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A Little Bit of Orlando Magic

University Business, Jul 2009

EDUCOMM 2009 BROUGHT SOME OF THE brightest stars in higher education to the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes resort, for three days of education sessions, new product introductions, and fun. The conference featured a number of firsts. For example, it was the first time in six years that EduComm took place independent of InfoComm. Also for the first time, the conference featured five keynote sessions that mixed thought-provoking topics with light-hearted “edutainment” sessions.

Technology futurist George Gilder began the event with a keynote speech in which he said that despite its hardships, the current economic landscape was ripe for technological innovation. He recalled that microchip technology came alive during the recession of the 1970s and noted that companies such as Google and the revitalized Apple grew out of the downturn of 2000. “Recession is the mother of invention,” he said.

Although he was an early advocate of cloud computing theory, Gilder is already looking to what comes next. As networks become faster than computers, one day a new level of computing power will be achieved, which he called “storm computing.”

The idea grew out of the video game and film industries, where graphic processors work as massive parallel computers, capable of continuously rendering millions of individual pixels on a screen for lifelike reproductions of people and objects on screen. Gilder said this technology could lead to computers and networks that are far removed from the current architecture. “If you can figure out how to use these graphics processors and program them to do more than this one very specific function, you can surmount the great problem that has confronted computer science from the very beginning.”

Technology is still far from realizing that power on a commercial scale. So day two of EduComm included a panel on cloud computing that featured representatives from AT&T, Google, Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, and Amazon Web Services partner Sonian. In contrast to Gilder’s future view, these panelists brought computer technology back to the present and showed how much there was still to learn and accomplish through cloud technology.

“Cloud computing is early but it is real,” said Microsoft’s Anthony Salcito. “It’s a fundamental shift in the way in which we deliver, connect, and empower all of the services that you are using in your institution.”

Greg Mathison of Cisco explained how schools could maximize their IP network with cloud computing to support their core mission. “With this technology, you can converge, consolidate, and conserve—and save dollars—to reinvest those savings back into higher priorities, such as safety and security or next-generation learning.”

Just as important as costs are the new capabilities cloud computing can enable, said Jeff Keltner of Google. “We see enhanced collaboration capabilities as we move data into a single cloud place, where I can go and work in real time with my colleagues. I can collaborate not only within my institution, but I can also collaborate with other institutions,” he said. “This is increasingly critical between universities as well as school districts. I can share information and leverage the same services whether I’m talking to a fellow professor or classmate, or a friend at a different school.”

Cloud computing can save money and improve collaboration.

Keltner also noted another advantage of cloud computing: Innovation is always taking place. Institutions often invest time and money installing a particular piece of technology, only to find it quickly outdated as technology advances are made. With cloud computing, however, the host (e.g., Google, AT&T, IBM) handles maintenance and updates, ensuring that the system is always current.

Thursday morning’s keynote was devoted to the economy, with guests Kevin Hegarty, vice president and CFO of The University of Texas at Austin; Tom Fitzgerald, CEO of E&I Cooperative Purchasing; Lander Medlin, executive vice president of APPA, the association of higher ed facilities officers; and Brenda Harms, a consultant with Stamats, an integrated marketing communications firm that provides strategic and creative services to colleges and universities.

The panelists said that although the government has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in stimulus funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, this only alleviates the symptoms of much deeper problems. Colleges and universities need to continue making strategic investments in their future.

“Higher education is a business, and one that is clearly under siege,” said Hegarty, “but there are a lot of ways to find opportunities in the crisis.”

Stimulus funds may come from both federal and state sources, but Hegarty said state funds have been slow to materialize. Research institutions that have had grants in process or have had proposals put forth previously, however, have been able to benefit immediately from federal funds.

“Budgets have been slashed, but spending still exists,” noted Medlin. Areas where targeted spending opportunities continue include job training, streamlining administrative services, technology and infrastructure improvements, and green initiatives.

Anytime these days there is a technology solution that can replace or streamline an existing business process or enhance a learning opportunity, it’s getting a closer look.

All panelists were optimistic that the economy will eventually turn around, and that it is important for colleges and universities to be prepared to emerge as leaders when it does.

EduComm also featured two lunchtime Edutainment general sessions. On Tuesday, hundreds of higher education IT and AV professionals took a break from sessions and workshops to sing along to songs many of them grew up with. George Newall, Bob Dorough, and Gil Dyrli, co-creators of the original Schoolhouse Rock series, shared stories of how it all came together. Dorough, who wrote and sang many of the songs, played crowd favorites such as “Conjunction Junction,” “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here,” and “Three Is a Magic Number.”

Wednesday brought a return visit from New York Times technology columnist David Pogue, who entertained the crowd with a review of Web 2.0 technologies, including iPhone apps, Facebook, and Twitter. He also did a live Twitter demo in which he “tweeted” the question “What are the rules of Twitter?” to his 450,000 followers. Within seconds responses came flooding in from users around the country. “I think there are no rules,” Pogue finally said. “Twitter is whatever you make of it. It’s a huge new opportunity, a huge new channel. It’s an incredible resource for you both personally and professionally. Just remember there is no other resource for reaching a lot of people in real time voluntarily.”