The year ahead for IT managers looks a lot like the current year–too much to do and not enough time or resources to do it all. That's the reality of higher education, which makes it all the more important to focus on the technologies that have the most impact.
Conversations with various higher education IT administrators and managers found them, not surprisingly, focused on equally diverse technologies. Still, common themes emerge, since higher education IT administrators and managers have an appreciation for the diversity that makes a university what it is, as well as the need to control costs. Here's a sampling of some schools and their IT priorities.
WIRED VS. WIRELESS
Michael Richichi, computing and network services director, says there is some demand for outdoor wireless access on Drew's rolling, oak-shaded campus. Although his department has installed more than 80 access points, he says, “The emphasis remains on wired access. It's faster, and it always works.
“In a statistics class, for example, there's a jack at every seat. If 60 students were all trying to do heavy database access at once, Wi-Fi would fail.”
For less data-intensive applications, however, Wi-Fi is fine and continues to be deployed. “It's in the library, the student center, the commons, and more and more of the residence halls,” he adds. “In, say, a creative writing class, where access is less frequent, it's fine.”
Many schools have found that most students don't take their notebooks out of their dorm rooms, except to the library and to common areas, such as dining halls. “We don't see many students wandering around with their notebooks,” says Tom Putnam, executive director of computing and information services at Texas A&M University (TAMU). “We don't try to cover outdoor areas, but there are some areas where signals can be picked up from adjacent buildings.”
TAMU's campus covers a lot of real estate, and full coverage would be nearly impossible–as well as wasteful of resources. “We do, however, have some phased-array antennas, as well as access points in 44 of the 112 buildings with students and faculty, including all the libraries, dining commons and meeting areas,” Putnam says.
VMWare, software that centrally manages computing resources, is growing in popularity. Drew's Richichi has found a number of applications that need a server presence, but aren't CPU-or storage-intensive.
“VMWare ESX Server outperformed our expectations–a rare thing–by virtualizing the servers for those apps that just need to check in with a server from time to time,” Richichi says. Although blade servers are often touted for these smaller applications, he believes that virtualization, which makes one computer look like multiple computers to the applications so each thinks that it has exclusive use of a computer, when it's actually sharing, is more cost-effective and flexible.
At TAMU, Putnam sees similar uses for virtualization. “VMWare lets us put up a virtual machine and move it from one physical machine to another,” he says. “It's a fairly useful concept.”
When presented with the argument that CPUs are so cheap that every application can have its own dedicated server, he counters, “We treat the applications as if they're on a dedicated machine, but we pull them out and put them on a single box running virtual machines, instead of a bunch of underutilized machines.”
The process also provides failover protection, in which requests from the failed system are manually redirected to a backup system. “We simply tell the app to run on a different machine,” says Putnam. “Coupled with a SAN [storage area network] on the back side, the process is almost instantaneous.”
“We're in the CRM [customer relationship management] business,” says Columbia University's CIO and Assistant Dean Len Peters. “Our students, faculty, administrators and alumni are all our customers, and each has specific ways of relating to the university.
“We have lots of databases, covering everything from enrollment to endowments, and we can generate all of the necessary reports with our current software. But how long does it take? Is it timely? And could the effort be better spent building a more highly integrated system?”
Peters sees a need to upgrade from the existing course-management system and will do so in a move toward a portal-based classroom-management system. He also plans to build a “digital cockpit” (a detailed real-time business and financial metrics display) for the dean's office. “Business intelligence is critical to making good decisions and to keeping our operations on a firm financial footing,” Peters points out.
Richichi agrees, but like many other schools' systems, Drew's package has been heavily customized over the years. “We see the need to track, from prospect to student to alumnus,” he says. “We're studying ways to incorporate comprehensive identity management and integrate it with enterprise course management.”
Schools are evaluating blade servers for specific missions–not for wholesale replacement of older servers. “There's a sweet spot where blade servers look good to us,” says TAMU's Putnam, “but we're studying them at this point. Density isn't a problem for us–we have enough machine room space–but we think [blade servers] will be useful in grid computing and other high-performance arrays.”
He also feels these high-performance configurations will help break down the barriers among different academic disciplines, which tend to use different software tools to analyze the same data. “We want them to use what they're comfortable with, but be able to compare their results and combine them in innovative ways,” Putnam explains.
However, he's concerned about the software side. “Load balancing has matured tremendously, but it's still a little creaky,” Putnam says. He's also concerned that software not specifically written for multithreaded, multiprocessor environments can have problems. “With the stateless environment of the Web,” he says, “you have to think about all the instances. Subtle things can go wrong, and they're hard to dig out.”
At Columbia, Peters says, “The main appeal of blades is the footprint. We have reservations about being tied to a particular vendor, but we recognize the need to increase density for some applications.”
Columbia is also trying to break down some of the computing and data silos in various groups, in order to better leverage interdisciplinary research and communications. Peters shares Putnam's point of view on this subject: “Different disciplines use different research and statistical tools, and we need to create an environment that lets them do their own thing, while sharing data more transparently,” he says.
Technology leaders at every college and university we interviewed recognize the need for an enterprise-class portal management system that handles faculty and students alike, including easy Web presences for classes, research projects and personal pages. “The challenge,” says TAMU's Putnam, “is to attract enough content to an enterprise portal so that people visit it regularly.”
Bill Machrone is a technology journalist
// BY TOM HALLIGAN
RANK TOP PRIORITIES
Network and data security are top priorities, and wireless continues its upswing.
Keeping the network and data secure is the top priority for the next few years, report campus IT administrators, according to the just-released 2005 annual Campus Computing Survey. Almost 30 percent of respondents cite security as the most important IT issue, up from 21 percent in 2004.
Moreover, fully half of respondents report that their institution experienced hacks or attacks on the campus networks in the past academic year and 41 percent reported major spyware infestations. In addition, some 35 percent note major virus attacks.
“The survey data go beyond the sporadic news articles about IT security incidents at individual colleges and universities,” says Kenneth Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project, the sponsor of the survey. “The data confirm that network and data security are a major concern for campus IT officials across all sectors of American higher education.” The survey, begun in 1990, is the largest continuing study of computing and information technology in American higher education.
Regarding IT funding, some 44 percent of respondents report increased IT spending this year, up from 37 percent in 2004. Only about 15 percent of the respondents report budget cuts, compared to 24 percent in 2004. “While tech budgets, and, by extension, campus technology investments and initiatives, still feel the cumulative effects from three years of significant budget cuts between 2000 and 2003, the 2005 survey data provide important evidence of major improvements and much-needed stabilization in campus IT funding,” Green adds.
As you might guess, more money was earmarked for network security this year. Almost two-thirds of respondents (64 percent) report gains in their IT security budgets, up from 59 percent in 2004.
Wireless continues to proliferate across all sectors of higher education, with 64 percent of respondents reporting strategic wireless network initiatives–up from 55 percent in 2004. More than 28 percent indicate that full-campus wireless networks are up and running at their institutions as of fall 2005, compared to 19 percent in 2004.
Almost 45 percent of the respondents indicate that their institution has deployed a campus portal, up from 37 percent last year. However, when asked to assess the campus IT infrastructure, survey respondents continue to rank the campus portal very low. In 2005, portals rank 13th on a list of 14 IT infrastructure and service items–behind e-commerce and data warehousing. In contrast, the two highest ranked IT infrastructure/service components are computer networks and online library reference resources.
Survey respondents continue to express caution about open source software. The survey found that 55 percent of respondents say that “open source will play an increasingly important role in our campus IT strategy,” compared to 51 percent last year and 28 percent in 2004. However, 30 percent of the respondents agree that open source “offers a viable alternative” for key campus administrative or enterprise resource planning applications (ERP), such as student information, finance or personnel/human resource software.
The survey also reports gains in the proportion of campuses reporting increases in funds for ERP upgrades or replacements (44 percent this year compared to 38 percent in 2004); network server purchases (41 percent this year compared to 38 percent in 2004); and user training and support (26 percent this year compared to 23 percent in 2004).
For more information on the 2005 Campus Computing Survey, go to www.campuscomputing.net.
// BY ERIC BASSETT
VIEW FROM THE TOP
Survey finds that higher education presidents and chief officers are active in technology decisions.
As information technology has become central to the delivery and administration of higher education, college presidents, chief academic officers (CAOs) and chief financial officers (CFOs) have taken an increasingly active role in technology purchase decision-making. This trend is having a significant impact on the requirements for
IT performance, and promises to continue to drive expectations for technology's contribution to the academic mission.
To measure the opinions of nontechnical senior administrators about technology's impact on teaching, learning and administration on campuses across the United States, Eduventures recently conducted the fourth annual Higher Education Survey on Leadership, Innovation and Technology. As in previous years, Eduventures surveyed presidents, CAOs and CFOs at most degree-granting higher education institutions in the United States and obtained 464 completed responses.
I.T. UNDERPINS INSTITUTIONAL EFFECTIVENESS
Presidents, CAOs and CFOs reinforce the importance of enhancing the student learning experience and improving learning outcomes, with considerable consistency across the last two years. On the other hand, improving operational performance rose in prominence in 2005 through the inclusion of two new entrants to the list of top 10 strategic objectives: improving the use of data for strategic decision support (No. 5) and improving business processes (No. 9).
IMPROVES BUSINESS PROCESSES
Respondents to the survey credit technology with improving business processes, enhancing faculty and staff productivity, and improving use of data for strategic decision support. A few of the other top 10 strategic objectives, for which technology is perceived to help attain these objectives, are increasing innovation and improving student services, student learning outcomes and communication within the institution.
Many of the most pervasive campus technologies facilitate improved distribution of information. These include enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, wireless networks, and course and content management systems. With these technologies in place, institutions plan to implement more student-centric technologies, such as e-portfolios, and will also concentrate on automating functions such as enrollment management.
Institutions believe strongly in technology's promise, even as they struggle to adequately fund it. They credit technology with improvements in areas as diverse as staff productivity, student learning and enrollment. On the other hand, technology results in net financial outflows from institutional coffers and is not viewed as a driver of competitive advantage.
Senior administrators are acutely aware that rich stores of data, if leveraged appropriately, can contribute to better-informed investment decisions. As a result, institutions have invested in strengthening their IT infrastructures to create, manage and use this data.
At the same time, external forces have driven public concern for information security and student demand for ubiquitous access to campus networks. In the classroom, course and content management systems are creating new data about course content and student performance.
In the next two years, institutions indicate that they will invest in e-portfolios (18 percent), campuswide “smart cards” (14 percent), document imaging systems (14 percent) and enterprise portals (13 percent). Over the long term (more than two years), institutions plan to install mandatory student computer-purchase programs (15 percent), implement “smart card” systems (14 percent) and support wireless-device-based learning (14 percent).
Some of the most commonly planned technology adoptions will focus on digitizing students' academic work and will establish the infrastructure for digital learning. The leading planned technology, e-portfolios, will provide students with a resource to store and manage their academic work.
In addition, 26 percent of institutions plan to implement mandated student computer-purchasing programs. Their plans to further support portable wireless-based devices reflect the preferred means for students to interact with course material, instructors and their classmates. Fully online distance learning is at the far end of the spectrum.
Institutions also expect to continue to optimize the management and distribution of mission-critical data through future technology adoptions, including document imaging systems (23 percent), enterprise portals (22 percent) and digital asset management systems (19 percent).
Information technologies continue to transform the ways in which colleges and universities teach, conduct research, and perform the requisite administrative activities that make this possible. Recent research indicates that IT is approaching a tipping-point of high-profile contributions to teaching, research and college administration–under the scrutiny of both college presidents and student bodies. In combination with financial and competitive imperatives, these market trends indicate a positive role for college IT going forward.
Eric Bassett is research director at Eduventures, a Boston-based information services company serving the education market. email@example.com
Top 10 Institutional Strategic Objectives, 2005
Rank/ Strategic Objective
1/ Improve student learning outcomes
2/ Attract/retain faculty
3/ Improve fund raising
4/ Improve retention rates
5/ Improve use of data for strategic decision support
6/ Increase enrollment
7/ Enhance productivity of faculty and administrators
8/ Improve student services
9/ Improve business processes
10/ Improve communication with stakeholders outside the institution
Survey question: Please describe the relative importance of your institution's strategic objectives.
Top 10 Institutional Strategic Objectives Credited With Achievement Through Technology, 2005
Rank/ Strategic Objective
1/ Improve business processes
2/ Enhance productivity of faculty and administrators
3/ Improve use of data for strategic decision support
4/ Increase innovation
5/ Improve communication with stakeholders inside the institution
6/ Improve student services
7/ Improve student learning outcomes
8/ Comply with regulatory mandates
9/ Improve communication with stakeholders outside the institution
10/ Attract/retain faculty
Survey question: Please characterize the degree to which technology has enabled each objective to be achieved.
Institutional Strategic Objectives Most Driven by Technology in the Next Two Years, 2005
Rank/ Strategic Objective
1/ Improve business processes
2/ Improve use of data for strategic decision support
3/ Increase innovation
4/ Enhance productivity of faculty and administrators
5/ Improve student services
6/ Improve student learning outcomes
7/ Improve communication with stakeholders inside the institution
8/ Attract/retain faculty
9/ Improve communication with stakeholders outside the institution
10/ Increase enrollment
Survey question: Please characterize the degree to which you believe technology will drive further attainment in each of the following areas in the coming two years.