by Mike Meyer
All contemporary educational institutions have digital Central Nervous Systems. This is the most apt analogy for the role of IT in the school, campus, university. Unlike biological evolution, human evolution has become external and is now controlled by information described by the physicist Stephen Hawking as a tremendously expanded form of DNA. This began with libraries as resources of this information but now has become much faster and totally pervades the educational and all other institutional entities. Human organizations are entities that are defined by information, consume information, and produce information. All components of this our now managed by people who manage IT. And that is not, in most cases, the faculty or traditional administrators of the campus.
For a surprising number of colleges and, even, universities this is not understood. This is particularly true for community colleges. While there are many components to the decline of higher education, particularly in America, this, I think, is the most open to correction but also the most critical to recovery. Unfortunately it requires a very serious review of the college as an entity and a rethinking of why it exists and how it should evolve. This rethinking needs to focus on Information Technology as the Central Nervous System who’s vitality shapes the virtual structure and nature of the campus.
As with business back in the 1970s and 80s IT was managed by technicians in the back room focused on records and billing. Often the IT department was under accounting as it was still seen as operators of a glorified adding machine. This was the logical model for large mainframe record based computers. The arrival of PCs disrupted this model as the backroom systems shrank and became specialized while PCs appeared on people’s desks and grew into departmental networks. The traditional IT technician didn’t touch PCs as they were amateur if not outlaw devices.
The conquest of Information Technology by the client server architecture reshaped institutional IT into the world of servers, clients, and help desks. This happened very quickly in parts of the business world and much slower in others who could not afford a separate, fully staffed IT department including community college campuses. In small and even medium sized businesses a responsible person was pressed into service without the knowledge to do more than turn things on and do basic backups or updates. In small colleges this was covered by release time faculty with AV staff and maybe a facilities telecom person. This transition to the internet and web in the 1990s complicated things quickly and were exacerbated by the arrival of online education. That was clearly a faculty thing, whether they wanted it or not, but who would take care of the technology? Must be AV people as it was some kind of correspondence or TV course or something.
Schools managed to drag the 1990s well into the 2000s. Colleges mostly stayed caught in some distorted form of the late 1990s with faculty and staff on their own with PCs and whomever was silly enough to do online courses while IT stayed with registration and back office accounting plus HR and ERP in larger systems. This continued to hold true up to 2010 or so with the beginning of enrollment decline and steady increases in students lost before completion of degrees. Something needed to change to fix this and, not surprisingly, IT solutions began to be developed to track students and flag them for assistance before they disappeared.
For a surprising number of campuses, again commonly community colleges, IT remained in the back office or continued to be decentralized in administration, records, engineering, IT and other scientific departments. Media centers evolved to be more like IT services or were allowed to atrophy as younger faculty, mostly adjunct, had no choice but to provide their own computing systems and applications. Enrollment losses continued and tenured faculty retired to be replace, if at all, with adjunct lecturers. The primary solutions to these problems was the purchase and partial integration of student pathway systems, tracking systems, with improved Student Management Systems and, maybe, a new Learning Management System from a nearly identical list of offerings.
The failure to succeed
None of these things were the magic bullet. Improvements were made, not surprisingly, by giving new students of a very different generation access to information on their programs and where they were and notification when things began going down hill. This was expected by millennial and the newest connected generation who were mostly amazed not to have online access to their world. All of this is, of course, dependent on a range of community socioeconomic factors tied to general economic decline and political abandonment of public services such as education.
A major misunderstanding has been the social sophistication of the new connected generation that makes many of them a good bit more polite and open than previous, non-connected generations. These students tend to go along with rituals of education and to work hard even though they are amazed or befuddled at the complete lack of valid information technology and the near complete irrelevance of what is being presented to them. This, of course, has always been the case with a segment of each student generation but these students do know how to work an online world. If they really need to know something they will check with their friends online and link to the relevant YouTube presentations on how to do it. Is it any wonder the only ones left on campus are the ones with serious socioeconomic issues isolating them from their peers and everyone else.
Meanwhile the colleges continue to struggle with funding, declining enrollment and fewer continuing students. Faculty continue their struggle to make their classroom successful learning environments but only if they can avoid putting any of their courses online. Years of surveys and analysis have succeeded in proving the students prefer to have things online but also prefer to have good face to face presentations and direct interaction with their instructors. What more reason do you have to keep things the way they are? That is a very good question but it is very definitely not an answer.
The missing force
A major issue is the failure to understand how change has changed. This is a direct result of the organizational failure to identify how the new process of change must be managed. The western college tradition is based on shared communities of scholars that have become modern institutions structurally managed by faculty and committees. The large administrative structure is still generally assumed to be faculty on temporary assignment. That worked for several centuries and can work well in institutions with strong collegiality. It does not work well in IT based organizations.
This problem was a very large roadblock to enterprise transition to ecommerce and the virtual social network world. We have watched the accelerating destruction of powerful organizations in industries that have been forced through this change to survive, e.g. music, books, travel, entertainment. We are currently watching the collapse of very nearly all the once great department stores and retailers. We are beginning the transformation of transportation that will redesign our cities. The banking industry is beginning the second round of transformation that will lead to a completely new retail financial management world based on fully virtualized currencies and ledgers using blockchain technology. That same blockchain technology is beginning to replace all contractual, identification, and educational certifications.
These new forms are all IT based. To mange them requires extensive information technology experience and knowledge. The resulting organizations are managed as IT companies with specialized application and content knowledge. Within the IT world those are UI and UX workers and managers who support and deliver services and information (User Interface)within evolving User Experience (UX) environments for specific populations and requirements.
How many community college or universities are organized as IT enterprises or even technology enterprises? The simple reality is that the world we now live in requires that change. Do it sooner and win. Fail to do it and die. We need to change the structure of higher education to move to the new forms for all students and learn to be ready to change quickly. Education has avoided this only because in a hypercapitalist economy there is little profit in education without destroying the process of education. That is a structural problem.