Strategic Directions | Feature

Fine Tuning the Focus — 25 Years of Campus Computing

A Q&A with Kenneth C. Green

Launched in 1990, The Campus Computing Project is the largest continuing study of the role of eLearning and information technology in American higher education. In this exclusive Campus Technology interview, Kenneth C. Green, founder of Campus Computing, talks with CT about the past and continuing technology challenges that confront colleges and universities.

Mary Grush: Congratulations on 25 years of The Campus Computing Project and your widely cited annual survey of CIOs. It's an amazing resource for campus leadership or anyone concerned about technology in higher education. How have your conversations with campus IT leaders changed over the years, and how has the annual survey changed?

Kenneth Green: Mary, thank you for the kind comments about Campus Computing.

And yes over 25 years, many things have changed, on campus and with the annual Campus Computing Survey. There were a number of questions that were on the annual survey in 1990, 1995, and 2000 that understandably are not on the questionnaire this year.

One example is that we no longer ask if institutions have "a mandatory computing requirement for your students…" This was a really big issue for many institutions two decades ago. Interestingly, the focus then was often "These are IT skills you will need after you graduate," as opposed to "These are IT skills you will need while you are in college."

Grush: That all seems to illustrate how established technology is now — which was not necessarily the case 25 years ago. What are some other examples of survey items that have changed significantly over the years?

Green: Consider e-mail, which today is ubiquitous. Yet 25 years ago e-mail was a rite of passage for many students who got their first e-mail account when they went to college. Today, of course, students need an e-mail account in order to complete an online college application and submit online financial aid forms.

A more recent example would be that roughly 15 years ago we started tracking services on campus Web sites. We focused, in part, on the "4 Ts" of campus eCommerce and services: t-shirts, textbooks, tuition, and transcripts. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, campuses lagged far behind similar services in the consumer market. Yet today we expect to access all these services — and far more — on Web sites and via mobile apps. Placed in the context of their experience in today's wired consumer economy, students of all ages understandably feel entitled to a wide array of online instructional resources and institutional services via campus Web sites and mobile apps.

Grush: Looking forward, what key issues should be the focus of campus efforts to foster the wider, better, and more effective use of IT resources — in on-campus and online teaching, learning, and instruction, as well as in campus operations, services, and management?

Green: What we do with technology on the academic side and the administrative side has changed dramatically over the past 25 years. But the underlying challenges about leveraging our investments in IT are still very much the same today as they were 20 and 25 years ago.

My work over the past 25 years suggests that a key issue is the enabling infrastructure — which is more than just the hardware, software, and networks we typically associate with IT infrastructure. User support — help desk services, training, assistance for faculty who wish to engage in curricular innovation and do more with technology in their instructional activities — are all essential components of the instructional infrastructure.

We don't — and won't — get the instructional innovation we expect and need from our technology investments without attending to the infrastructure that is required to support IT and to enable users — administrators, faculty, students, and staff.

Grush: Could you talk a bit more about the idea of instructional integration of IT? — We learn from EDUCAUSE as well as from Campus Computing that this is higher education's top IT issue.

Green: I think the issue of instructional integration of information technology centers on three related issues. The first, as we have discussed, is the enabling infrastructure: How do we support students and, in particular, faculty?

The second issue is evidence: How do I know that technology makes a difference in the learning experience and outcomes of my students? Unfortunately, much of what we do today with IT in instruction is still based on opinion and epiphany, and not evidence.

A third key issue involves recognition and reward for faculty efforts at instructional and curricular innovation. Data from The Campus Computing Survey confirm that most institutions do not provide recognition and reward as part of the formal review and promotion process for faculty who "do" technology as part of their scholarly portfolios.

Grush: Then should institutions consider faculty rewards as an important part of the enabling infrastructure?

Green: If we are serious about curricular innovation and instructional integration then, we also need to get serious about faculty recognition and reward. Too often we penalize faculty, especially younger faculty, who wish to leverage IT for curricular innovation. They often go down that path knowing that "technology won't count" as part of the formal review and promotion process. So we need to expand the definition of scholarship — make it expansive — so that those who view technology to be part of their scholarly portfolios have an opportunity to make their case and be evaluated and rewarded for their efforts.

Note that I'm not suggesting that faculty get "rewarded" for simply posting a syllabus online or the pro forma use of the LMS. Rather, we need to recognize and reward efforts that leverage technology for curricular and instructional innovation.

Grush: Can we go back for a minute to the question of the enabling infrastructure? It sounds like it's so much more now than acquiring the hottest new hardware and software.

Green: The difficult issues about IT in higher ed today are no longer about the technology, meaning hardware, software, networks, and apps. In all honesty, that's the easy part of IT on campus these days. The hard issues involve everything else that affects our efforts to effectively deploy and leverage our technology investments to enhance both instruction and campus operations and services: policy, planning, programs, institutional priorities, people, budgets, organizational issues, and more.

Grush: What else might higher education need to focus on in the current environment?

Green: The question of technology and productivity casts a large shadow over higher education. Whether you sat or slept through Economics 101, we all share a kind of consensual understanding that some increment of technology is supposed to increase productivity: Costs should go down, quality should improve, or in the best of all scenarios, quality improves as costs decline. But it's hard to show productivity gains in higher education, particularly in the area of instructional outcomes. Both on and off-campus, there are pressing questions about why student performance has not improved given significant institutional investments in technology to support instruction.

Grush: Could you give us some quick examples of how you might measure or even just illustrate productivity in the academic context?

Green: Let's look at medical education. Prior to the late 1990s, medical students typically reviewed 50,000-100,000 lab specimens on glass slides through microscopes. A lot of these specimens weren't catalogued. In contrast, today most of these lab specimens have been digitized, cataloged, and annotated. They are now readily available as higher quality images and include more information than the glass slides used by prior generations of medical students.

The med school example is one way to illustrate the explosion in rich, engaging, digital content across all fields that is now available to students and faculty — content that that can be used for instruction and research.

Another example: As survey researcher, I often think about my own undergraduate training in statistics, which focused mostly on proofs and offered little hands-on experience with real data. Today undergrads can use an Excel spreadsheet to collect and analyze data. They can run descriptive statistics and multivariate analysis as part of their efforts to understand the relationship between variables. And public domain data sets in the areas of business and finance, health care, education, the social sciences, and other areas offer students an opportunity to work with large sets of real data — and do so at low cost because we don't have to pay for data collection or computer time on the campus mainframe.

On the operational side, online registration and payment options have brought order, convenience, and efficiency to the ritual of registering for classes. Students no longer spend countless hours in long lines that snake through corridors or the campus quad.

So these are three examples of productivity. Yet the larger question remains: Economists have precise definitions for productivity and for the metrics for measuring productivity. But in academe we don't have a consensus of how to define productivity in higher education, and also no agreement on how to measure it. We still run into trouble with key questions about if and how technology affects — and hopefully improves — the outcomes of student learning experiences.

Grush: Thank you, Casey. I'm glad we had the opportunity to touch on a few key issues from your work. Ever since its early years I've watched The Campus Computing Project "bring data" to help campus leaders define and fine tune their focus on critical issues. Your work is very important to higher education, so again, congratulations on 25 years, and best wishes going forward.


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