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Tapping into Research and Education Networks

Advanced research and education networks can be a tremendous resource for colleges and universities both large and small. So why doesn't every school take part?

Research and education networks (RENs) have been designed to meet the needs of some of the most demanding internet users in the country: scientists, academics and researchers in the nation's leading academic institutions. These networks are engineered to support high-quality services that remain consistent regardless of the number of users on the network. They have the speed, quality, flexibility and support to readily adapt to new experiments or projects that place new demands on the network.

RENs "have enormous capabilities and potential for all schools, small and large, to realize new capabilities in teaching, learning, research and administration," according to Rob Vietzke, vice president of network services at Internet2, a member-owned advanced technology community that operates the largest and fastest coast-to-coast research and education network in the U.S. REN services are technologically ahead of the curve, enabling communication and collaboration on a high-speed network free of the noise and friction found on most commercial providers.

So why doesn't every college and university take full advantage of the complete smorgasbord of services and benefits RENs provide?

It Comes Down to Money

According to Ed Chapel, senior vice president at NJEDge, a REN that services institutions in New Jersey, some schools are thinly resourced and therefore unable to conduct the diligence and research to fully avail themselves of these resources. Vietzke agrees. It's not that schools are unwilling or don't desire to take advantage of the services offered by RENs; some just don't have the funds. "Adoption by the schools is sometimes a little uneven depending on what the funding model is," said Vietzke. Schools are scrambling to move more of their investment into their IT delivery systems and to make their capabilities as robust as possible, but sometimes the funding does not match the desire, he explained.

Related Reading

Don't miss "NJEDge.Net: Advancing Education and Research," our in-depth conversation with Ed Chapel, senior vice president at NJEDge, about the role of research and education networks in higher education.

For the most part, large research institutions take full advantage of REN services. Even some small, private schools do, according to Mark Johnson, chief technology strategist at MCNC, one of the largest and oldest RENs in the country serving institutions in North Carolina. For example, Davidson College (NC), a small school of about 1,800 undergraduate students with little research ambition, taps into MCNC to enhance the use of technology in the classroom, in collaboration, and in administration.  

Davidson is an anomaly. Most small institutions that are not research-driven and are seldom awarded grants miss out on REN services because of inadequate funding. But some schools, no matter their size, miss out because they are unaware of the services available.

Getting the Word Out

While large research institutions with deep pockets are certainly taking full advantage of the high-performing research capacity offered by RENs, some may be missing out on other REN services such as instructional design, professional development support, multimedia treatment and ADA compliance resources. RENs need to do a much better job of marketing and promoting their resources, said NJEDge's Chapel. "We want to keep in mind that there is an obligation to ensure that these valuable resources are consumed."

RENs are exceptional at providing technical and financial transparency to their members and focusing on service delivery, but as a general rule, most do not actively promote their services and potential. Depending on their maturity, some RENs employ different methods of marketing, but it's certainly not their forte.

RENs typically comprise a group of engineers and entrepreneurs who helped build the network capability because it is additive. "Many of us came out of one institution and started serving our state. We are not marketing people and we're certainly not profit-driven people, so sometimes we miss the opportunities to market the great services that we're doing," said Vietzke, who before joining Internet2 worked at the University of Connecticut as the director and network architect of the Connecticut Education Network.

Internet2 and the 39 RENs across the country try to engage with their members and inform them about the services they offer while ensuring that the RENs and schools can communicate with one another. "We are a community, we are not a business. There is a piece of what we do where communication is critical. But that said we are generally focused on service delivery. We put all our resources into that," said Vietzke.

NJEdge utilizes LISP servers, its website and regularly scheduled meetings and events throughout the year to get the word out about its services, but does not have a well-defined marketing plan or communication strategy, admitted Chapel. "Many of us believe that we are lacking in our ability and effectiveness in promoting the value that we have to offer as well as we could," he said, adding that this could be the root cause of underutilization.

To successfully market their services, RENs must build elaborate customer relationship marketing lists and better target their efforts. Most RENs, said Chapel, don't have those skill sets. "We mass market when we should be target marketing," he said.

The Great Plains Network (GPN), one of the county's smallest RENs, does not have a marketing department, but that does not mean that William Mitchell, the network's executive director, does not think about how to market its services. In fact, he thinks about it "quite a bit." Since its beginnings, GPN has outsourced much of its technical operations to its member institutions and has recently hired a consultant to help forge GPN's brand and identity. "[We're] taking more of a marketing look at GPN and how we can better communicate to our members," said Mitchell. He initially believed that GPN was doing a fine job communicating with its members, but some member surveys showed otherwise. "We can do a much better job," Mitchell said.

To ensure that its member schools are fully aware of its services, GPN employs a director for research and cyberinfrastructure initiatives. This individual works with researchers from the member schools, enables them to take advantage of the resources that GPN and the community of RENs provide, and supports grant development. "You can call it outreach, you can call it a matchmaking service — [pairing researchers] at one institution who are exploring the same area as another one at a different institution," said Mitchell. Offering this type of service is just part of GPN's DNA, he said.

Vietzke and Internet2, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this coming October, see RENs as an important piece of the national story in terms of research and education. "We have become a national asset in defining what's next for the future internet," said Vietzke.

"RENs are enablers of meaningful research and education collaboration at the local, regional, national and global levels," agreed Jen Leasure, president of The Quilt, a national REN coalition representing 36 networks across the country. "Armed with the tool of robust and flexible networks as well as the technical expertise and support provided by RENs, community anchor institutions that connect to RENs have the opportunity for technology to transform and enrich their mission and goals."

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