Four Swinging Pendulums in Technology Organizations

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Companies or institutions react to changes in their environment by moving to make up for perceived (or real) inadequacies. In many cases these reactions are made too quickly, and may inspire an opposite reaction to scale back the response. This cycle may repeat endlessly. Below are four current examples of this behavior by campus technology units.

Uniting or Separating Academic and Administrative Computing

Only a few years ago, many in education felt that, especially on the administrative side, they knew what they were doing with computing. After all, the functions weren't very different from those in most other industries. Payroll is payroll. Some gains in cost-effectiveness were achieved by transferring practices from other industries to educational institutions. Academic applications of technology, however, are less production-oriented and they cannot be copied or adapted from other industries.

Many institutions began with administrative uses of computing and then tried to add some academic ones—hoping that the same group of people could support both kinds. As the academic applications became more important, this unified effort became problematic. Priorities could not be balanced when one of the tasks was getting out the payroll punctually and accurately. For this and other reasons, administrative and academic computing were often separated. Given academia's anti-collaborative culture, it is hardly surprising that the academic and administrative computing groups didn't work together very often or very well.

Enter distributed computing, the Internet, "intranets," and the desirability of having a standardized way of accessing tools and information. Student records have long been part of administrative computing, but recent technological developments on many campuses make that information potentially accessible to more people. Advising students about course selections and navigating academic programs has been an academic function—a responsibility of faculty and student services professionals. Now faculty and students can have easy access through "the network" to student information for such purposes. We also have the basis for a new set of concerns about privacy, confidentiality, and data integrity. These opportunities and concerns require academic and administrative computing to work together.

Uniting or Separating Library and Computing Centers

As the Web and other telecommunications applications become important academic tools, information management becomes a central task for those using information technology in education (and elsewhere!). Librarians have a long and rich tradition of developing skills, providing services, and helping others learn how to manage information resources. Shouldn't libraries be brought under the computing umbrella?

Libraries are becoming more dependent on telecommunications and computing for all their work, for managing all their resources, and for replacing some print materials with electronic services. Many librarians' training and experience was not focused on technology. Many librarians are not temperamentally suited to deal with the rapidly changing nature of computers and telecommunications services. Many librarians chose their careers because they value the orderly preservation of knowledge—not the excitement of the speed of calculations or of being the first person to try a new tool.

There is a fascinating history of universities' that have merged library, computing, and telecommunications services for a few years and then separated them again. Usually, too little attention was paid to the cultural and lifestyle differences between those who select careers as librarians and those who end up in careers as "technologists" (there really isn't even a title as comparably well-defined as "librarian"). Further, there is the major problem of finding an individual who is capable of being a credible and effective leader for both kinds of professionals.

As the use of computing, video, and telecommunications become more important for teaching and learning throughout the curriculum, more faculty need help in re-thinking how they organize their courses, how they teach, and how they help students learn. Consequently, faculty development professionals (again, no widely accepted title like "librarian" exists) become more important. "Centers for Teaching Excellence" and "Centers for Teaching and Learning" are becoming somewhat more common. Some of these centers are usefully linking the resources and skills of libraries, librarians, computing centers, technology professionals, and faculty development professionals. These combinations also raise the possibility that the library and computing services should be put "under" a leader in faculty development.

Centralizing or Decentralizing Technology Support Services

The model for providing technical support services often seems to reflect the dominant "architecture" for computing resources. Until the 1980s that model was a big machine to which people would travel to do their computing. Support services had to live in and near the central machine. Then we had "personal" computers; it appeared that support services could be anywhere, and that any department could go its own way and hire and manage its own technical staff (this often did not work out in practice as happily as the theory suggested). Now we have networked computers and telecommunications in which some functions run primarily on local machines while other run primarily on a "central" machine ("server") or elsewhere on the Internet.

The current trend—at institutions large enough and wealthy enough to support this pattern—is to have a mixture of centralized and decentralized services. Some technical support services are offered from a centralized organization (e.g., training on the basic uses of utility applications; establishing some institution-wide standards for operating system and software selection). Other support services are provided within departments or divisions (e.g., assigning a support person to the English department. or to the engineering school).

The competing forces are the desirability and cost-effectiveness of uniformity and standards vs. the need for combinations of software, hardware, and teaching approaches that may be idiosyncratic to a particular department or course. If the institution can afford and find someone to lead and coordinate both centralized and decentralized services, such combinations may be optimal. But who are these leaders and coordinators, what are their characteristics, and where can they be found?

Creating or Demoting a Chief Information Officer ("Computing Czar")

Many college and university presidents find themselves faced with an array of puzzling decisions about information technology. It would be comforting to be able to create a new organizational structure that could handle those decisions, and to find a person who could shape and lead that structure. As the role of technology seems to become more central and significant to the institution and curriculum, it seems reasonable to create a position analogous to that of the Chief Academic Officer (CAO) or the Chief Financial Officer (CFO). Many institutions have brought together some of the groups mentioned above (computing, telecommunications, library, media, ...) and appointed someone as the CIO—Chief Information Officer. The CIO is expected to oversee those functions and to participate as a peer with the CAO, CFO, and others as part of the leadership team for the institution.

Unfortunately, it is not yet clear which functions really belong under the CIO, nor is it clear what sort of experience and training such a person needs. There is no well-designed, widely respected graduate program preparing such individuals. At first glance it seems that some combination of computer science, library science, and an MBA would be ideal—along with a lot of practical experience as an academic administrator. Doesn't this person also need some direct knowledge of the rapidly changing technology industry and new products and services emerging from it? And what about credibility with the faculty? Perhaps we should add teaching experience and an "earned doctorate" to the qualifications as well.

I don't know anyone with all these qualifications. Instead, mere mortals are hired to be CIOs and their lack of the full complement of skills and preparation described above may have painful consequences. I'm beginning to hear reports that at some institutions the CIO position was created and filled at the vice presidential level for a few years, then allowed to "sink" to become something like an associate vice president or associate provost for information technology or academic technology. The president discovered that the person acting as CIO couldn't keep up with the rapidly shifting responsibilities within the "information" and "technology" area and simultaneously contribute as a peer with the other vice presidents and provost in deliberations requiring an institution-wide perspective.

This problematic situation will improve as more administrators spend some time earlier in their careers gaining some experience within one or more of the information technology fields on a campus. Perhaps professional graduate level training will also be offered to prepare and certify CIOs. Finally, as institutions develop more stable overall structures for coping with the constant change associated with increasing reliance on academic uses of technology, the role of CIO will become more stable and feasible—or be eliminated.

[Needs a conclusion here; perhaps also a transition unless distance eduation is the fifth pendulum]]

Distance Education Issues

Finally, there is "distance education"—the hottest technology-related issue on most post-secondary campuses for the last few years. Fortunately, the number of academic leaders who unrealistically see "distance education" as a quick fix for their growing financial problems is dwindling. We are clearly past the time when any one institution can expect a big financial gain from a rapid entry into the distance eduction market. Students who want courses available primarily through some form of electronic telecommunications already have a variety of choices. New "virtual universities" are emerging, and may provide new ways of promoting, delivering, assessing, and giving credit for courses offered by existing institutions.

One problem with any discussion of "distance education" is its definition. For some institutions this refers to two-way interactive video, while on others it means that faculty members drive to remote sites once or twice a week. The number of students per site per course and the geographical area served may vary widely.

Teaching and learning via video, audio, and Internet is not like traditional classroom teaching/learning. It requires more organization, preparation, and different faculty skills. It requires more self-discipline and independence of the students. After all, "accidental distance education" is already possible. When a faculty member simply puts a syllabus and some readings or other information on the Web for students in a single course, millions of others immediately have access to that material. Fortunately (or unfortunately!) most of those millions will never notice or care... but they could. Posting to and reading from the web alone does not constitute distance education.

Some faculty are intentionally engaging other people via the Internet in their courses. The course can be substantially enriched by what these additional participants contribute. But who is responsible for the quality of such participation? Who will "certify" or give credit? Who will pay tuition—to whom? And what is the student/faculty ratio?

I look forward to the day when it will make no sense to talk about "distance education" because all education will include telecommunications options. Teachers and learners will make informed choices and assemble combinations of face-to-face meetings, telecommunications, independent work using digital and print materials, etc.—depending on the needs and abilities of all those participating. Different ways of teaching and different ways of learning will be fitted together with different mixtures of instructional materials and media to serve the unique abilities and needs of each unique group of teachers and learners. Retired faculty, alumni, adjuncts, young students, and older students will find ways of teaching and learning together. "Lifelong Teaching and Lifelong Learning" will be a description of what we do, no longer just a "Vision Worth Working Toward." But that's another story ...