously uninitiated faculty members decided to write simple Basic programs that in one way or another added something to their courses. In just a few years, faculty-generated software was everywhere. Even though in the end most of the software was useful only for its creator, the professoriate had taken the lead to move computing beyond math, engineering, and science applications and create IT uses in all the disciplines.

The PC had escaped the technology geeks and engineers to spread among English professors and philosophers and other unlikely users. We would not be where we are in academia today without these early pioneers who changed the perception of IT on campus from a number-crunching machine to a communication, visualization, simulation, and genre-busting technology useful in all fields.

At the research universities, researchers continued the IT innovation push, quickly adopting the rapidly evolving panoply of IT devices and software. For researchers, the new tools opened horizons for research in all dimensions.

Faculty IT pioneers and researchers continued to push out the envelope, but the innovation index (however that’s measured) flattened by the late 1980s, slowed by the lack of accessibility and imagination in most of academia. The energy for campus technology innovation moved back to the computer centers as these centers began the long process of building campus networks. Technology innovation suddenly involved lots of money. It involved large-scale infrastructure projects. At the same time, software architecture progressed far enough that faculty members could no longer find a use for their simple Basic programs amidst the far superior commercial products.

The Web came along in the mid-1990s, and again faculty jumped in and created their own Web pages and started putting important course information on the Web. But, this new burst of faculty innovation was again short-lived as expectations for Web site maintenance and design quality once again undercut faculty innovation in using IT in their courses. Once the Web became database-driven, the up-front work of designing their own Web sites proved too much for most faculty members.

 Where We Are

Now, as we look back, the last three decades of IT in higher education have been both tantalizing and frustrating for faculty members and those who provide IT support for faculty.

But the PC and the Web created the foundation for what we have now: Web 2.0, the social Web, cloud computing, virtualization, and a culture past the tipping point. The most important development in terms of faculty resuming innovation leadership at this point is, first, the improved user interface created by Web 2.0 developers and, second, a quantum increase in capability over the past 5 years. It is as if IT, by analogy, went from having to adjust the magneto and crank the engine to start a car, in 1918, to the cars of 2009. This IT transformation happened not in 91 years, but in 5!

 What Is Cloud Computing?

 Bernard Golden, in “Cloud Computing: ‘Be Prepared,’” quotes the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at Berkeley to explain the essence of the Cloud:

   1. The illusion of infinite computing resources available on demand, thereby eliminating the need for Cloud Computing users to plan far ahead for provisioning
   2. The elimination of an up-front commitment by Cloud users, thereby allowing companies to start small and increase hardware resources only when there is an increase in their needs
   3. The ability to pay for use of computing resources on a short-term basis as needed (e.g., processors by the hour and storage by the day) and release them as needed, thereby rewarding conservation by letting machines and storage go when they are no longer useful.

The Cloud--applications used through your browser instead of through a local client connecting to software installed on your campus--is very compelling. Institutions of higher learning are cautiously shifting services--especially academic technology services--to the Web through opting for subscription pricing instead of buying the software, creating a more predictable TCO (total cost of operation).

But, just consider: If the computing establishment on your campus is itself looking to the Web for services, faculty can do the same. This is a time to reconsider how you gain access to IT services. The majority of faculty members now look to the technology folks on campus to determine the learning ecology they work within. But this is the wrong place to look; technology support folks cannot now link you to the dynamic, creative software you need with the students of today. Here are reasons why IT units can no longer lead pedagogical innovation in IT on your campus:

1.     Limited number of support personnel. IT units, reasonably, can support (train, install, maintain, pay-for, trouble shoot) only a very limited number of widely-used technology applications. Pure financial and human limitations.

2.     Security. The institution is at stake to provide reasonable assurances that federal laws regarding student privacy are followed. The IT folks must therefore oversee human and technical security, and must limit what they officially support.

3.     Dependability. With IT now being the learning technology, all critical applications must always run and dependably do what they are supposed to do: “Zero down time” is the name of the game.

IT departments are, therefore, necessarily very conservative at this point: They are running utilities, and service interruptions are disasters. All the IT creativity action is out there on the Web, in the cloud, but IT departments will not lead you there.

Faculty members themselves, and their departments or programs, must again be in the lead to experiment with new technologies. We cannot look to our IT units for teaching and learning technologies. Remember that the business side of the institution must focus on operations and on maintaining their business model. The business of the institution is to maintain the status quo. This means that the IT units will favor applications that improve the efficiency of operations and it also means that classrooms and seat time will be protected since that is the source of revenue.

It is therefore time for faculty and academic leaders to assume permanent, campus-wide, and official leadership to transform higher education to fit the cultural learning trends and opportunities of today.


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