Friday, January 31, 2014

The path to scale

EDUCAUSE Review recently shared a video message from Brad Wheeler, CIO and vice president for information technology at Indiana University. I know Brad from my time working with the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, while I was senior manager in the Office of Information Technology at the University of Minnesota main campus.

Wheeler's message is about finding our path to scale, what Wheeler sees as the central issue facing higher education. Digital goes to scale. Wheeler points to Amazon, whose global marketplace supports not just Amazon but smaller sellers. Leveraging the digital marketplace, even a mom & pop shop can sell products to people all over the world.

Brad encourages leveraging digital as our path to scale. Higher education can use digital to scale up in ways we haven't seen before. IT has previously sought to do this through vendor dependence, but Wheeler also suggests interdependence among higher education institutions. And this isn't surprising, as Wheeler is behind some of higher education's largest, most transformative software and service collaborations including Sakai for teaching and learning software, Kuali for financial and other administrative systems, HathiTrust for digital copies of scanned books as part of the Google Book Project, and the formation of Internet2's Net+ Services.

I've always looked at digital as an opportunity to provide bigger and better services by outsourcing certain services so we can focus on other, high-value services. I'm reminded of my previous suggestion to privatize the bookstore using Amazon. Like Brad's example, higher education might form such a partnership to reach a new level in customer support.

Not all outsourcing is bad. And in the hypothetical case of Amazon, students might buy their course textbooks online, and have them delivered directly to their dorm room or campus apartment. And next to each textbook, you might have a list of other, related resources. "Students who bought this text book also bought…" might show study guides, Cliffs Notes, or textbooks from related courses. For example, a physics textbook might link to a statistics textbook. Or a novel (such as for a literature class) might link to the movie adaptation on DVD.

Just like Amazon's regular online bookstore, students could rate the textbooks and leave comments. "This textbook was good, but also buy the study guide that goes with it" or similar comments could help other students make the best decisions in buying their course materials.

That's just one idea in which higher education might turn digital in their path to scale. MOOCs are another obvious example, and today we see many experiments that test ways students can use MOOCs. What other ways can you imagine using technology to scale up education?

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