Monday, January 27, 2014

Higher Ed IT must change or die

Technology in higher-ed is on the verge of major change. 2014 will introduce major shifts in campus technology, and higher-ed IT has no choice but to adapt. In only a few years, our roles will change dramatically.

What challenges face technology in higher-ed?
One driving force comes from the faculty and students. Already we have seen a shift from in-person classrooms to online education, including massive open online courses (MOOCs). MOOCs offer courses to those who want to learn new subjects in a different, non-traditional way for free. MOOCs are a disruptive innovation in education, and as such they continue to evolve as student needs drive change. Over the last year, MOOCs have shifted to hybrid open online courses (HOOCs) that better enable students to connect with other students.
Faculty and students also drive campuses to adopt Active Learning Classrooms (ALCs). In an ALC, an instructor leads small group discussions, so students learn from other students. The role of instructor shifts from its traditional performance of "sage on a stage" to "facilitator."
The ALC also moves campuses to implement new technology. Mobile devices begin to replace laptops and desktops. The future belongs to the tablet and smartphone. While we may have devices that look like laptops, in five years I believe the "laptop" concept will merge with the smartphone. The iPhone will become the computer. The only difference is that you'll have a "tablet" display when you want to use a larger display to consume content, and a "laptop" interface when you want to create content.
With such a dramatic change in the personal computer, "standardization" will be meaningless. How can an organization enforce a "university standard" for laptops and desktops when users own their own device? The ultimate conversion to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) will require IT organizations to re-think desktop support, data management, and security.
"Genius Bar" and "Geek Squad"
All of this means the role of desktop support needs to change. Until today, the helpdesk has remained a physical place that users visit when they need help. For some problems, users might call the helpline - but overall, the university helpdesk expects users to visit the support center when they need help.
Helpdesk must change. In 2014, the helpdesk needs to transform into a hybrid of two functions: The "Geek Squad" where helpdesk personnel arrive at your space to help you with a problem. Obvious examples include "The classroom projector isn't working" or "This printer is jammed." And the "Genius Bar" for questions and problems that still require an in-person solution, such as "Please help me set up my phone to talk to Gmail."
To achieve this new level, the helpdesk must offload "low value" questions to a centralized call center. An in-person helpdesk doesn't provide any additional value to common problems such as "I forgot my password." A centralized call center can provide this assistance for users, freeing up the helpdesk personnel to visit with users in-person, either as "Geek Squad" or "Genius Bar."
The Cloud
In 2015, we'll continue to see more services move to the Cloud. The domain of the IT Director will no longer be "Servers" but "Services," shifting from "Service owner" to "Service provider." We've already witnessed email move to the Cloud (Gmail). Even office documents are delivered via the web; you can store files via technologies that include Dropbox, or edit them online using services such as Google Drive. Similarly, event ticketing and library management may now be delivered via Cloud. It's possible that in another few years, even student management systems will be in the Cloud.
Big Data
But 2015 will also be a year for Big Data, as institutions look to leverage their data to provide maximum value. Large companies such as Target already do this, using purchasing histories and analytics to determine future trends of shoppers, and hooking these consumers to the company so they remain faithful buyers into the future. My favorite example is how Target can predict pregnancy with surprising accuracy.
Data analytics will enable higher-ed to predict student performance. Imagine a student who is not performing well within the first ten days of class, the time period during which he or she may drop the class without penalty. Big Data might identify the student is not interacting with the course management system, and send a hint to the instructor that this student needs more individualized attention. Or the system might remind the student of study aids or outside resources that might improve performance.
Shared Services
As higher-ed continues to experience shrinking budgets, administration will need to leverage shared pools of resources to complete projects. Sharing resources and services will enable institutions to use staff time more efficiently, either for developing new projects or for maintaining existing systems. Shared services will become more visible within higher ed in 2014, and will be unavoidable by 2016.
The Pendulum Will Swing Back
While services will continue to move to the Cloud, concerns about privacy (recent NSA revelations as one example) will cause a rift among institutions and outside providers. But if you've been in IT long enough, you know that there's a "pendulum effect" - for example: once we used terminals to access a central mainframe, then later we moved to individual desktops on a local area network, then (eventually) to web-enabled devices connecting to Cloud services.
If privacy concerns continue, institutions will prefer to move applications back into the data center where they can maintain greater control over access and privacy. However, the pendulum will not swing entirely back to data centers providing centrally-managed services. Rather, we will see application "appliances." In 2013, we saw a preview of this: institutions no longer run their own instances of Oracle databases on centrally-managed Unix systems. Increasingly, database customers implement an appliance such as Oracle's Exadata, effectively a "database in a can," to deliver database services.
Ten years from now, many enterprises may "take it local" by implementing similar appliances that can be put behind the corporate firewall.
I'm excited for the future. But higher-ed IT must ask itself how it can be involved in these changes (or drive them) while delivering value to the institution. We must engage our faculty and students, who may not be particularly motivated to discover new technology, to provide a framework upon which education can build and grow. If higher-ed IT cannot meet this challenge, if we cannot adapt to address the changing landscape, then we will become obsolete and die.

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