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.

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§ 11 Responses to The Most Poisonous Force in Technology

  • Doug Cohen says:

    Thank you for sharing both your initial reactions and your thoughts after reflection.

    This post truly highlights the fact that the “bottom line” can be the driver is most any industry, be it private sector, public sector, and even public education. The instructors and instructional designers realized that the technology behind SLN 2.0 would be used to enhance teaching and learning, but yet the IT departments did not. Isn’t that what it’s all about, teaching and learning?! Losing sight of the big picture for the bottom line is inexcusable, especially when it’s public service and education that you are losing sight of.

  • pmasson says:

    Doug,

    I imagine the political motivations and how they play out are as varied as there are institutions. To be fair, it’s not just IT folks who use situational authority to bully projects through the system, or kill them off. The only department with a worse reputation might be Business & Finance. I’ve even seen faculty play the bully, pulling the “pedagogy” trump card: I was once called “pedagogically negligent.”

    I guess it all comes back to what my Mom told me, “1=0 && 0=1 != 1=1”

  • Beth Harris says:

    I actually followed this discussion second-hand, and so far my experience matches Mr. Mossberg’s remarks. The SUNY document quoted here recommending that SLN begin or continue discussions with the large commercial LMS’s and expressing serious concern for SLN 2.0 will have serious ramifications for teaching and learning for many years to come. I recently blogged (http://www.smARThistory.org/blog) about the coolest “small tool” I have seen in years — http://www.voicethread.com. One look at this and other widely available web 2.0 (for lack of a better term) leaves me completely baffled about why ANGEL and Bb have such terrible user interfaces and such limited functionality. Am I missing something?

  • pmasson says:

    A year and a half ago Micheal Feldstein and I wrote about this in an article, “Unbolting the Chairs: Making LMSs More Flexible” for eLearn Magazine (http://www.elearnmag.org/subpage.cfm?section=tutorials&article=22-1). I just can’t see how proprietary-closed-source applications can keep up with the innovation occurring from end-users. What’s really interesting, and again adding some steam to Mossberg’s views, is how enhancements for LMS’s (in this case) are not developed for faculty focused on teaching and learning, but rather for IT departments.

    My favorite story highlighting this emphasis was related to me by a friend from Georgetown University: apparently to use the restroom in his building on campus requires a card key. Which system at Georgetown manages permissions for the card swipe system? The learning management System, of course: “The Blackboard Access Control Reader provides both online and offline access control for residential halls, classrooms and virtually any closed-space environment on campus.” (www.blackboard.com/docs/CS/Bb_Transaction_System_Datasheet_Unattended_Readers.pdf – 2005-08-04)

    Sounds more like a feature the IT department would like to see in an LMS than the faculty.

  • Beth Harris says:

    What do we mean by “end users” here? Voicethread seems to be a small company committed to keeping their application free — especially for educators. I suppose commercial applications that are committed to do ONE thing, and one thing only — can do that one thing very well. This is obviously very different from large behemoths like Bb or ANGEL that try to do everything. But why does it take so long for the innovations in those small tools to make it into the commercial LMS? Why can’t I have avatars in the discussion forums? Why can’t the discussion forums have emoticons and links to contributor bios? Why can’t they indicate how many posts a person has written or a rating assigned to that person’s posts by their peers? Why can’t students have a photo album area? Why can’t they annotate images? I mean — these are not difficult things technologically speaking, right? And they’ve been around for years, right?

    Anyway, none of this really matters since it is just a matter of time until teaching and learning are not bound by the walls of the LMS — and become truly collaborative by being public, cross-institutional, and international, and until what students (and teachers) create can be recreated by anyone, anywhere. We just have to bide our time…

  • pmasson says:

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that only an application’s end-users are innovators and therefore technically responsible for the development and deployment of an application’s enhancements: that is, innovation is both technical AND functional.

    My point was, just as you highlight regarding teaching and learning in the LMS, that end-users are creating new was to use existing functionality, discovering useful existing functionality outside the application, are in need of new functionality to enhance the existing tool set (not increase its scope), etc., all of which are innovative.

  • Thank you for sharing your ideas about this — I hear similar sentiments voiced on an almost-daily basis by forward thinking insiders from large within education and business.

    What’s interesting is the “bottom line” argument as voiced by your first commenter: “This post truly highlights the fact that the “bottom line” can be the driver is most any industry, be it private sector, public sector, and even public education.”

    Done well, building on top of open source products allows organizations to build a scalable structure that can use the innovation flowing from the various open source communities. Really, if an institution is smart enough to leave core code untouched (to allow for clean upgrades between versions) and use open standards to create connections between different applications, the TCO becomes a wash.

    RE Beth Harris’s comment: “Anyway, none of this really matters since it is just a matter of time until teaching and learning are not bound by the walls of the LMS — and become truly collaborative by being public, cross-institutional, and international, and until what students (and teachers) create can be recreated by anyone, anywhere. We just have to bide our time…”

    Yup. There’s no surer sign of stagnation, isolation, and eventual obsolescence than sequestering oneself behind a wall.

    Cheers,

    Bill

  • Greg Ketcham says:

    Patrick:
    Really, whether or not an open architecture would better serve the SUNY community vs. a proprietary commercial LMS was never the issue. The central issue, IMO, was the process of diffusion of innovations. What? No one in the Tower ever read Everett Rogers? The attempts at gaining buy in from key constituents – the CTO communtiy – range from laughable to downright pathetic. There was simply no attempt to understand key concerns that CTOs might voice – such as SLAs, support processes, migration processes, actual development timelines. You know, hard data 🙂

    I would still submit that, by managing the change process correctly, there might have been a higher level of buy in and acceptance across the managerial strata of SUNY. But since SLN 2.0 was essentially presented in a “we know what’s best for you” manner, not surprisingly, it wasn’t an easy pill for many to swallow. If today’s present leadership had been in place at that point in time, we might be at a different point than where we are today. Effective leadership means actually talking and your constituents – something that was not in evidence in the past within SLN executive management.

    Greg Ketcham
    MIDizen X

  • pmasson says:

    Greg,

    I completely agree.

  • […] the death of SLN2, my good friend Patrick Masson has lifted the veil just a little bit higher in a recent blog post. As a side note, I am thrilled to see Patrick join the blogosphere. His blog, […]

  • […] supporting communities.Unfortunately this vision was not realized at the time, partially due to organizational resistance, but there has been progress in terms of the standards such as IMS LTI (Learning Tools […]

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