The Most Poisonous Force in Technology
July 5, 2007 § 11 Comments
Earlier this month an email sent out to the Educause CIO Listserv sparked a brief, but heated, discussion among academic CIO’s from across the country. The post that started it all stated:
Walter S. Mossberg, personal-technology columnist for The Wall Street Journal, spoke Monday to more than 250 college presidents and other administrators attending the Chronicle Presidents Forum. “…he began his speech by calling the information-technology departments of large organizations, including colleges, ‘the most regressive and poisonous force in technology today.'” They make decisions based on keeping technology centralized,” he said. “Although lesser-known software may be better,” he said, “technology departments are likely to use big-name products for their own convenience. That may keep costs down for an organization,” he said. “but it puts consistency above customization, preventing individuals from exploring what technology products are best suited to their own needs.”
Obviously no one liked the comments (including me), and we all (I would assume) liked even less the presumption of responsibility for running such “regressive and poisonous” departments. But after the sting from the slap to my face subsided, I reflected, just how far off was he, if at all? After some thought, I realized, a few months ago, before stepping into the role of a CIO, I might have been Mr. Mossberg’s strongest supporter…
Prior to my current position, I served as the Director of Technology for The State University of New York’s Office of Learning Environments (LE) which administered the SUNY Learning Network (SLN). SLN is a Learning Management System built on Lotus Notes/Domino and served approximately 40 campuses within the system. For various reasons LE had determined it was time to migrate off of the Lotus Notes/Domino technologies, yet was committed to provide the same teaching and learning environment that had been cultivated by SLN’s instructional designers and faculty, focusing on: “a range of teaching and learning modalities,” (from constructivist/constructionist pedagogical approach to “traditional” methods), integration (content repositories, SIS integration, cross-campus enrollments, common course catalog), centralized hosting and user support, off-line development and others. Affirming this direction was the LE Taskforce Report–twenty-two members from the SUNY community including faculty, CIO’s instructional designers and vice presidents–who focused on business process and teaching and learning “affordances.”
Based on SLN’s historical traditions and the LE Taskforce’s recommendations, LE published the SLN2.0 Whitepaper, which summarized a vision for development:
SLN has identified the best solution to be a component strategy, as no single-platform LMS solution exists today to meet our needs. This powerful component strategy would integrate several carefully chosen Open Source projects, each with strong technical compatibility, resulting in a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.
While the development of such an environment would be significant, so were the business and functional requirements defined by SLN’s users: a centrally supported, yet architecturally distributed, LMS available to, and integrated with, any one or all of SUNY’s 64 campuses—understanding that each campus uses disparate student information systems, academic calendars, identity management, course/section & student ID’s, and each campus operates with different academic missions, course development processes, business practices, academic policies, educational programs, teaching & learning styles and classroom tools & functionality.
SLN2.0 affirmed Mossberg’s statements, where “lesser-known software may be better,” in this case to fulfill SUNY and SLN’s unique requirements. SLN also recommended a service-oriented architecture providing, what Mossberg described as, “technology products best suited to [campuses and faculty’s] own needs.”
SLN2.0 was not rejected by the technology industry…
Unicon stated, “The proposed SLN 2.0 is educationally appropriate on several levels.” Eduventures recognized SUNY as an “innovator.” SUN Microsystems offered support in development through a Center of Excellence. IBM provided strategic and technical support.
SLN2.0 was not rejected by instructors or instructional designers…
Despite these questions and concerns, we are very excited about the possibilities that SLN 2.0 can offer. [Our campus] is supportive of the concepts outlined in this proposal and if this project adheres to past principles of partnership and “pedagogy first” we are excited about the possibilities that SLN 2.0 presents.
We are supportive and excited about the possibilities offered by SLN 2.0.
This open model allows SLN 2.0 to have a modular framework which would permit the easy integration of tools that meet the needs of [this campus’] unique curriculum. Online learning can thus be driven by pedagogical needs rather than the reverse (where technology could constrain pedagogy). We heartily agree with the statement in the report that “LMS [learning management system] development should be focused on the development of tools and functionality for narrower teaching niches.”
SLN2 was, however, most strongly rejected by just those groups Mossberg identified as regressive, IT departments, who recommended the use of “big-name products for their own convenience.”
Under the circumstances the Blackboard/WebCT merger is a key opportunity for SUNY. We ask that the System Office initiate and lead discussions with these companies as soon as possible so that SUNY can be influential in and benefit from the upcoming Bb/WebCT merger. Discussions with Angel should be pursued as well.
Across SLN and non-SLN campuses alike there is concern that the process for arriving at the SLN2 direction did not adequately consider commercial alternatives as an option. The concern has two principal foci 1) that there are commercial products in use on campuses that are capable of supporting full online courses and in use by SLN competitors and 2) that building a SUNY-specific CMS may not be a viable business proposition for SUNY. SUNY has been successful when it identifies a preferred commercial vendor as a standard and builds services to surround that offering.
SUNY has a large investment in major commercial CMS and SUNY Learning Network offerings and should consider this an opportunity to review all migration alternatives from the current SLN platform and to leverage its position with commercial providers.
With respect to SLN2.0, the IT Departments put “consistency above customization, preventing individuals from exploring what technology products are best suited to their own needs” in favor of “big-name products for their own convenience.”
A final note. Mr. Mossberg made his comments while I was attending a system-wide technology conference. While there I attended a presentation on portals. The presenter, the Director of Academic Computing, proudly displayed the campuses real-time integration between their student information system and their learning management system. When one in the audience asked if they had any plans to upgrade the LMS to the current version offered by the commercial provider, the presenter said flat out, “No.” The reason? The IT Department already had SIS/LMS integration and they did not want to have to invest in rebuilding what was already working. The presenter’s final comment, “Besides, the faculty are just going to want another thing next year” met with laughter and acknowledgment throughout the room.
Yeah, I think Mossberg has a point.