Technology is so omnipresent in the modern world that people don't notice it all around them, until something goes wrong. At the same time, there is a constant bombardment of technology information, ranging from product details for a new gadget to security breaches at all types of institutions.
While students may have a near cyborg relation with technology, and faculty and staff might just want it to make their lives easier, it falls to the IT department to make it all happen. In an effort to understand what is happening in higher ed technology, University Business recently conducted its second annual survey of chief information officers and IT directors from colleges and universities nationwide.
At first glance, perhaps the most startling trend the survey uncovered was that not much has changed since last year, despite recent advancements in consumer products. But Nicole Engelbert, senior analyst with Datamonitor, an online data and analytic service, says this is a good thing. "In the past [the IT budget] was considered an easy place to cut new spending," she points out.
Tim Farnham, chief information officer at Berry College (Ga.), says his recent budget increase was to make up for previous years of underfunding and increased maintenance needs. He is in the process of replacing the campus's entire wireless network. By changing to a Hewlett Packard system with Thin Client, campus access points will triple, making all academic buildings, the student union, and the library 100 percent wireless. Farnham says it was relatively inexpensive to do the project at this time, and he thinks he has about two years before Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) cell phones arrive and make it necessary.
Berry College's academic buildings, student union, and library are 100 percent wireless.
Farnham keeps an eye on trends by attending conferences and reading plenty of magazines and books. He expressed concern that at "traditional classroom schools" there is a discrepancy between student expectations and what the administration thinks is important.
Carol Kondrach, associate vice president for information technologies at Rider University (N.J.), stays informed by talking to students and other young people about technology, and to other people in higher ed. "Keen observation is the most important thing." She is rolling out her campus's wireless based on user demand. Her current project is unifying the communications infrastructure (e-mail and voice mail) to "enable users to spend less time on it and more time on other things that matter to them," she says. She's keeping an eye on VoIP cell phones by watching developments at neighboring Montclair State University, which is using cell phones to communicate with and educate students in a number of ways.
Out in Indiana, Manchester College's Information Technology Services Director Michael Case has similar concerns. He wants to upgrade the 16-year-old phone system to VoIP, which means upgrading the entire network at the same time, so he might as well roll wireless into the plan. They considered pulling phone service from the dorms because of the "incredibly low usage rate," but an unofficial survey showed students feel it's a free service they are entitled to and they don't want it removed.
Manchester College leaders considered pulling dorm phone lines, but students feel it's a free service they are entitled to.
Datamonitor's Engelbert says the effectiveness of wireless depends on how innovative the IT department is and how student-centric the institution is. The group in the middle still isn't sure the investment is worthwhile, as they have visions of students surfing the web, rather than paying attention to lectures.
Although the largest part of his budget was software licensing, Farnham has also spent a lot of money on security and redundancy so the network will function 24/7. He has put in place Virtual Machine Software (VMware) to distribute the server load, so if one crashes the others will take up the slack until repairs can be made. He is waiting for approval of a new "mobile computing devices" policy he wrote, which makes the individual user responsible for the security of the unit in their possession.
Kondrach says security is also very high on her priority list. "One breach and your institution's reputation changes." Of course, the difficulty is in finding the balance between security and access. She says one benefit from all the recent breaches is that end users know security is an issue, which is making them more supportive of her efforts. Although security is on her mind, she isn't pushing to have all hours, all function redundancy like Farnham is. Rather, she is going for enterprise critical applications. Looking to the example of Hurricane Katrina, she is working to keep the school's "business" running, such as course information so students can continue studying in the event of an emergency.
As technology advances, demands on the IT department will only continue to grow.
"Technology is very fragile," Kondrach cautions. She keeps a functioning fax machine available and still maintains pay phones on campus as protection against emergencies that might take out VoIP or cell phone access.
For network security, Case has Cisco Clean Access in place, to ensure that equipment connected to the network has met certain requirements so threats are as minimal as possible. He also uses Cisco ASA devices for intrusion prevention and a MARS device to track activity.
On security, Engelbert says that although the IT department is often acutely aware of the danger and knows that it is easier to put protections in place than to clean up after a breach, it is often hard to get decision-makers to understand, unless they've lived through it. "It's almost in the same bucket as disaster recovery or business continuity-until your back is up against the wall," she notes.
Another hurdle for institutions of higher education is equipment replacement cycles, Engelbert says. Many don't adhere to the 18 months suggested by the industry, but she is seeing more willingness to consider hosted solutions, which are more cost effective for small- and medium-sized schools.
Case addresses the problem-and a reduced budget-by looking into leasing equipment this year for payment next year. "We're in a constant struggle to provide funds for purchases," he explains. By leasing, the line item is moved from a capital to an operating expense. "We still have some seven-year-old computers on campus," Case says, "I hope to commit the college to a more prudent obsolescence scheme." His PC inventory doubled in five years, so he is looking for ways to reduce it. Software licenses are another closely watched line item, as purchasing and maintaining them make up 45 percent of his budget.
Berry College is currently on a five-year replacement cycle for both administrative and academic computing, and Farnham is working to reduce it to four years, as well as ensuring that all servers on campus are always under warranty.
Insufficient staff was a common woe. Farnham uses students to take up the slack. They get training and he gets good workers. Case also uses students when funding isn't available for additional staff. But sometimes funding isn't enough; Kondrach has the budget but is having difficulty filling jobs.
As technology advances, along with student expectations, demands on the IT department will only continue to grow. Good planning should keep IHEs from falling behind.
As Kondrach says, the bottom line is the IT department has to deliver results like any other business unit. "What's important to higher ed? Learning, collaboration, and nurturing students to be successful. Everything we do focuses on these concepts. It's not just about the technology anymore."
The complete 2007 IT Spending Survey results are available online at www.universitybusiness.com.