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This is a guest post by Brian D. Voss. Brian currently serves as a member of Blackboard’s Advisory Council. The Council is comprised of higher education leaders from institutions and organizations throughout the U.S. The Council provides feedback on technology, solutions, corporate strategy and key topics effecting higher education today as well as supports Blackboard thought-leadership activities.

 

At a recent Blackboard Advisory Council meeting, I was asked, “… what kept you up at night when you were a CIO?” Ah, the good ol’ days of sleepless nights. One thing I can tell you about being a retired-CIO is that there are a lot more good nights’ sleep (other than fretting about the hitch in my backswing or my inability to hit a 35-yard pitch shot). However, given my work as a consultant often puts me right on the field with my stressed friend- and colleague-CIOs, this is a question that is very much worth pondering.

When I was a CIO, a multitude of things kept me up at night: the security of my campus network and institutional data; the ability of my organization to attract and retain talent; changes in the way faculty teach and students learn and the role of IT in that mix; the demands of cutting-edge researchers for cyberinfrastructure; funding challenges brought on by economic conditions in the state (or the condition of the institution’s endowment); and many others featured in EDUCAUSE’s annual Top-10 issues report. But lurking in there then is one that doesn’t make any list:  What is ‘the next big thing’ and how to find resources to deal with it?

In the past, many of these ‘next big things’ have arrived like a hurricane. Sometimes you get a lot of warning as it traipses its way across the sea to landfall, and you have time to prepare (stock up, board up). But other times the storm materializes quickly and arrives suddenly with reaction being the order of the day.

Of course, there are many examples of ‘storms’ I could list. But let’s just look at three. What did we, in higher education, do about these storms?

1) Insufficient wireless infrastructure to support sudden demand

The storm:

When smartphones and tablets exploded onto our campuses in the fall of 2007, many of us were left with wireless networks woefully undersized to deal with students having not one, but often as many as three devices in their backpacks requiring connectivity. This stressed our ability to add infrastructure—personnel to do the work and funding to buy the hardware. In addition, we were scrambling to keep up with the challenge of a diminishing availability of IPv4 addresses.

How we handled it:

The WiFi shortfall was tackled by throwing money and staff effort at the problem; more wireless access points and controllers.  To address the network address space issue, we invested in reengineering our campus networks to use ‘private’ addressing, and an eventual and more strategic move to IPv6.  As time has marched on, this has turned out to be a never-ending problem, as more and more devices and their demand for access continues to grow.  Eventually, one might think this would level off – though it has not yet done so.  But this challenge has likely been put to bed, if not to sleep!

2) Teaching and learning becomes IT-enabled

The storm:

In the mid-1990s, teaching and learning opened the door to using information technology tools to improve course delivery, with the then-labeled course management systems (CMS). We had some time to see this coming, as faculty uptake was gradual. Many institutions did what they had done with other forms of enterprise systems (finance, student, HR)—we wrote our own CMS. We created a hodge-podge of campus-specific applications that would not be sustainable, most of which were not satisfying faculty and students in any event.

How we handled it:

The IT-enablement of pedagogy (dubbed ‘ed-tech’ by some) eventually led to use of systems developed by vendors and open- and community-source solutions. Today, almost no one is ‘rolling their own’ and nearly everyone has a learning management system (LMS) deployed. Blackboard, Instructure, Desire2Learn, and Moodle are providing a plethora of solutions for institutions to use. The challenge these days is in wisely choosing and adequately supporting its use on campus. And these solutions continue to evolve and expand their offerings and usefulness; competition has been good for the market. I would suggest that while we are a long way from being done with this storm, we’ve got the tools we need to evolve with our students and faculty. Changing and deploying a LMS, as I’ve said before, is a significant challenge. But it likely is not keeping many up at night.

3) The growing need for more network bandwidth

The storm:

In that same mid-1990’s timeframe we faced a rapidly developing challenge in the form of an unquenchable need for network bandwidth, feeding the demand placed on our heretofore feeble and tenuous network links. No longer were we just handling a trickle of flow for mail/communication traffic (remember BITNET?), but now the commercial internet was building demand on our campuses for a broader set of bandwidth-hungry uses.  Some of these needs were academic and research focused, but many were not (buying things online and of course, “sharing” music via Napster and other apps).  We struggled to add 56 kilobit circuits, DS1 (and then DS3) links doing so at gargantuan prices from the commercial communication carriers.

How we handled it:

This challenge was addressed in two ways. First, the community came together and made significant investments in building our own research/academic-focused network.  Thirty-four institutions made a significant gamble to launch Internet2, building a network and community where the network may be the core, but it was also about collaboration and innovation (and it is especially so as Internet2 hits it’s 20th anniversary).  Springing from this effort, states and regions built optical fiber infrastructure “on-ramps” to this national research backbone, further increasing the capabilities and lowering costs.  The second way was that the broader growth of Internet applications and services used by everyone led to a growth in commercial offerings (and lowering of prices) across the globe.

 

It is this last example that I find intriguing as I consider losing sleep on thoughts of the next big thing. I don’t know what that thing is – no one does – but something is going to come along, and I worry that simply throwing resources at it or expecting the commercial market to solve it with higher education’s unique needs in mind will not be the way it is addressed.

In the mid-1990s, financial times were different. Those thirty-four institutions had resources available to throw at building the platform that would provide the solution to the challenge. Today, I’m pretty sure everyone is fresh out of disposable investment funding to pitch-in to address whatever the next thing might be. Institutional budgets have been trimmed (gutted in many cases) to where there is very little (or no) discretionary money to invest. And no longer are we in a position to take significant risk. We’re dealing with all those “top-10” issues and the ones that have spun out of them like tornadoes from a hurricane. CIOs are running as fast as they can just to keep up, and are under pressure to be cost-efficient and results-oriented. If we can’t show that an investment will pay off—not only eventually but immediately—we will likely not be able to make those investments. It’s not a question of having the fortitude to do it—most CIOs just don’t have the resource flexibility to do so.

So when the next big thing shows up, I worry that one of the most successful tools we have had in the past—the community coming together to invest in creating something to address the challenge—is not available to us. Most technology companies have R&D budgets to evolve existing products and services, and create new ones. Those R&D budgets may not be as big as they once were, but they’re still there. I don’t see an R&D spending mindset in higher education at the institution level, let alone in the hands of the CIO. This is especially true if we factor in the potential diminishing of the scope (and budget) of the role of the CIO.

Today, financial margins at our institutions are so tight and the tolerance for risk is so low that unless the challenge is clearly stated and the need felt urgently across the breadth of higher education, the collective will to act cannot materialize. And worse, I worry that even if the danger was clear and present, and everyone felt they were in the path of the storm, the flexibility to make even a sure-thing bet may not exist.

As I come to the end of this epistle, you may be expecting I’ll have some bit of wisdom regarding a solution. I don’t. I don’t think we can spend our way to addressing that coming storm (whatever it is), because, well, we don’t have the money to spend. Can we rely on the commercial sector to solve it for us? I think more likely that sector will be what produces the storm when it comes to market with the next big thing. And because of the pressures of tight budgets and tremendous expectations for the success of any investment, I worry that a critical mass of CIO-led institutional investments by the community may not materialize.

Until then, I think a lot of CIOs will have some sleepless nights.

And some retired ones as well.

 

Brian D. Voss provides counsel, insight, and guidance regarding the effective and strategic use of information technology in higher education. With more than 30 years experience in higher education and the private sector, Brian is an internationally recognized and respected leader in the field of information technology as it supports and advances the mission of universities (primarily, those intensively engaged in research).

Brian was honored as the first-ever EDUCAUSE Presidential Fellow; he served the association and the community of higher education IT professionals as a knowledgeable and experienced voice, clearly articulating the critical role that information technology plays in addressing the transformation of higher education in the face of the disruption currently underway. 

In the Fall of 2014 Brian was contracted by Case Western Reserve University to serve as interim CIO while they completed a search process for a permanent leader. Brian ended his full-time CIO career at the University of Maryland in 2014, having served as its vice president for information technology. Previously, he was vice chancellor and CIO at Louisiana State University, and held several leadership positions in information technology at Indiana University. 

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