Higher Education Recession: A new role for information technologists?

This is a guest post by Jim Farmer. Jim is Chairman of instructional media + magic.

Monday, 11 October the Browne report, “Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education,” was released in the UK.1 If implemented there will be major cuts in funds available to U.K. universities and higher tuition for students. The combination of less funding and higher enrollment is also the new future in the U.S. Even more and bigger funding limits are expected next year. A combination of lower state revenues, higher costs, and limits on federal funding when stimulus funds will no longer be available will impact available funds..

Although UK universities pleaded, and continue to plead, for more funding, the Joint Information Systems Committee began quietly more than 5 years ago to develop a capability for information technologists to contribute to university planning.

Information large databases accumulated from administrative, learning, and library systems are a resource that can, with training, be used to improve university planning. Strategic analytics, the term used in higher education, is based on business analytics.2 It offers the capability of using these data resources to improve planning decisions.

JISC’s Centre for Educational Technology and Interoperability Standards (CETIS) began introducing specific ways Information Technology (IT) could be used for an unspoken contingency plan. CETIS Director Oleg Lieber began this process with the programme for subsequent CETIS conferences.

The JISC CETIS Conference in 2006 began considering the different methods of instruction and the comparative costs. It also identified additional resources needed to serve a growing number of part-time and less-prepared students. There were extensive, and uncomfortable, discussions on maintaining quality under funding pressures. A consensus emerged to revise the curriculum limiting the course options and potentially eliminate programs that had low enrollment. These discussions were important since they led to examples of the role of information technology in developing these plans.

The theme of the 2007 Conference, Beyond Standards – Holistic Approaches to Educational Technology and Interoperability as the use of Educational Technology, focused on increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of teaching and learning. Many sessions explored the potential of distance learning. Sarah Porter, JISC’ Head of Development challenged participants to focus on innovative solutions for the combination of increased enrollments, needs of non-traditional students, and, unsaid, limited funding. Participants were asked to identify “business processes”— which included teaching and learning and research—that were ready for change and recommended interventions. The tools included process enablement, model development, and push-down responsibility—an organizational approach. Building toolkits and services for scheduling and timetabling and workflow were considered critical.

Information technologists now had a challenge and a roadmap.

The 2008 Conference Technology for Learning, Teaching and the Institution opened with Lieber’s slide on the Recession Special followed by a list of needs and resources. Keynoter Andrew Feenberg, Simon Fraser University, described teaching philosophy using distance education technologies—his use technology had expanded the number of students who could enroll by removing the constraints of distance and schedule. What could have been low-enrollment course became “profitable” though never mentioned using that term. At the end Stuart Lee, Oxford University, reminded participants on the effectiveness of the lecture as both an instructional method and as a low-cost methodology, especially when supplemented by technology. His illustrated lecture itself was an example of talent and experience. He delivered an exemplary summary of the conference.

The JISC CETIS 2009 Conference was labeled “A Brave New World?” It programme sharpened the theme of the previous JISC CETIS Conferences. A session labeled “The problem with modeling or modeling problems” drew an overflow of younger, and passionate practitioners. The presentation and discussion focused on computer models that had been used by British universities to analyze planning alternatives. Modeling curriculum–discussed in 2006 and 2007–and studying the analysis of business processes had already led to improvements. Another session documented the collaboration of senior management and information technology that emerged. Senior management now recognized IT as an effective and valued resource for university planning and management.

In March 2006 JISC formed the Strategic Content Alliance to address common problems of obtaining, describing, and maintaining the tsunami of digital data.. One of the Alliance’s key contributions was a report by the U.S.-based Ithaka: “Sustainability and Revenue Models for Online Academic Resources” One of the authors, Kevin Guthrie, was a principal in the development of JSTOR, a collaborative effort that reduced the costs of journal access while increasing publisher revenue. An example of the value of cooperative services and coordinated action.

The Alliance described the motivation:

As organisational budgets tighten and economic uncertainty threatens, many digital projects struggle to develop coping strategies when the funding to support core operations and/or essential development is not forthcoming.

Later in November 2009 the Ithaka published “Sustaining Digital Resources: An On-the- Ground View of Projects Today.” In the foreword Guthrie wrote: “Rather than focus only on methods for generating revenue, we sought to capture a fuller range of the activities carried out by projects today to develop creative strategies for both revenue generation and cost management.”

Planning for the never-spoken recession, JISC CETIS had developed the skills and background of information technologists to contribute new alternatives. That preparation is now benefiting students, the UK government, and the universities. JISC and CETIS should be commended for identifying how to make a positive contribution toward a thoughtful and measured response. And taking action four years before the Browne report was published.

There is a role for information technology that is not yet widely appreciated here in the U.S. Perhaps we could learn from this JISC CETIS experience.

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  1. A copy of the Browne report is available here. Information from the JISC CETIIS Conferences can be found at the JISC web site. Inside Higher Education referenced the Times Higher Education article describing both the report and reaction—largely critical. There was also a separate commentary by editor Doug Lederman. []
  2. “Business analytics (BA) refers to the skills, technologies, applications and practices for continuous iterative exploration and investigation of past business performance to gain insight and drive business planning. Business analytics focuses on developing new insights and understanding of business performance based on data and statistical methods.” –Wikipedia quoting Michel J. Beller and Alan Barnett []

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About

Jim Farmer is an engineering economist at instructional media + magic inc. His interests include educational technology, academic research, and information standards. He also writes for Intellectual Property Magazine. For more information, see his profile page.
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3 Responses to Higher Education Recession: A new role for information technologists?

  1. Jim Groom says:

    Jim,
    You have to forgive me for being so forward, but this post is rather depressing. Seems like you are relegating the educational technologist back to the role of “increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of teaching and learning,” (note the emphasis) courses becoming “profitable,” and generally filling the funding gaps (or shall I say rape and pillage) that has beset education more generally. I think it is rather odd you start with the recent news of the recent Browne report in the UK, which was basically the prelude to gutting funding for higher education in England, and suggesting the silver lining is the increased need and role of the educational technologist. We’ve been preparing for the disinvestment in higher ed by training technologists?

    What’s more, I too see the issues with institutions of highere learning specifically, and understand the need for reform and possibly a total rethink. That said, the plans of the JISC CETIS doesn’t seem that, it is more of doing more with less, and this time it is the technologists who have to pick up the pieces of a disenfranchised system. What happened to the educational technologist as partner and visionary with the potential for new modes of teaching learning (none of which demand doing more with less).

    I really don;t care how we decide to paint the current crisis of funding in higher ed right now, one think seems all too clear to me: less will not be more for education. In fact, less is never more, and that is one of the lessons we should have learned from The Wire. Has the JISC CETIS seen The Wire?

  2. Jim Farmer says:

    All 20,000 e-Literate readers would agree with you “In fact, less is never more.”

    But the reality is higher education will have less. Each month the National Association of State Budget Officers announces lower tax revenues and lower budgets in the states. With the end of stimulus funding and a sharply restricted federal budget less federal funds will be available for higher education, likely even for student financial aid. Colleges and universities already discount tuition more than we considered financially viable only a few years ago. Many community colleges have exhausted their reserves. And private loans are available only for the few students who have consignors with significant assets and high credit rating. Although the U.S. economy will improve, there will be a few years of this “new reality.”

    The economic research confirms your perspective. It shows social benefits, long term innovation from basic research, and personal increases in earnings. Even with only “some college” those students will, over their lifetime, earn 27% more–29% for an associate’s degree, and 91% for a bachelor’s degree. But governments seem to be reducing investment in education for short-term funding of other priorities.

    With this environment, it becomes necessary to ask the question differently: “How can we best use the available resources.” My objective was to increase awareness that information resources could be used to improve the difficult discussions and decisions ahead. I cited the Browne report as motivation and the JISC-CETIS experience as another alternate approach—the well thought out institutional contingency plan.

    Perhaps it would be useful to identify specific examples were innovative alternatives have been implemented to increase effectiveness or decrease costs, or both.

  3. Pingback: 2011: The Year Ahead in IT by Lev Gonick | Gilfus Education Group | Gilfus Education Group