Saturday, April 22, 2006

If We Build It, They Will Come—Maybe

Dr. Steven Johnson, one of the most innovative college leaders in the country, co-presents a workshop with me called On the Horizon and In Your Face 2.0: Key Issues in Information Technology for Education Leaders. In this 2.0 version of the workshop, we again look at major trends “in our face” and “on the horizon” and explore ways in which educators can adapt, leverage, and engage these happenings.

One of the trends in this version of the workshop we call the “Technology Building.” This idea sprung from a conversation about how to help more seasoned board, faculty, and staff members understand how vital technology is, how much a part of the infrastructure it must be for education institutions to be credible in the today’s world. An early problem was that the early rhetoric around technology tended to be full of hyperbolic fury about how fundamentally different IT is, how transformative it will be, and how we need to think differently to really understand its impact. At some level, this is nonsense. In many ways, technology infrastructure is very similar to something legislators, board members, faculty, and staff are used to: buildings.

When we build buildings, we usually operate off of a campus master plan. We have a facilities committee that meets regularly to update the plan. We benchmark other facilities, develop capital budgets, build in operational funding strategies, and plan for deferred maintenance. We know how to do these things because for hundreds of years, we’ve had to. It’s the cost of doing business. It’s expected to have “curb appeal.”

In today education world, we also need “tech appeal,” however. And the building metaphor is exactly the strategy we suggest that leaders begin adopting when advocating for technology infrastructure—from computers to new simulation labs for healthcare. Instead of doing what Casey Green from the Campus Computing Survey calls the traditional “dust bowl financing”—buying software, computers, servers, network hardware with year-end money that has to spent or lost—we should be more strategic. Casey’s survey shows that at the higher education level colleges are getting better and better and preparing and leading from a technology plan. If we review these plans, they are much like our facilities plan; capital, operational, maintenance strategies all linked to institutional mission—if they’re good that is. Steve Gilbert from the Teaching Learning and Technology Group advocates driving this plan based on conversations first about quality teaching and learning, and then asking “Oh by the way, what technology will we need to do this?” Technology should not drive the learning agenda anymore than finance should.

Learning-centered technology planning makes all the sense in the world. But there is still a challenge; many institutions across K-Ph.D. are still running parallel planning tracks. Facilities master planning happens, technology master planning happens, and maybe in a final strategic planning document prepared for accreditation or budget allocations they actually share the same stage. But what would happen if we build these plans together.

Most modern businesses are a complex set of infrastructures—at the most simple, Web, phone, and face-to-face. In the modern world of customer relationship management, they are taking hard looks at the blends of these worlds. Our students—not to mention our legislators, board members, faculty and staff—are swimming in this world. They shop for airline tickets online, but still call the travel agent to book the tickets. They shop for cars online, but still go to the dealership to test drive and make the deal. We drive doctors crazy; we go to WebMD and self diagnose and then come to our appointments with the printouts. Put simply, while sometimes it’s or—web, phone, or face to face—more often it’s and. Because of this, companies are leveraging extensive data mining and predictive analytics to do activity-based costing and customer analytics to determine the best version of and.

Shouldn’t we begin to think about more deeply and strategically blending our infrastructure planning? What if instead of doing two planning cycles, technology becomes a fixed component of the standing facilities master planning process? Or what if—wait for it—facilities became a fixed component of the technology planning? What if we committed to never do these in isolation again—it’s not only an artificial division of our modern infrastructure in education, its just inefficient. As a result, many college leaders end up in episodic interventions because the work of either the CIO or CFO so impacts the other area that the two end up having to get at the same table to hash things out. Let’s just end run this whole scenario; let’s hash it out up front! Let’s just do infrastructure master planning.

There are real issues to be worked out in this strategy. Facility and technology planning horizons tend to be different, skills sets of those involved more specialized, and budget allocations may come from different sources. Still, at some point we need to blend these efforts, or just resign ourselves to the constant push and pull of competing vital infrastructures.

If we build it, they will come—maybe. Today’s modern education infrastructure needs to be a thoughtful blend of online, over the phone, and face to face infrastructures. If we neglect this blend and just hope it works out, students may make another choice. Worse yet, we’ll be less capable of teaching and reaching with the best tool set available. However, with the right planning, we can be well positioned to meet the needs of those students in our face, and on the horizon. It’s a master plan worth working toward.

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