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The Eye of the Storm

Consumer IT and student expectations are bearing down on higher ed, whether it’s ready or not.

The eye of Hurricane Irene passed almost directly over my house in Virginia. While it caused far less damage than we had originally feared, we (like millions of others) did lose power. And for the 12 hours that we were off the grid, my family didn't miss a beat. Sure, we couldn't flush the toilets (no well pump), but what does that matter when my wife could still use her iPad to read e-mail, and my children could check weather sites for the latest wind speeds? It's at times like these that you realize how useful mobile technology can be--and how embedded it has become in our lives.

Indeed, the storm finally convinced me how impossible--and misguided--it would be for colleges and universities to try to wall themselves off from these devices, out of security concerns or because they are seen as distractions within the traditional classroom. Whether we like it or not, students are arriving at campus with a slew of mobile gadgets, and they fully expect to use them in their interactions with their school, their professors, and fellow students. And so they should. To pretend otherwise is the modern equivalent of sticking your finger in the dike. The days of central IT being able to control the tech chain from beginning to end are over (see "The Consumerization of IT: Pendulum or Wrecking Ball?" in our October issue).

It was just 10 years ago that Marc Prensky popularized the term "digital native" to describe the generation of students who grew up marinating in this modern stew of technology. While his original thesis may have had its flaws (read October's "Will the Real Digital Native Please Stand Up?"), his understanding of how technology would change our lives and the way we learn was spot-on. Today, be it in a hurricane or an economics class, we look to the web first for our information. It's just so convenient--it's there when we need it.

And as mobile devices have become cheaper, smaller, and easier to use, we are extending that web dependency to every facet of our lives. I say "we" because, despite Prensky's assertion that this is an evolution confined to the young, most of us today are digital natives, regardless of age. We may use technology in different ways, in different amounts, and with different skill levels, but, for the vast majority of us, technology--and the web in particular--is an integral part of our lives.

In responding to this new reality, higher education faces significant challenges. IT departments must find ways to secure their networks even as they loose the wild animal of consumer IT. And faculty must come to terms with the fact that they are no longer the sole source of knowledge in their own classrooms. There really is no other alternative. Just ask my son. His response when the power came back on after the storm? "Oh, good. I can recharge the iPad." Guess who had to go 'round flushing the toilets?

About the Author

Andrew Barbour is the former executive editor of Campus Technology.

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