Wednesday, March 9th, 2011...8:09 pm

My IT, Your IT, Everyone’s got IT

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Educational and Instructional Technology has always fallen in between faculty and IT groups.  It is explicitly related to improving pedagogy, conducted by the faculty, yet is reliant on a responsive IT department for implementation.  If the implementation is flawed in some way, then assessment becomes impossible.  The intersection and interaction between Ed Tech and IT groups is critical to overall success.  Yet every school seems to structure IT differently.  How does one navigate these pathways to achieve success?  Understanding this specific organizational structure is critical to anyone involved in Ed Tech.

At the most recent Electronic Services Conference (ESCON), hosted by the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), a key theme was whether IT was located at the law school (decentralized model), at the university (centralized), or something in between.  Presenters from some of the country’s top schools discussed the pros and cons of various models.  While none of the presenters worked in a centralized environment and all had significant in-house technology teams, all also relied on the university for some functions – networking in particular, e-mail in many cases.

With each layer of separation between Educational Technologists and whomever is in charge of the part of IT required for any one piece of technology, it becomes harder and harder to implement technology or put together an overall project without significant help from others.  Each of these layers slows down the overall process.  And as we all know, if we miss the start of the semester, then it’s another 14 or so weeks before we can try again.

At Santa Clara, we are currently working on putting together a collaboration classroom. This project examines how courses might be structured around team-based projects that can be done during class time.  Teams form, do work, share with the class, and repeat as needed.  The pilot is funded by the Law Technology department, but success will lead to university-level investment.  It’s critical, therefore, to get the installation running before summer in time for the pilot, so that we can recoup our costs and expand via the university grant starting in the fall.  We have similar time-sensitive commitments and offers from the software vendor, as well.  In our case, Ed Tech is in the same department as IT, yet we’re still facing such time pressure.

There is also a difference of opinion among those in charge of IT on how those departments should operate.  Ideally, an IT department’s primarily goal is to provide technology to support the school’s mission.  A school provides faculty that teach, students that (hopefully) learn, and staff that engage in all kinds of activities to support all operations.  The overall mission of just about any school is to excel at all of these facets such that it can achieve greater fame, better rankings, or something along those lines.

There are really two ways of achieving this position with respect to overall school mission.  The first and often most common is the  “as the budget allows” approach.  Just about everyone manages their budget this way – major initiatives are identified before the budget year, and any changes (such as a new technology proposal) requires careful consideration, which means time.  The other approach is to budget specifically for such projects, with the understanding that, in order to fulfill the mission of supporting the school, Ed Tech and other areas of innovation will produce budgetary challenges.  This, of course, means that funds are set aside for much of the year just waiting for projects.  This can limit standard operational growth (maybe a new server is needed, but IT is holding off in case a new idea comes along) and lead to difficult end-of-year fiscal decisions (do I spend what I have or do I give it back but hope that I don’t lose that funding next year?).

Either scenario can lead to conflict, disagreement, and the potential for project failure.

One must keep the intersections between Ed Tech and IT needs in mind, and maintain lines of communication and interdepartmental (and interpersonal) relationships on solid footing at all times.  A middle-of-the road approach is to develop a kind of “jump-start” team in-house to get projects going.  At Santa Clara, we often incubate projects first in our own server infrastructure, using our own resources and staff.  We test server settings, storage requirements, and overall stability first.  We install technology in classrooms, and work directly with our faculty to assess use and success.  We are lucky enough that our IT and Ed Tech departments are one and the same – we are Law Technology & Academic Computing.  But it is a double-edged sword.  We can act quickly and set up a pilot, but we do not have the resources to have a dedicated Educational Technologist.  Our expertise is based in our Classrooms Manager and the Assistant Dean, both of whom have other responsibilities.  So we can move quicker, but we simply cannot scale our projects the way that an entire university IT and Ed Tech group can.

And this isn’t just about who does what, either.  Yes, you must ask, for any given project, how many layers must you go through to get the right people on board?  If you take even a short look at Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, you’ll see how important it is to have the right people on the “bus,” – not just people in general.  You can work on a great project, connect with a brilliant programmer in IT, and produce this amazing result that no one will ever use again.  Or you can bring in the right sponsors, keep the right administrative folks (including on the IT side) updated, utilize a team from all interested groups, and produce long-lasting returns.

So what kind of IT infrastructure do you have at your school?  And how often do you take them to lunch?

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