The 2009 EDUCAUSE higher-education technology conference in Denver Nov. 3-6 saw campus IT administrators present ways to preserve technology budgets during an economic downturn that has devastated many institutions’ operating budgets and endowments, while several vendors emphasized the value of moving campus IT to cloud computing.

The 11th annual conference drew 6,532 attendees from 47 countries, a 12-percent attendance drop from last year, but a number on par with 2006 and 2007, said Jarret Cummings, an EDUCAUSE spokesman.

Cummings said some annual education conferences have seen attendance plummet by as much as 50 percent in the past year while schools cut back on travel budgets during the recession.

“We view registration figures consistent with historic norms as a sign that institutions and corporations place a high priority on participating in the EDUCAUSE annual conference,” he said, adding that conference registration was almost identical when the show was held in Denver in 2004.

What’s more, EDUCAUSE officials said the conference had a jump in the number of exhibiting vendors showing off their latest in education technology. Cummings said there were 251 companies exhibiting at this year’s conference–a 21-percent increase from the 2008 EDUCAUSE conference in Orlando.

“We were able to make more spaces available in the exhibit hall, and members of our corporate community responded with a strong show of support in the face of a difficult economic climate,” he said.

EDUCAUSE offered live streaming and recorded webcasts of sessions and keynote speakers throughout the three-day event for the first time on the organization’s conference web site. More than 270 higher-education institutions registered to watch conference sessions online, and about 2,000 viewers from those colleges and universities logged on for real-time streaming of sessions hosted by educators and IT officials.

“We accomplished our goal of greatly expanding member access to the annual conference experience, regardless of location,” Cummings said.

EDUCAUSE officials said the organization is still assessing how the web-based sessions might have affected attendance, because educators who couldn’t afford to come to the conference could watch the goings-on from the comfort of their home or office.

Cummings said, “It looks like the online event expanded participation in the conference experience, rather than detracting from it. … As we offer online versions of our events in the future, we will monitor their impact on our traditional conferences, but this initial foray looks encouraging.”

Presenters air their views on cloud computing

Many of the EDUCAUSE sessions focused on ways campus IT officials can move expensive computer infrastructure to cloud-computing networks, giving campuses enhanced storage and computing power while saving money on campus-based, energy-intensive servers.

“There’s not just hope in the cloud paradigm; I think we need to come to grips with the fact that to some extent, this is inevitable,” Michael Dieckmann, senior associate vice president and CIO for the University of West Florida, said during a Nov. 4 session exploring the pros and cons of cloud computing. “This is a way the industry is yet again evolving, through an evolution like the many we have put up with before now.”

Dieckmann said college IT officials should not see the recent drift toward cloud computing as a “poison pill” that IT offices must accept, but rather a chance to do the most with paltry budgets using reliable off-campus computer infrastructure.

“I don’t think just digging in our heels, sticking our heads in the sand and saying, ‘We’re not going to pay attention to this’ is a viable thing,” he said. “I think we should be leading rather than following.”

However, Melissa Woo, director of cyber infrastructure at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, argued against unquestioned acceptance of cloud computing in higher education, pointing out glaring weaknesses in the cloud system.

Cloud-computing storage services, Woo said, have lost customer data in recent months, such as the highly publicized loss of Sidekick smart-phone data by Microsoft Corp.–an example of the “extreme risk” institutions take when they store all campus data on an off-campus network.

“Where [are] our student data being stored? Where [are] our research data being stored?” Woo said. “These are all risks we need to mitigate.”

Despite Woo’s concerns, many EDUCAUSE exhibitors touted their cloud-computing solutions for everything from data storage to creating multifaceted learning environments.