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Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
Technology and Renewal: Creating and Supporting the Learning Place
NERCOMP Annual Conference Introduction
Now in its fifth year, the Northeast Regional Computing Program (NERCOMP) annual conference that took place in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, from 19-21 March 2000, provided an opportunity for all segments of the academic community to discuss all aspects of education in the digital age. Presentations ranged from philosophical theory to practical how-to tips and much of the valuable information is available in online versions after-the-fact. Much anxiety was expressed about the slowness with which academia is responding to new capitalist challenges. Tentative plans for different initiatives for change were suggested, along with many presentations of what schools are doing now to meet the needs of their communities as they stand.
NERCOMP has been in existence since the early 1970s. The group has an excellent reputation for organizing professional development and networking sessions for New England-area information technology (IT) professionals. NERCOMP also provides opportunities for its members to attend one-day sessions under the umbrella of special interest groups (SIGs). For more information on the SIGs, including one for Library/IT issues, see the NERCOMP Web page at http://www.nercomp.org.
The majority of NERCOMP conference attendees work in some aspect of information technology. They include network administrators, academic technologists, and administrative data specialists. Many librarians also attend. An estimated 5 to 10 percent of the total registration is librarians. It is important to note that the program committee of NERCOMP makes efforts to attract librarians and faculty to the conference by offering sessions geared beyond the traditional IT hardware/software realm. This report covers the sessions geared toward the library population or library-related topics, as well as the two general keynote speakers. There were, however, many other sessions on topics such as wireless technology implementations, teaching with two-way video, "just-in-time" student support programs, and evaluating Web-based assessment tools.
Richard Katz Keynote Address "Dancing with the Devil"
The conference began on Monday morning with several concurrent sessions. Richard M. Katz, vice president of Educause and author of the popular and thoughtful book, Dancing with the Devil, delivered the morning keynote, "Dancing with the Devil: Information Technology and the New Competition in Higher Education". The presentation blended information from Katz's book with updated statistics about higher education. Katz began by warning the audience that he would act like a good minister and "try to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable". His focus was on opportunities and threats to traditional higher education and the impact of new for-profit organizations on the "business" of education. Katz's presentation addresses two issues: the current state of higher education and some predictions.
The current state of higher education was broken into segments: technology trends and academic statistics. The first was the "technology story" letting us know, if we had not already realized, that technology is on the increase. There is a new auction-like environment, or, as Katz put it, "the e-bayification" of everything. The "ruthlessly competitive" atmosphere on the Net includes higher education. A new bidding system allows colleges to take bids from students and to name their prices online.
The "academic story" statistics show the slow but steady growth of the higher education industry. In 1996-97 there were 14 million enrollments; the amount spent on higher education per year is currently $225 billion; and in the next few years the number enrolled in higher education over 25-years old is expected to reach $6.6 million. While we have already heard about the impressive growth of college and university endowments, Katz noted that we might not know that increasing differentiation among universities is a growing concern. A polarization between the "haves and have-nots" is increasing. Last year only 20 institutions held 73 percent of the total endowment funds in the country. Also, only 30 institutions out of over 3,000 receive 70 percent of the sponsored research funding money. There is a high level of overlap between these two groups that demonstrates a cluster of "elite" institutions dominating the higher education industry. Other trends in higher education reported by Katz include the increase in consortia and an increase in the "marginalization of the professoriate". More and more of the young faculty hired are non-tenure track. More colleges and universities are using "contract" help to teach classes.
The first prediction proposed by Katz is a positive one. He suggests that colleges and universities look at current trends as opportunities. There is a new "knowledge-driven" future ahead with many opportunities for growth. The first tentative conclusion is that incremental change is transitory and market-driven. Katz, a self-proclaimed change agent, compared this to running into a mountain of Jell-o. No matter what the approach, direct and hard, slow and sneaky, the result is the same. "The Jell-o always wins. It may wobble, but it keeps its shape." Although it will be difficult to effect change, moving the mountain of Jell-o called higher education, the elements of early change are there. The challenge for IT is to "cut its own channels" and make change an opportunity, not a threat.
The second proposition was the notion of a major upheaval that is taking place in higher education. Non-traditional competitors are already in place within the digital economy. According to quotes provided by Katz, higher education is the "next big killer app [application]" on the horizon. Other sources indicate that the use of the Internet and its potential will make use of e-mail [bandwidth] "look like a rounding error". The for-profit segment is entering the education business to capitalize on the anticipated potential. According to one report, Wall Street investors invested more on new incentives for profit-based education than all 50 states spent on new incentives for public education. Katz gave examples of the new competitors ZD Net and the University of Phoenix. ZD Net offers courses to over 350,000 at a price of $6.95 per course per month. The University of Phoenix has had a growth rate of 21.5 percent per year six times the growth rate of traditional higher education.
The third and final prediction is that the market is ready for "something that will pass for higher education in the eyes of major consumers". This is a new and different territory. To understand the differences between the not-for-profit and the for-profit sectors of higher education, Katz proposed comparing cultural values. For example, the cultural values of traditional higher education place importance on the faculty-student contact, while non-traditional education does not hold the same value. Katz proposes a new form of "networked citizenship" that may result in isolation.
To conclude, Katz challenged the audience to think about "what happens if we do not address these issues and change our thinking". He suggested that we all take up the challenge and try to change our attitudes and recognize the differences in values between the emerging non-traditional education market and ourselves. Librarians in the audience felt that the message to take change and use it as an opportunity, not a threat, was old news. Someone said, "Haven't we already heard this?" in response to the challenge. However, many others in attendance felt that the information shared by Katz was timely and appropriate.
Exhibitors @ NERCOMP
The NERCOMP conference attracts a large number of exhibitors and this year was no exception. Over 50 companies offered information and demonstrations. Ranging from classroom desks to administrative systems, exhibitors included PeopleSoft, Datatel, Microsoft, Blackboard, eCollege, IBM, Dell, WebCT, and NEAV Technologies. Several vendors also gave demonstrations and discussed their products during the conference.
Preserving Cultural Heritage Through Electronic Archives
Following the presentation by Katz and a short exhibit time break, Greg Colati, archivist from Tufts University, gave an informative talk entitled "Creating Access to Historical Material in the Electronic Environment". Colati began his talk by noting that Katz's view of the future of IT left out any reference to preserving our cultural heritage. During the presentation the audience learned about the issues surrounding the "tightrope" that is walked between preservation and access. Archivists are working to find new ways to use materials, ways their developers may not have intended. In the past the archive was a place to "hold" information and preserve the content. Finding aids were used to help fill in the context of an item, such as where and how it was produced, what the economics of the time were, and why it is important. According to Colati, how to keep content and context in a non-linear progression is a big challenge. At the moment Tufts is in the midst of an ambitious project to provide computer access to a large collection of materials on the city of London. The Electronic Bolles Archive of the History and Topography of London includes fragile items that have been digitized and published electronically. Colati demonstrated the links that have been made between an encyclopedic document listing streets, buildings, and landmarks in London over many decades, and maps and photographs of the same area during the same time period. The concept of the archive is to allow a researcher the opportunity of looking at a map and then being able to read a description of the area during a particular decade and see images of the site created during the same time period. It also allows access to each of the elements from any of the other elements.
Colati described the technology and design that was required to put the archive together. Issues that still remain to be resolved include whether the technology used to put the project together will last more than one generation and, if it does not, what will happen to the project. Will it remain an artifact of our time? Will it be updated as technology changes? Who will pay for the ongoing cost of the project? Colati stated that budgeting for such projects and the upkeep is nearly never done in modern higher education. Colati emphasized the point that funding for projects such as this is seen by administration as "special" and not a part of the routine. However, to Colati this view is no longer valid and "it must be a regular part of doing business. It is digital capital." Colati suggested talking to as many people on campus and outside of campus (for potential funding) as possible about the teaching and learning opportunities such resources could provide.
One other significant issue surrounds the use of standards. Many audience members asked specific questions about the scanning resolution and the metadata used in the project. Colati was clear in his response. "We are using the most up-to-date standards possible, so we won't have to change this for as long as possible." He spoke about many long discussions over cataloging questions Dublin Core or MARC? It is clear that many issues cannot be answered while the technology and the standards are evolving. The preservation is available on the Web (with warnings that it is a WORK IN PROGRESS) at http://www.library.tufts.edu/archives/exhibits/nercomp.
New Strategic Initiatives in IT @ Wesleyan
On Monday afternoon the IT staff at Wesleyan University gave a presentation entitled "The Expanding Role of Information Technology in Strategic Initiatives". This session provided good ideas for collaboration that are applicable to libraries and IT departments and offered unique strategies for creating user-focused systems. Three individuals representing different points of view (administrative, technical, and strategic) made the presentation. These were the registrar, the director of technology support services, and the director of information technology.
The project described includes the creation of new support systems for students and administrators at Wesleyan. The structure of the project was to use information from the "core" transaction systems and develop "surround" systems to "directly support the strategic initiatives" of the university. The "surround" system was designed to be unique to the organization, to be short-termed, and to be broad-based. The examples described were the online registration process and the electronic portfolio.
Wesleyan decided to use systems already in place as much as possible and to make an easy user interface the focus of the design. They created the system around the e-mail account and password, which everyone was already using, which made signing into all subsystems easier by using only one password and user name for everything. The entry, or portal, was set up to allow "one-stop shopping" for students and faculty.
The key to the implementation of new systems and collaboration between units of the university is, according to the speakers, clear communications, no finger-pointing, no hidden costs, knowledgeable users, and viewing technology as a supporting role in the process. An advisory committee also played a critical role in enforcing the idea that simpler was better and ease of use was the primary goal. The slides from the presentation are available on the Web at http://www.wesleyan.edu/its/talks/nercomp2000.ppt.
Mark Taylor Keynote Address "Useful Devils"
Tuesday's first session was a keynote by Mark Taylor entitled "Useful Devils." Taylor is a professor of religion at Williams College and co-founder of the Global Education Network. Taylor challenged the audience to think about higher education in a different way, to consider whether it is a means to an end or an end in itself. He began by noting that technological change and culture in general are moving at "warp speed, something the academy knows nothing about". Taylor stated that, in general, the lines between entities are shifting, if not going away completely. In Taylor's proposed model of higher education, the walls that separate departments and divisions now come down, like the Berlin Wall. The walls become a "permeable membrane" more like a screen than a divide. Using this analogy, he raised the question of where to draw the line between for-profit and not-for-profit. Taylor implied that higher education believes itself to be in the not-for-profit arena, but acts like a business in practice.
According to Mark Getty, in the 4 March 2000 issue of the Economist, "intellectual property is the oil of the twenty-first century". This article and others suggest that there are many significant opportunities for investors in the area of training and education. It is estimated that there is a potential annual growth rate of 33 percent in the industry. Therefore, according to Taylor, traditional higher education has two choices to either collaborate or compete. The for-profit sector is no longer interested in providing financial support for higher education; it is in competition with it for the potentially significant return on its investment.
A few institutions are trying to establish new business models. These include the Morningside Ventures subsidiary of Columbia University and e-Cornell, a new for-profit but Cornell-controlled company. Taylor noted that for traditional higher education the devil is not technology, but business. Ventures such as Columbia's and Cornell's are viewed as threatening by the academy. These examples of the academy moving to become more "corporate" in its operations have implications for the faculty. A recent article in the New York Times ("The Artist in the Gray Flannel Pajamas", 5 March 2000) described the lack of corporate identity that is becoming more and more dominant. Individuals, according to the author, Michael Lewis, identify themselves by what they do, not who they work for. This shift in culture has important implications for higher education. The divisions or departments, such as physics or philosophy, found in traditional higher education will, if Lewis' model applies, becomes less and less important.
In the next segment of the talk, Taylor discussed philosophical models in history and their applications to the current situation in higher education. First he quoted Kant's 1798 "Conflict of the Faculties" in which Kant described the differences between "high" and "low" faculties: the higher faculties being those of law, medicine, and theology, and the lower (Taylor disagreed with the order of the labels) being what we would recognize as the typical arts and sciences. Kant proclaimed that only scholars should judge scholars and that the faculty must have autonomy, or, as we would now say, must have the assurance of academic freedom.
Taylor described the dualities in force in higher education today. These dualities are from Richard Hofstadter and range from theory versus practice, to arts and sciences versus professional schools, and the ivory tower versus the real world. According to Taylor, there are three things, possibilities, that these dualities and the reality of the changing world leave higher education to do: ignore the situation and perhaps "go down in flames"; go for the money and become more market-driven, which may leave the humanities out in the cold; or work toward collaboration and develop strategic alliances. Taylor promoted the third option as the best and suggested that the wall between the concept of education as being either not-for-profit or for-profit must come down. According to Taylor, a new model must be developed where the academy "takes control over the product" before control is taken away from the academy.
Taylor suggested that three changes in the administration must take place: speed, risk, and competition. In Taylor's view, "only the quick survive". Higher education must alter its slow-moving committee structure. The workforce must also become responsive, should reconsider the issue of tenure, and move into an era of "free-agency" for faculty. Free agency would also apply to staffing in higher education, particularly in IT.
To make these changes, Taylor proposed that the curriculum be rethought and the concept of a linear curriculum taught in 16 weeks for three credits be changed. Taylor proposed the model of a hypertext course where departments as they are now structured are obsolete. Taylor stated that students would soon demand these changes. The "new" student will be a high school student looking for a challenge or an older student looking for entertainment. The new model will also be much more "global" and expansive.
In conclusion, Taylor stated that he disagrees with "those who only see danger" and the illusion that they do not have to change. Online education in whatever form is not a replacement but an enrichment of the classroom. The new models offer possibilities for new ways of teaching, reading, and thinking. He suggested that the need to change is not an ultimatum, but a fact.
Future Dangers Intellectual Property Legislation
Two other sessions on Tuesday related to librarians and library issues. The first was a session by Ann Wolpert, director of the MIT Libraries, entitled "Sustainability: Bump in the Road or Donner Pass". The thrust of the talk was to alert the audience to the impending issues surrounding the sustainability of intellectual property in the technological era. For those who did not know, Wolpert explained the story of the Donner Pass, where a group of explorers were forced to cannibalism after they went out on a journey unprepared. The presentation was intended to prepare those in attendance for what could be a rough journey into hostile territory established by new legislation. Wolpert suggested that technology thrusts education, and the use of intellectual property, into the highly competitive world of entertainment through the application of one set of regulations to cover both arenas. Traditional copyright laws were designed to protect commercial property such as music and literature. In education an understanding exists that there is an exemption from the law covered by the concept of "fair use". In recent years the government has adopted laws that take away the option of using materials for the area of licensing access to digital documents and databases. In Wolpert's words, "license trumps fair use". This means that, although it would have been possible for a professor to make copies of an article for spontaneous distribution in class if the article were in print, under many licensing agreements it is not possible to do so now if the article is online.
Wolpert went on to list the current and pending pieces of legislation that affect the use of digital materials. These were: the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act (UCITA), and the "Database Bill". The pictures Wolpert painted of the implications of these pieces of legislation, including possible felony charges, are bleak. Wolpert suggested that members of the audience should become aware of the implications and work for change in this area. Members of the audience asked questions about sources of information on the topics and how to keep informed. Wolpert suggested visiting the ARL site http://www.arl.org/info/frn/copy/copytoc.html. They also asked about the issue of shared resources and wondered how "democratic" the older print regulations and new digital regulations were. There was a short discussion about how collaborative and cooperative libraries have been and how services such as interlibrary loan will be negatively affected by the new legislation.
Open Source Software Creates Custom Library Portal
One of the final sessions for the conference was the presentation by Eric Lease Morgan on the "My Library" project at North Carolina State University. Morgan began his session by describing the process the librarians went through to investigate what users were looking for in a "digital" library environment. The library's focus groups highlighted the need for an easy-to-use Web-based front-end that was "customize-able" and did not overwhelm the user or the administrator, but provided the wealth of resources the library had to offer. The result was the development of the "My Library" portal. Morgan described the user interface and the administrative components of the software. He also made some online changes to the interface to demonstrate the ease of both the user and administrative edits. The software is available to anyone as it is Open Source code. Morgan described it as being "free as a free kitten", the implication of that statement being that it does require some care and feeding, and will have some costs associated with it. Members of the audience were interested in the details of the policy, which Morgan stated is "the hardest part" of the process. Issues such as deciding on what content is to be added, who will take responsibility for the changes, and whether to include items that are available in the online catalog were raised as possible trouble areas. Information on the software is available at http://my.lib.ncsu.edu.
This conference had a lively spirit and provided regional IT and library professionals the opportunity to share ideas, practices, and advice. It was small enough to allow people access to each other without being overwhelming and large enough to attract nationally known speakers and high-quality presenters. This year the messages were clear: the players, the environment, and the rules are changing. If we heed the warning presented by the keynote speakers, it may be time to follow the advice of Lee Iacocca: "Lead, follow, or get out of the way".
Tracey Leger-Hornby is director of data administration, Office for Information Technology Services, Brandies University, Feldberg Communications Center, Waltham, Massachusetts. firstname.lastname@example.org