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CT 2011 Recap | Feature

Caution: Dangerous Curves Ahead

At CT 2011, IT leaders took a long, hard look in the mirror and recognized that they must evolve or face irrelevance. Then they rolled up their sleeves to map the road forward.

Photo by Stanley Rowin

IT departments stand at a major crossroads, and the road they elect to follow will have a profound effect on their role on campus--even their very existence. That was the buzz among the 800 attendees at the 18th annual Campus Technology conference, held in July at Boston's Seaport World Trade Center. The cloud and the new normal of eroded budgets have changed the landscape forever, and are forcing CIOs to rethink every facet of their operations. It was a message hammered home by the conference's keynote speakers, and echoed again at more than 50 workshops and sessions. Here, CT takes a look at some of the major takeaways from this year's event.

The Future of IT: Make or Break
"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." That was the stark admonition of William G. "Gerry" McCartney, CIO at Purdue University, during a luncheon keynote to pre-conference workshop attendees. To remain relevant in tomorrow's world of commoditized IT, he encouraged his audience to embrace a new kind of university "hybrid."

"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."

McCartney used Purdue as an example, which, under his leadership, 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, and the classrooms apps Signals, Hotseat, and Mixable, which he said they hope to commercialize.

Ultimately, McCartney warned, if university IT is to regain its status as a center of innovation, IT groups are going to have to change what it means to be a vendor and a supplier in this marketplace.

Campus Technology 2012
Next year, the Campus Technology conference returns to the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston, July 16-19. Watch the conference website for details.

The theme of innovation was picked up two days later by Ellen Wagner, executive director of WCET (WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies), during a keynote entitled "Making It Real: The Adoption of IT Innovation in Higher Education." While guiding attendees through the processes that can help spark innovation, she also recognized the terrible drag that cost cutting has had on institutions everywhere. The innovation cycle in higher education, she said, is hitting "the new normal" of tight budgets, and the result is that IT is "too tired, too poor, or too afraid to innovate."

To avoid stalling in the face of severe headwinds, Wagner encouraged her audience not to seek "instant perfection," but instead to take "baby steps toward a solution." The "secret sauce" that takes innovation from the realm of the imagination to the real world, she said, is effective implementation and execution.

Wagner's keynote was paired with the 2011 Campus Technology Innovators award ceremony, recognizing 10 exemplary colleges and universities and their innovative vendor partners who have deployed extraordinary campus technology solutions to campus challenges (read about the award-winning projects here). The winning teams also shared their stories of innovation in numerous breakout and poster sessions throughout the conference.

A new buzzword that you will be hearing more about is "Big Data." It just might be the salvation of the IT Department. As IT services become increasingly commoditized, IT's role on campus will be to help campus administrators make smart, informed decisions. Enter "Big Data."

Digital Citizenship
Amid the soul-searching surrounding IT's evolving role on campus, an inspiring keynote reminded conference attendees of why they work in education in the first place--and the critical role of educators in a wired world.

Michael Wesch, associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, told a packed house that the world is heading toward "ubiquitous computing, ubiquitous communication, ubiquitous information at unlimited speed about everything, everywhere, from anywhere on all kinds of devices." And within this new world, he added, traditional classrooms are out of place.

"It strikes me now that we have to move from knowledgeable--that is just knowing a bunch of stuff--to actually being knowledge-able--able to find, sort, analyze, criticize, and ultimately create new information and knowledge," he said.

During his much-anticipated presentation, Wesch shared his personal experiences studying the impact of the introduction of writing to a remote, indigenous culture in the rain forest of Papua New Guinea. That single event changed the culture dramatically and, coincidentally, led Wesch to his current field of study.

No less a cultural change is hitting our students today, Wesch suggested. Our students are being bombarded with images and information--not a new insight, he acknowledged, but one to which we are responding inadequately. The common wisdom that we need to teach critical thinking is just the beginning of a solution, he said.

"If we stop at critical thinking, we haven't gone far enough," he said. "In this environment, critical thinking helps you filter the things that are coming at you, but you also need skills [to help you] find and sort information."

And just as importantly, added Wesch, students need to know how to contribute to the online conversation as digital citizens of a digital democracy. To make their voices heard in this new world, students need to learn how to edit video, collaborate with others, and produce their own compelling content. As an example of the power of the medium, Wesch showed mashup videos produced on a shoestring (such as a spoof of a Dove commercial) that have actually persuaded multinational corporations to end environmentally damaging practices. He also shared his famous 2007 video, "The Machine is Us/ing Us," which he created in a small Kansas farmhouse. It became a YouTube sensation: To date, the video has been viewed nearly 9 million times and translated into more than 10 languages.

Within this new universe of learning and communication, traditional classroom learning is outdated and unhelpful, Wesch claimed. The idea that the only source of relevant knowledge is the professor at the front of the room runs counter to everything today's students know of a wired society. For Wesch, teaching and learning should involve searching for answers to problems for which no one--neither the teacher nor the students--knows the answer.

"We stand at a crossroads right now," Wesch concluded. "We're starting to realize that, while all of this [technology] seems to promise new possibility for freedom, we're also seeing new forms of control emerge. We see new possibility for community, new types of connections. And we also see people using these technologies to isolate themselves more and more. These tools can help to create a richer, more engaged democracy. But they can also become the ultimate tools of distraction.... We, as educators, have a double responsibility at this moment, not only to make of this what we want it to be, but to create students who can make something better of all this."

The iPad was easily the most prominent computing device in the hands of attendees this year.

The Second Coming of Online Education
The burgeoning demand for online education has outstripped higher education's ability to support it. This was the message from Kenneth C. "Casey" Green, founder of The Campus Computing Project, who shared insights from the 2010 Managing Online Education Survey of colleges and universities, which was conducted in partnership with WCET.

According to Green, we're now about 10 years into a kind of second coming of online education, following the dotcom surge of the previous decade, which was driven more by "aspiration than expertise." But, in most schools, the managerial expertise and organizational structure needed to support online education properly is lagging behind, and higher ed is struggling with a lot of core managerial issues.

"We're fumbling our way through this environment in terms of the organization," Green explained, "because it's an overlay of technology as an implementing resource on the academic programs."

Green said that there appears to be a lot of "ad hockery" in higher ed IT that produces hollow programs he called "Potemkin campuses."

"What concerns me is that, in response to demand--which is explosive--and in the absence of resources, we are trying to respond by offering courses with no infrastructure," said Green. "We see this in the survey data: Yes, we're adding courses. Are you also adding folks to do academic advising? No. Support for students? No? It's a Potemkin village. We're building the facade by offering the course, [but without] the infrastructure to support our students and faculty. And that's a recipe for disaster for everybody."

Teaching: Climbing Into the Cloud
In a workshop session titled "21st Century Education in the Cloud," education consultant John Kuglin argued that all educators, but especially those in post-secondary roles, must learn how to make the most of cloud-based resources in their teaching practices.

"In the past 12 to 18 months, there has been an explosion of technologies that have really changed the way we can work as 21st century educators," Kuglin said. "And it's up to you to take stock of them, kick a few tires, and figure out how you might be able to deploy them at your school." Kuglin highlighted a slew of cloud-based tools, many of which are available for free or nearly free to educators, including Wikispaces, SlideRocket, CoveritLive, Dropbox, Pogoplug, Screencast-O-Matic, MindMeister, and Google Earth.

In response to a question about security concerns, Kuglin answered, "I understand that it's an issue, but we cannot continue to hide behind the safety issue, not if we want to offer competitive educational services. The old paradigm was university computer, university employee, university network. Boom, boom, boom--we're secure. But the old days are gone."

Security: Swimming With the Sharks
During a talk about web security trends and threats on today's college campuses, Paul Judge, VP and chief research officer at security firm Barracuda Networks, shared some disturbing statistics. Among them: One in 10 URLs on Twitter will successfully execute a "drive-by download," a program that is automatically downloaded to your computer without your consent or knowledge. A botnet (a collection of compromised computers connected to the internet) dubbed Mariposa infected 13 million computers in its lifetime, including computers at half of the Fortune 1000 companies.

"You have to keep in mind that higher education is just as vulnerable to modern cybersecurity threats as the enterprise," Judge said.

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