Flawed Model of Academic Computing

Over the years, I’ve spoken a lot about educational technology and ways it can best contribute toward institutional value on investment. As budgets grow tighter and social pressures expand, institutional leaders are seeking greater return on all investments and are shifting attention toward educational technology. This shift isn’t measured in pilot projects or one-off initiatives, but rather a shift heavily influenced by the growing influence of online education and our increasingly connected society.

Unfortunately, models are slow to change. Consider for a moment a question often asked by a president, provost, or pro-vice chancellor:

“We invest a lot in technology but does any of it contribute to our teaching and learning mission?”

For years, folks in academic computing (including myself) have struggled with this question and came up with answers, albeit often responding to the wrong question. Instead of approaching the question from a value perspective, we’ve twisted the question to one of return:

“We have X number of students using our learning management system.”

“We have Y number of faculty using the media capabilities of our classrooms.”

Both of these responses reflect return on investment, rather than value on investment. Connecting the dots between return and value is a point of an out-of-print company white paper that I won’t belabor here. Instead, when I was drafting the paper I started thinking more about the historical model of academic computing in higher education and how it seems to have contributed to what appears to be a growing trend of a disconnect between information technology investment and institutional mission and vision.

For the last 20+ years, I’ve been more or less immersed in academic computing and the model that has largely defined it over the last two decades. Now that I’ve spent a year out of the trenches, I’ve come to the conclusion that the model for academic computing is based on failure rather than success.

Now how in the world did I come to this conclusion? Think about the common funding approaches for academic technology initiatives on campus. Initiatives are generally funded in one of two ways, a one-time external grant or through discretionary funding that typically comes at the end of a budget year. The conversation for funding usually goes something like this:

Academic IT: “We have some faculty who are interested in trying X and it will cost Y. Can we launch a project to work on it?”

Budget Leader: “Well, we’ve got some funds left over this year. Go ahead and use the funds to work on project X because if it doesn’t work, it won’t be a big deal.”

Academic IT: “Great. We’ll let the faculty know. Thanks.”

And there you have it — the model of failure. If this were a five-year phenomena, it wouldn’t be a problem. But since this paradigm has existed for at least two decades, it has become embedded into institutional culture and is now a difficult concept change short of what I’ve observed as of late — institutions opting to eliminate academic computing altogether. Academic computing couldn’t be more closely aligned to the mission of a university, so why hasn’t the model changed?

The answer, at least to me, seems to be embedded in this concept of value on investment. The traditional vision and role for academic computing seems to be out of sync with the operational, budgetary and academic realities of today’s institution.