The Future of Education and its Technology

Imagine the Future

We like to see the future filled with possibilities. Education would be freely available to everyone and would come in a variety of new experiences; students using their telephones to attend classes online, while they are on their way to work, content management technologies connecting classmates from areas of the world once considered unreachable, and interactive 3D environments replicating real-time classrooms with tele-presence students and real students in the same lecture hall. In this new world, education would enhance the lives of the people who use it and they are able to freely interact with universities and business organizations instantly, in real time, to find collaborative answers to pressing and difficult questions and having the best sources to choose from all over the planet. Such collective efforts will permeate all areas of business, art and engineering, harnessing the power of multiple minds in a way never conceived of in earlier periods of history. They are sending video messages, having tele-presence conferences, storing and accessing data, and sharing results with the best and brightest of their generation regardless of their social status, race, creed or color. Computers and robotic machines handle the grunt work of society keeping us in the electronic tools and devices we will one day take for granted. Meaningful work is plentiful, no one works doing anything that doesn’t mean something to them. Some work on reclaiming the Earth from earlier generations of abuse, others are organizing the planet’s resources for better accessibility, many are managing the remaining plants and animals of the world for future generations. Businesses of all sizes are handling tasks and filling the needs of a happy and industrious planet. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Learning from the Past

Building that future is much more difficult. Any responsible advocate of higher education must address the nature of change in our society. Change is unavoidable. All institutions experience it, and some weather it better than others. The education engine of America has failed to maintain pace with the changes in society and the economic realities faced by people working today.

This is not a new problem. Its echoes can be traced back to the end of the Agricultural Age. During the late 1800’s as mechanization overtook the worker-heavy farming industry (i.e. the cotton gin), education became the means for people to transition to life in the cities with non-farming jobs, crafts and work in the industrial guilds. By the advent of the Industrial Age in the early 20th century, education was used to prepare workers to be absorbed into the new factories and industrial engines of that period’s productivity. Note there was an economic collapse during that period of transition. Like a computer after a crash, the societal infrastructure needed a restart to handle that transition. This was a second opportunity to recognize the imminent threat to American culture.

As the Industrial Age began to wane, again due to mechanization and process improvements in the early 1970’s (i.e. factory robotics and better information management) more was able to be done with less input by workers. This transition began to move people into the Service Industry as the birth of the Information Age began to create more advanced calculation devices to aid in the development of new sciences. Computers would change the landscape of the working world in ways unseen even by their creators.

We are at that crucial point again. An economic collapse has made it clear that business as usual has ended. The Information Age has made new waves of unemployment as factories close down and the service industry burgeons with the masses of workers displaced from the only life many have ever known. There is more information available than can be managed effectively by any single individual but the educational engine is still the one from the 1950’s, with its emphasis on individual achievement, its designated work periods and repetitive mind-numbing tasks, ready to churn out people to work in factories that no longer exist.

Now people are relegated to an overburdened service industry that employs them poorly and wastes their human potential. No matter the rhetoric spoken in government, education cannot continue to be last of our social priorities, if for no other reasons than, without quality education and its reform, the fabric of society continues to erode and tatter. The resource of the future will be innovation and problem-solving ability. Our only path to innovation can be found in the development of the human capital through education. Welcome to the Innovation Age.

At the Crossroads

Community college campuses are uniquely positioned to capture the population of the future workforce and direct it into one of the most economically powerful areas of the world today. California, being the world’s fifth largest economy will need a workforce constantly updating its skills, its knowledge and its capabilities to continue to compete in a more aggressive, world-wide, world-wise, and diverse economic structure.

In addition, students will need access to the most advanced concepts possible. Cooperative thinking, adaptive reasoning, an understanding of natural law and scientific thinking will be the keys to the workforce of the future. It will not be enough to simply memorize rote facts, the employees of the future need to be able to link those facts, find hidden relationships and solve problems from those facts, with skill and alacrity. They will need to have greater facility with language, mathematics, analysis, cultural awareness, and environmental consequences than any humans in history. A community college’s ultimate goal should be to allow its location at the center of the information technology, bio-technology and new sustainability revolutions to prepare its students for opportunities as members of a future when the synergistic explosion of these technologies co-mingle and improve each other.

Technology’s advance in our society has continued to change how workers and employers interact and provide services for each other. This constant growth and evolution has removed more workers from the workforce than it has employed, thus creating a form of ‘technological unemployment’ or unemployment created by the success of our technology! Fewer workers, armed with technology and technological concepts (robotics, development protocols, software and hardware) are producing more goods than ever in history. This fact has not been lost on governments concerned with educating and employing their populations. Unfortunately, the solution cannot be addressed without planning for future periods of unemployment, similar to what we are experiencing now. This problem can only be addressed with innovation, new ideas, and a revolution in the educational process.

A Modest Proposal

I propose Community College Districts nationwide begin to prepare their technological future to address the issues of a workforce whose path has become uncertain. The future of community colleges is to prepare for this new model of work by assisting students (who will eventually become employees and later employers) in the development of smaller, problem-solving enterprises. Ideally, these enterprises will be staffed by individuals who can see a way to improve society’s ills with the application of reasoning skills, technological acumen, attention to detail and access to a nexus of resources available to them, before, during and after they leave college. The future of education revolves around teaching people that they will perpetually be scholars, and their livelihood will revolve around their ability to creatively solve problems and promoting innovation in all that they do.

We can ill afford to throw money at problems hoping for a solution. We cannot expect the issues of Oakland, or of California or of the United States to be solved by people who do not live here. Nor do we have the luxury of time to resolve issues such as global warming, population overcrowding, and disease management. These problems need solutions now. People are disheartened with the recent economic collapse and many Baby Boomers struggle with their own obsolescence and the realization that their work lives have left them no better off than indentured servants. Society’s security blankets (Medicare, Social Security, 401K, IRA) have continued to lose value in the face of economic collapse. It is likely that older workers will continue to have to support themselves long after they expected to retire. Generation X and Y see little value in aspiring to the same fate as their parents. They view their parent’s dilemma as a systemic failure of our educational model; hence their lack of trust in society and their indifference to education.

A community colleges goal should be no less than the development of a way of thinking that allows its students to constantly be willing and able to adapt new ways of interacting with the world and to be a resource to the workforce no matter where they may be, since with the breadth of the Internet, that workforce can and will likely be anywhere (that also means that students may also be anywhere). The same way FaceBook, Twitter and MySpace have invaded the lives of young workers, community colleges and other organizations promoting education will need to perpetuate a love of continual learning in their students and to be a resource for them to make data-driven decisions no matter what career they are involved in; any place able to define itself as an always available resource will not lack for returning students, seeking an environment that promotes intellectual advancement and continues preparing them for the constantly changing workforce.

IT Challenges of Higher Education

With all of these things as challenges, the question is asked, what part does Information Technology (hereafter, IT) play in this? The developed world has to adopt a more global paradigm that inter-relates all manner of human endeavor, science, technology, education, environment, physics, psychology, sociology, and medicine shifting from the archaic industrial age to the advanced technology of the information age. Our educational model must be revamped, retooled and re-energized, in order to prepare our students to meet the challenges of the new global paradigm. IT is the architect of that paradigm.

Learning institutions need to empower our students to address issues based on information-based decision making using reason, training and problem solving skills enhanced by technology. IT is a vital element in that ability to solve problems by potentially providing ready access to real-time information for decision making; However, a real-time monitored and data-driven environment has not been created (unless you work at the Pentagon) and will be the first real challenge of the proactive organizations of the future. The ability to get digital information regarding resources available to solve problems is the first step to being able to direct human capital, energy, manpower and training toward those issues.

A community college’s goal is the same as any organization that manages information. To create a unified information data complex that allows fast, easy and yet secure access to any information required by any user of the data complex. This simple sounding idea is years away and paving the road to that ideal will require us to have information organized and categorized in such a fashion that it can be understood, transmuted, and translated while maintaining its accessibility to a variety of future users.

Defining the Problem

Organic (non-structured, non-intentional) development of IT within most college campuses has caused a divergence of standards and technologies resulting in a lack of uniformity of services, overlapping educational programs (i.e. business and IT classes), and a lack of ability to effectively manage or identify different technologies district-wide. All campus IT has been relegated to localized management, under the supervision of various IT support staff of widely differing capabilities. Organic IT development is not unique to a particular district; as both UC and California State University systems are battling this same conundrum. This does not imply those managing these IT resources are in the wrong, however, without a guiding set of principles for the purchase, maintenance and development of IT data structures and resources, such multiplicity of systems is bound to occur prohibitively increasing the complexity and the costs of those services. This decentralized management of IT systems, has resulting in an increasing cost of IT overall, a lack of standardization and poorly centralized management and coordination between the groups managing the many resources including IT classrooms, computer labs, library technology, and student service programs (EOPS, DSPS, career centers) across the district.

There are two primary challenges facing any educational facility with advanced technological capabilities. The first is hardware/software interface and infrastructure. What hardware should we use? What software should we use and support? What is the best way to reach our respective goals using what technologies? How do we effectively connect our staff and students to the internet in a secure, effective, and stable manner but not slow as a snail or overburdened with security software? How do we organize our administrative technology so it provides high quality service and is still relatively easy to use? Technology continues to grow and evolve at a prodigious rate, how do we know if we are keeping pace and providing the workforce of the future with the tools it needs? There are six major dynamic forces opposing the creation of any IT infrastructure, service or device. These forces are responsible for all decisions made on any hardware, software or service used in IT.

They are as follows:

Technological Standardization vs. Autonomy/Experimentation

Service innovation vs. Stability/Reliability

User friendliness/Accessibility vs. Security/Privacy

Consensus in decision making vs. Efficiency in decision making

Centralized management of services vs. Distributed services

Proprietary software vs. Open source software

The second challenge facing any educational facility with advanced technological capabilities is resource management. IT is a collection of diverse resources accomplishing a variety of objectives. How do we manage, control, maintain and organize an amazingly complex series of network services to make it possible to administer, educate and enhance the educational experience of our students now and in the future? How do we effectively train staff, faculty and administrators to think progressively with an eye toward future needs? How do we maintain a leading edge without losing our financial shirt maintaining this gigantic infrastructure of hardware and staff?

In addition to those six dynamic forces there are two additional meta-concepts to be considered along with a number of pertinent questions. Those two meta-concepts are Operational IT and Organizational IT.

Operational IT: comprised of educational, infrastructure and administrative services these are the physical hardware and software tools utilized to create the IT environment in total.

  1. Educational IT – Primary reason higher education exists. These are the tools used in the dissemination of information and education and in the development of learning resources for students.
  2. Infrastructure IT – Tools used to maintain the IT infrastructure including telecom services, network services, datacenters, classrooms, wireless, research facilities and labs.
  3. Administrative IT – Tools used by the administration to organize and maintain university information; HR database services, ERP and other student databases, financial services databases, student aid services, administrative and faculty offices.

Organizational IT: the organizational and management protocols, procedures and processes required to effectively manage, lead and organize IT services in any environment

  1. Governance – How the IT organization is managed i.e. Governance Committee, Technology Committees, and Division IT leaders and whether IT management is centralized or decentralized or some combination thereof.
  2. IT Resource Organization – best practices, SLAs (service level agreements), Staff management, training and retention, asset management, asset retirement and replacement schedules, policy creation and management
  3. Operating Costs – Management of the costs of IT: Who is responsible to determine the budget for IT resources campus-wide? Chancellors, Deans, Division Chairs, IT Staff? How are these long term costs computed? What are the hidden costs of inefficiencies in the IT structure?

A Path to Greatness

Developing IT for any environment is a constantly evolving organism. Clearly defined principles, committed staff, considered metrics for success and a well developed plan of action are the elements of a successful IT group. This path requires an honest and forthright assessment of all of the IT resources available to the district office and the attendant campuses. Blame is not being sought, but answers to the question of how to realize the potential of the IT infrastructure. For a community college’s IT to develop toward the ideal described in my opening paragraphs, we must devise a plan that integrates stability (ensuring service operation by trained and qualified staff), reliability (ensuring operation by industry established standards), security (the reasonable assurance of a secured data structure and policies) and scalability (the ability to add and extend the growth and development of the network without compromising its performance or operation).

An outline of that plan follows:

  1. The first step is to establish IT as an integral element of the any college organizational structure. IT must be seen as a member of the Administration, complete with its own resources (i.e. budget, staff development resources), support teams and autonomy to solve problems that may have lingered for years without effective resolution. IT management must be given the authority to resolve issues, as anything less will ensure the failure of IT projects in the future.
  2. Create a unified help-desk system to manage workflow and document change orders to improve service and to monitor costs. Include a knowledgebase and information wiki able to be updated by any in the IT workforce.
  3. Review the major themes to be covered by the district’s strategic plans and look at how technology can be directed toward those business ideals. This requires a review and a breakdown of the district office and the local campuses strategic plans to determine how those plans for future development can be supported by IT infrastructure at the strategic and operational levels. Meet with the technology committees already in existence and review previous successes and current challenges.
  4. Create a unified IT strategic plan document which encompasses the business ideals, IT development plans and the educational technology requirements of the district office and each campus.
  5. Document and build a model of all IT existing infrastructure, mapping hardware, software and services; this will ultimately require a grand re-organization of the network at all levels (from largest to smallest). However, this restructuring will pay off with the development of future services, allowing for remote management, remote deployments of new technology and standardization across the district. Standardization reduces costs, increases efficiency, and improves management of technology across an environment.
  6. Ensure the stability of those networks by establishing the guidelines and policies for their economic, technological and security requirements to be met on an agreed upon level (determined by Service Level Agreements). Those requirements need to be reviewed regularly to ensure they are as effective as when first established.
  7. Review and monitor all IT business structures and projects, services, vendor cost allocations, vendor-managed projects, IT budgets, and district-wide funding for IT.
  8. Develop an ERP Portal. The creation of an IT Steering committee and the installation of a project manager who is aligned with the needs of the staff, faculty, and administration’s will help to complete migration to this portal technology. Because of the portal’s ubiquitous nature and presence on all college campuses, this should be one of the highest priorities of the district, and for the same reason, the portal needs to hold to the highest standards of service.
  9. Define a technology path or potential specialization for each campus. This would reduce redundancies and improving coverage of technologies by the district. This would be done in accordance with educational development plans already in place.
  10. Craft an outline for a technology development plan for the campuses. Integrate technologies and develop economies of scale to reduce costs and to improve performance and services to all campuses. This step will take into account new technologies including secured wireless technologies, biometric security, new laptop and netbook hardware, server virtualization (where responsible and effectively improving services), imaging and print management, document and information management systems, centralizing networks and network security and fail-over firewall technologies.
  11. Redefine IT staff development processes (standardizing job descriptions, redefining duties of IT staff across the district) to determine staffing requirements for each campus and the district office. Consider models to improve performance for each campus, including the options of centralizing or decentralizing management of technology resources. The rule is: centralize for control, decentralize for innovation. This is likely to include the hire of new staff where appropriate and the training of current staff to improve their ability to function with the increase in technological development and complexity.
  12. Review, recommend and standardize on information management, content management and educational support technologies. These include reviewing open source programs for web content management including Drupal, WordPress, Joomla, Blackboard, Sakai and Moodle.
  13. Develop conceptual models such as the Information Technology and Infrastructure Library (ITIL, CMDB). This includes the creation and use of process and project management tools to promote the successful implementation of IT infrastructure, development, and operations. Utilize project management techniques (perhaps even hire a dedicated project manager) to get a handle on outstanding or underperforming projects in the district and prioritize resources to improve their completion and success rates.

Is this all it takes?

Not even close. I won’t lie to you. Implementing this will likely take some time. Designing the priorities will be the first step toward the development of IT at any Community College District. Nothing written on five pages can prepare you for the scale of the undertaking. But I have a plan. The principles outlined here are solid and tested. Best of all, they are scalable, so they can be adapted the concepts to any size organization. What you have here is not just a plan but a vision of the future. I will leave you with my favorite quotation. I hang it on my wall wherever I work. It inspires me to always do my best and reminds me that nothing I attempt is impossible.

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Bibliography

LELAND, JOHN. “Skills to Learn, to Restart Earnings.” The New York Times Online 01-04-2009¬ 2 Apr 2009 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/02/business/retirementspecial/02reskill.html?em

University of California, Berkeley Strategic Planning Task Force, UC Berkeley Strategic Academic Plan, 2002, Page 22, http://spc.vcbf.berkeley.edu/document/AcademicStrategicPlan.pdf

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