If You Can't Beat 'em, Join 'em: Bringing Higher Education into the Web 2.0 Age

If You Can't Beat 'em, Join 'em: Bringing Higher Education into the Web 2.0 Age

A Systematic Approach to Help Secondary Education Providers Maximize Rich-Media Content, Mobile Technologies, and Social Networking Effectiveness

Web 2.0 is allowing higher education to expand the ways in which online information is made available to students, faculty and website visitors. College students today are more tech-savvy than ever and demand information access anywhere, any time.

And, while your teaching staff may not revise an exam based on students' demands, the way in which students expect information to be delivered digitally and online is just one challenge universities will have to give in on. And why not?

Students will listen to their iPods, check their Facebook, and upload cell phone pictures to Flickr anyway. The great news is that these don't have to be just distractions. The Internet is raising a generation that expects a total tech integration: the same technologies that entertain and make it easy to stay in touch with friends are the same tools students want to use to enhance classroom learning, collaborate on group projects, and stay informed of campus events. It's not a matter of getting down to the students' level; it's a matter of catching up!

As places of learning, colleges and universities have an obligation to stay on the cutting edge. The challenge is discerning between what is just a fad, and what is evolutionary, in relation to creating a better college experience for students, staff and visitors. It's not true that time alone will tell. You can spot a fad because they rely on gimmick, while the true cutting edge of technology has the power to change the way students learn.

A lot has been written about the opportunities Web 2.0 affords, from multimedia podcasting to social networking. Using podcasts, professors can offer their lectures or class discussions for download, and even augment their arsenal of teaching tools with multimedia. Providing materials in a portable format also demonstrates an understanding of and respect for students' limited time and multiple obligations.

Social networking tools offer ways to collaborate that were unheard of before Web 2.0. MySpace and Facebook are the well-deserving poster children for social networking, but it really encompasses any type of online communication and collaboration tools. It offers a way to bring discussions outside the classroom, and allows students to interact and work together on their own time.

Web 2.0 also provides unlimited ways to connect disparate departments and processes across campus. As students integrate more of their lives online, they expect the same sort of integration in their schools. Wouldn't it be great if students could peruse the course catalog, sign up for their classes, and then actually begin to interact with other students in the same classes before school even starts - all in one seamless interface? The technology is there--it just takes a bit of coordination between departments.

Just because the technology is available, however, doesn't mean it's easy to implement. Universities are big organizations, built around many departments and individuals that need to agree both on the vision and the strategy of any major change. And when you're trying to bring together departments that are used to working independently on their own projects, you not only have to agree on what should be done, you have to work out new systems of cross-departmental operation.

As with any new technology, there's an initial investment and a learning curve. All this adds up to time and money - both of which are most likely in short supply! It's great to talk about all the improvements and changes you could make, but it's important to be realistic about what's actually possible. Big changes will take time, and it's important to have a long-range plan - though keep in mind that by the time you get around to taking advantage of all that Web 2.0 has to offer, you'll probably be reading articles about Web 3.0 and wondering how anyone can keep up.

Even when all the issues are worked through, everything is approved, and you've actually begun to implement your ideas, there's the challenge of attrition. If people don't enjoy the new tools you've provided, or they don't understand them or see their value, they won't use them. And then it's all been a waste.

So how do you embrace Web 2.0 on your campus while avoiding all the pitfalls? It starts with a lot of planning. Before the whole idea of implementing Web 2.0 gets too overwhelming, let's boil it down into the three things you must have: a great idea, buy-in from multiple groups, and the right set of tools.

One of the things I love about working with the higher education industry is its willingness to share ideas. You don't get much of that in the corporate world, but in higher education, there's a sense of community that's incredibly refreshing. Take advantage of it; find out what other universities are doing, and figure out how similar ideas might work on your campus. Ask your own students what they like and don't like about various interactive services that are already available to them, and find out what's lacking. Even better, find out what additional tools they're using: students are great at finding solutions to problems you may not even know exist.

And of course don't be afraid to test out any original ideas you have. Although trying to be the first to do something shouldn't be the primary goal here, it's important to remember that information technology is rapidly changing. Everyone is doing this for the first time, so if you see a way to improve, expand, or completely reinvent something, why not try it out?

Obviously, for any big changes you're planning, you always need to get the people higher up the ladder to agree with you. But it's equally important to get buy-in from the people who will be helping you implement it, and especially the people you expect to be using it. You're targeting students, faculty, and staff, so get them all invested. Don't just pick out the early-adopter types either; by seeking out the technophobes and winning them over early on, the hard part of getting people to adapt will be done before you're ready to launch. It'll also result in a stronger, more intuitive solution. Find out what's holding those potential users back, and then meet those needs. Prove the value of what you're trying to do.

The key here is to not get so bogged down in the technological possibilities that you forget why you're doing it: to help people connect virtually just as they do in person. If people on all sides are invested in the project before it's even implemented, you've got a huge advantage in getting it to succeed.

Because IT tools are often so flexible (which is a good thing!), organizations find themselves "making due" with tools that weren't designed for the job. It's kind of like using a flat head screw driver for a Phillips head screw. You can usually get by, but it will take you longer to get the job done, and it's not a very graceful way to do it. Before you go shopping though, make sure you understand what your project's needs really are.

Once you've determined what your Web 2.0 project will be, check out what tools are out there. If you know of other schools doing something similar, find out what they're using, and if it's working as they wanted it to. Sales people are also great resources for demonstrating how their solutions can solve any problem you may have. As I said before, IT tools are flexible. Just make sure that if you're buying something new, you're buying the best tool for your particular job.

Depending on the skill level of your team, building a solution in house may often work. A world of caution though: if you're writing the software in house, you also have to support it in house. Have a plan for what you'll do if the person who wrote it is no longer there to fix it? And be sure to factor in the time and cost of development.

I recommend looking at the existing tools on the market to see whether there's something already available that does what you want. No matter how brilliant your developers are, there's no sense in reinventing the wheel-but that doesn't mean you can't improve upon it using an open API.

As you're scoping out various tools, one thing to keep in mind is scalability. With Web 2.0, that doesn't just mean having the ability to add more users or more content. As the industry grows, the ability to integrate between various tools becomes more crucial, simply because you can't plan for what hasn't been invented. When the next best thing comes along, chances are, you'll want it to integrate with the tools you have already implemented. My best advice is to make sure that components rely on open standards and provide an interface for sharing information between multiple systems. That way, the projects you implement today won't restrict you from expanding later.

Web 2.0 is an exciting concept with far-reaching implications for higher education. I fully anticipate that it won't be long before certain types of social networking, user-driven content, and multimedia downloading will be an expected commodity on university campuses, rather than newsworthy innovations. With the fast pace of technology in the information age, the opportunities for using Web 2.0 technologies will snowball, and those who didn't start early enough run the risk of being left behind. Wherever your innovations take you, the best time to start is now.

David Cummings is founder, CEO and president of Hannon Hill. He can be reached at (800) 407-3540 or david.cummings@hannonhill.com. For more information about Hannon Hill, visit www.hannonhill.com.