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Reengineering IT in Higher Education

Higher ed IT is going the way of the TV repairman, eventually becoming anachronistic maintainers of commodity systems--if university and college technology managers and chief information officers don't reclaim their rightful place as innovators. So proclaimed William G. "Gerry" McCartney, CIO at Purdue University, who spoke to attendees at the annual Campus Technology 2011 conference last week in Boston. McCartney said he wants to see nothing less than a new kind of higher ed hybrid, one that transforms colleges and universities into "producers as well as consumers."

"IT is already a commodity, and like electricity: It's essential but not strategic," McCartney said. "You're penalized heavily if you're not there, and there's no benefit if you are there. Think payroll: All you can do is mess it up. If you think that's not fair, ask yourself when was the last time you thanked the payroll clerk for getting your check right.... The role of the university CIO is diminishing. The role of the college CIO is diminishing. If you think I'm wrong, here's a little test for you: If your president came into the room now, would they be able to identify you? Would they know what you look like?"

But there's hope, McCartney said, in the very heart of IT.

"Somewhere in our pasts, however dormant, however dulled that ember now is, there is a belief that IT can actually make things better through change," McCartney said. "That's the Tantalus theory: that's the opportunity held before us."

McCartney has done a lot with that opportunity at Purdue. He's widely known as one of the nation's leading technology innovators in higher education. Under his leadership, Purdue developed the country's largest cyberinfrastructure for campus faculty and became a world leader in tools for scientific collaboration. His IT group developed DiaGrid, the nation's largest academic distributed computing grid. They also developed cutting-edge the classrooms apps Signals, HotSeat, and Mixable.

McCartney said his group developed these latter apps "working directly with faculty, who themselves are frustrated by what they experience as this five- and six-century old model of instruction."

Launched in Fall 2009, Purdue's Signals is a system designed to track student academic progress and warn students in real-time if they need work in certain areas.

"We can predict the student's letter grade in the first two weeks of class based on their interactions with the online materials," McCartney said. "This is science, not black magic. This is the real thing that really works."

The Hotseat app, also launched in 2009, uses student conversations about their classes on Facebook and Twitter to improve student learning. The software captures student comments about a class and allows everyone in the class--students and teachers alike--to view those messages. Students can post to Hotseat using their Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter accounts, or they can send text messages directly through the Hotseat Web site.

"It enables another channel in the classroom," McCartney said. "Several faculty members use it in this way. They also use it to measure participation and ask questions. Some have teaching assistants sitting down front, monitoring the tweets. And that assistant acts as a kind of producer. So, if I say something like 'internal rate of return blah blah blah,' and 40 people in the room go tweet 'What's an internal rate of return?' the assistant can either answer the question on the fly or interrupt the faculty member and say, 'You probably should go over that point again, a lot of people in the room missed it.' That simply wouldn't happen in a conventional classroom."

Mixable is a classroom-centered "social learning environment" designed to allow students to create online study groups within Facebook and share documents through the Dropbox cloud storage application. It actually takes a feed from Purdue's student information system and builds groups on the social network. The idea, McCartney said, is to help students to be more successful by allowing them to be more engaged in their academic studies.

McCartney also talked about the innovative HUBzero, Purdue's platform for creating Web sites for scientific research. He described it as "a Facebook for research scientists."

"Keep in mind that all this is about trying to find new ways to use the technology that students are using, not to be fashionable," McCartney insistsed. "That's very important." The school pursues applications like Mixable, Hotseat, and Signals only when they are "supported by empirical science that shows that this is a better way of delivering instruction."

Ultimately, if university IT is to regain its status as a center of innovation, we are going to have to change what it means to be a vendor and a supplier in this marketplace, McCartney said. We are going to have to redefine what it means to be a "hybrid" university.

"If we are only consumers of products, we are in a weak, weak position," he said. "For us, 'hybrid' surely must mean that somehow we figure out how to be producers of products. We need to explore, not only how to create products, but how to bring them to market."

Purdue is walking this talk, too: McCartney said that the school has begun licensing its products, including Signals, for commercial use.

"We have an opportunity to make this whole industry different right now," he said. "This is an exciting place to be. The market is ready for us to do something, and I hope you will join us in doing that."

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