Higher Education IT

EDUCAUSE_HULK SMASHES twitter

A superhero touched down at the Educause Annual Conference last week in Anaheim.  Experiences were changed, Twitter was twisted, and everyone was asking…

“Who is Educause_Hulk????’

At this year’s Educause Annual Conference, held last week in Anaheim, I got to witness something that, realistically, doesn’t happen all that often anymore.  I got to see an existing social networking tool get twisted and used in a new way.  I got to witness the impact of Twitter, twisted.

It is true that a great many tools – social networking and media ones in particular – are used in new, creative ways every day.  Discovering new ways to use a tool such as Twitter is so common that calling it “reinvention” is almost inappropriate.  It’s almost commonplace.  So this isn’t new in the big sense, but within the particular context of the conference and how Twitter has been used therein, something quite remarkable happened.

Twitter has been used at conferences for quite some time, as both a great way to set up social activities (“hey!  I’m here, who wants to get some food?” or “Let’s have a tweet-up!”) and to share information (“in a great session about topic X where such and such is said”).  Of course, the use of a hash tag is required to organize all of this data, and an easy-to-read interface like that of Tweetdeck makes for a very powerful tool for communication.  If you take a look at the Educause 2010 stream, you see it is littered with all kinds of posts.  I think the first time Twitter was used so heavily at an Educause event was about 3 years ago at ELI, and it has just blossomed (exploded?) since then.

This past conference, however, saw a new twist.  An attendee created an “alter ego” – EDUCAUSE_HULK – and posted on a semi-regular basis as that persona throughout the conference.  This had a huge impact, at least for me, on the overall experience, and it raised a number of questions for the person behind the Hulk, too.

(more…)

edupunking law school, part 1

After a long hiatus from this blog, during which I was basically swamped at work, I return to the idea of how to redefine or perhaps restructure law school to make better use of its faculty, give more to the student, and get away from the traditional models of revenue and federal aid reliance.  I seek to “edupunk” law school.

I don’t have all of the “tenets” of the edupunk and edupreneur movement in front of me, but some really stick.  One key aspect is that, since salaries make up a huge portion of a school’s costs, it is critical to make the most of every dollar.  Especially with faculty that one must lure away from other schools, the amount of time each professor spends actually imparting wisdom unto students is the major metric.  Especially for law schools, where salary (rather than tenure and job security) is often the number one reason that a lawyer would leave a lucrative position at a firm in order to teach, maximizing the contact between student and professor is important.

One means of achieving this is to bring in more adjunct faculty to do the “dirty work” for the professor.  Creating exams, grading, even evaluating written assignments could conceivably all be done by lecturers or other faculty that are not on the track to tenure.  Of course, this requires that the adjuncts work very closely with the professor so that the grading and exam methodology be in sync with the course materials and the professor’s style of teaching.  Now the tenured faculty can spend their time in front of and with students and, hopefully, engaging others about how to change the way law is taught in an environment of continual creativity and improvement.

However, the Edupunk model falls shortl because even the adjunct faculty are often a significant financial load on a law school, much more so than that of the lecturer that runs between jobs in different fields at four separate colleges in an attempt to bring in one decent salary.  Also, many adjunct are practicing lawyers and even sitting judges.  These are not secondary members of the faculty that do supporting educational work for the school.  These adjunct often teach courses that are popular electives with student, and they need to be in front of students just as much as the tenure-track faculty.

The question therefore, is whether there is a role for non-tenure-track faculty at a law school that are valuable both in teaching their own courses as well as being part of supporting the overall work of a tenured faculty that is presumably one of “the” reasons for attending that school.

So…this trend doesn’t work for law schools.  This method of saving costs wouldn’t work for a law school.

Hopefully more success in the next attempt.

i can’t be the only smart one here…

quite an ostentatious title, I know.  But if you will humor me…

Twice in the last 5 business days, I have discovered problems of which Central IT was not aware.

Last week, I passed along information that several law school staff and faculty received almost no e-mail over the weekend and that most had almost everything getting caught in the university’s spam filter.  I was asked to test this, try that, change this setting…all along reminding IT that this was affecting multiple users and that changing one setting for one user was not a high-probability trouble-shooting path.  Turns out that it was indeed a university-wide problem, and the notice went up on the IT web page about an hour later.

Today, one of our network printers was not working for some of our staff.  We use a central printing system where everything goes from our computers to a print spooler then back out the network to the actual printer.  So I start checking things, crawling around on the floor.  Network connection – good.  IP address – good.  Power – good.  Let’s go check the server online…whoops.  Page won’t load.  Call up IT.  Am told that “sometimes the page just loads slowly but that doesn’t really mean anything” and that they’ll “look into it.”

Turns out that one of the two print managers/spoolers had crashed.  Reboot of server, no problem.

The people here at SCU are good, and many are great.  Everyone seems to want to find solutions.  But sometimes it’s like the dots just don’t connect.  Or, when they do, it’s like point A can ONLY go to point B.  And when standing at point A, there is no point C.  Point C does not exist.  It is like Area 51 or something.

I can tell you this – I want to work with IT at SCU.  I want my department to collaborate with them, to take advantage of rather than ignore the intersections that we have.  But if we have to go to this much trouble even for things this minor, if we have to deal with these inefficiencies despite the good intentions of our colleagues, how much hope do we really have for taking our operations and programs to the next level?

edupunking law school

I have been reading a book called DIY U:  Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education on my kindle.  I’m fairly familiar with the overall Edupunk movement, which has primarily focused on moving away from commercial, enterprise level (and therefore expensive) solutions and towards a more DIY, open-source kind of environment.  But this is the first formal book on the topic and quite an interesting read, too.

Several themes are addressed in the book (and they lead to a somewhat scattered approach, IMO, where the book just seems to jump from different educational model to the next, rather than a large scale, overview-type look at the higher education arena).  A key one is that one needs to lower costs.  Edupunk approaches can help do this by “debundling” the various services that are provided by faculty (teaching, testing, and grading) and increasing efficiency per dollar spent.  There are other ideas, too, such as blended learning with a social side, etc.

One of the questions I’ve been posing to myself is how to “edupunk” the law school environment.

Part of me is of the very mindset that the book argues against – that there is something “special” about the expensive, private higher education environment that makes it different and better.  That students that get into such programs – whether undergraduate or graduate – are in a better situation than those that go to less selective, public institutions.  It’s pretty hard for me to admit that, but part of my brain has been sufficiently scrubbed that I do think that.

That part also wonders if law school just needs to be taught a certain way, and that edupunking the system doesn’t get one very far.  The socratic method is connected at the hip to big lecture halls, rather low-tech environments, and just a lot of talking.  It’s not interactive, it’s not blended, and it’s not particularly practical.  It’s all theoretical, at least during the first year.

I’m going to spend the next few posts thinking about how one might change the instruction of law.  I don’t want to go so far that I’d being ABA-accreditation into question.  The book talks about how these is a shackle on the process of innovation, but it’s also a reality.  I don’t think it would be productive to go all the way to “accreditation be damned, as long as the student learns what he or she needs.”  I think there is a middle ground.  And I intend to explore that over the next few days.

if I were president…

For a university, that is, looking to cut costs in a world where we spend more and more each year to meet basic expectations.

Far too long ago, I hypothesized a scenario where a university might choose to outsource strategic decision-making on technology.  Let me clarify exactly what it is to which I am referring – right now, just about every university has a person or group that looks at different trends out there, considers what current needs exist, and try to balance all of that within a general framework of “being innovative.”  I challenge anyone to point to a university that doesn’t want to be innovative and therefore consider my last stipulation a reasonable one.

Provided that there is some semblance of logic to this process, what we’re talking about is strategic decision-making, not just outsourcing in general.  A method through which an over-arching theme emerges that guides when to say yes and when to say no.  When to invest in that $250,000 ERP system that must replace the aging system in place and therefore sacrifice the time-saving management system for staff.  Or how high student productivity ranks on the list of priorities.

Rather than having people in charge of this, why not just outsource it all?  That is the question that I put forth.

If I were a university president, this would be a tantalizing option for cost-savings.  Everything about running a university involves rising costs, but some things just cannot be sacrificed.  If you need top-notch faculty and they collectively lead to a cost of $X, then you must spend $X.  If you decide that a new Welcome Center will help put a pretty face for visitors and you must invest $Y over the next 3 years, then you allocate and spend $Y.  Plain and simple.

Right now, staff salaries are rising faster than most other operations (insert appropriate citation here – I’m pretty sure it’s in DIY EDU somewhere).  And a lot of staff are needed to manage, maintain, install, learn, use, train, and just be around technology.  And deciding how much to spend on what and then implementing those decisions involves a lot of people, too.  Overall, the number of staff that surround the need to be “innovative” technologically is increasing.  So what do we do?

Get rid of all of them, right?

(more…)

outsourcing ourselves

here’s a thought:  why not outsource IT strategy?

I’m not talking about IT infrastructure or tools.  I don’t mean using Amazon EC2 for computing power or S3 for storage, much less Google Apps for Education.  I’m not talking about outsourcing specific services.

I mean outsourcing the actual decision-making process that drives our services and overall strategy.  I am talking about outsourcing IT and Academic Computing leadership.  In my case, I am talking about outsourcing myself.

What’s to stop a university from hiring a consulting firm to watch for technology trends, identify threats and opportunities (SWOT, anyone?), and make recommendations on what should be done.  The university then picks things that it can afford and that fit together (again, by recommendation from the consultants), and just does them using the appropriate resources.

Perhaps the IT department still has system administrators, and perhaps outsourcing leadership has nothing to do with outsourcing services.  Maybe the consultants recommend keeping e-mail in house due to an analysis of how the school’s General Counsel likes to interpret “exposure” (trying not to use FERPA as a shield here – it’s about exposure due to regulations such as FERPA.  Not FERPA unto itself).  So using consultants to identify trends and basically make strategic decisions doesn’t mean outsourcing everything.

But it could mean the elimination of the very type of job I have.  My next post, which I hope to have together in the next day or so, will follow through on how this might look to a university president.  Then we have to ask ourselves about how we can add enough value that no one ever actually does what I suggest in this post…

deeply misunderstood…or stuck in a professional rut

I read through a post by a friend who has been struck by the changes between working at a start-up and now in academia.  I, in turn, have been thinking a lot about whether I’ve been painting myself into a professional corner.  Making myself irrelevant to the rest of the working world…

About 4 or 5 years ago, I applied for a job “in corporate” – aka a for-profit company.  Here in Silicon Valley, and quite a prominent company.  The job requirements were pretty straightforward.  It was for product management, and they had both an entry-level and a lead position open.  I needed to have 5 years experience managing projects from start to finish for the entry-level position, but at least 5 for the team lead job.  To be honest, I was pushing it a bit on the lead job, but as far as my resume sounded, I met the requirements.  When I finished my interview, I inquired about whether I could put my name in for the team lead job.

“Well, you don’t meet the job requirements for that position.  You need to have at least 5 years experience.”

“I have been managing teams and projects for the last 5 years, as you can see from my resume.”

“Yes, but that’s in higher education.  That would be more like 2-3 years if you were in corporate.”

This struck me as a bit odd, since I was not aware of some kind of fractional multiplier when converting from “higher education experience” and “corporate experience.”  But at least at this company, there seemed to be something of the kind.

Ever since then, I have been wondering if, as I move along on my career path in academia, I’m boxing myself in, professionally.  That I’ll reduce my chances of ever working in corporate with each passing year in some weird way.

It’s not that I’m trying to change careers.  And it’s not that there aren’t any jobs out there for higher education professionals.  Many companies (admittedly larger ones) have higher education vertical units, where entire groups focus on products being used in academia and/or strategic planning for the market.  But it still lingers in the back of my mind that as I make progress one way, I may be making myself less and less relevant other ways.

the limits of outsourcing

In my last post, about approaching outsourcing in higher education from a strategic view that goes beyond simple cost savings or privacy concerns, I talked about how outsourcing should either lower costs, increase value, or do both in order to help an organization develop and maintain a competitive advantage.

Defining competitive advantage in higher education or specifically IT therein is not easy.  It’s more than simply how a university or college does in rankings or how well it attracts students.  It might be measurable in terms of how it does compared to its direct competitors – how many times a student that applies to both schools chooses a particular one is somewhat indicative of a competitive advantage.

But let’s just presume that there are a great many factors that lead to something akin to an advantage that is useful when in competition for the best and brightest students with other schools.  The quantity of factors makes it all the harder to quantify the benefit of specific strategic planning decisions, but overall there is at least room for reasonable conjecture.

So the question remains – what should be outsourced?  What activities do technology departments in higher education engage in that are not directly beneficial in terms of competitive advantage?  What activities could be best outsourced such that cost goes down, value goes up, or both, leading to more students choosing one school over another?

(more…)