Funding tops campus IT concerns

Slashed campus budgets and dwindling endowments have spurred university IT officials toward cost-saving technologies, and a new survey shows that saving IT dollars has vaulted to the No. 1 priority of campus technology decision makers during the current recession.

The newly released 10th annual EDUCAUSE Current Issues Survey, completed online in December 2008 mostly by campus chief information officers, ranked the most pressing issues in college IT offices. Administrative systems, an issue that has remained among the survey’s top three issues since 2000, ranked second this year. Technology security–the No. 1 concern in 2008–and infrastructure ranked third and fourth, respectively. The Current Issues Survey was completed by 554 college technology officials on public and private campuses of all sizes.

Other top concerns from EDUCAUSE respondents included teaching and learning with technology, identity and access management, IT leadership, and disaster recovery.

The funding crunch faced by departments in nearly every campus nationwide has created a premium on low-cost technology solutions such as cloud computing — i.e., transferring a college’s computing power to off-campus servers so the school can avoid the steep costs of server cooling and maintenance.

Communication via smart phones–iPhones and Blackberrys, for example–has increased contact among IT staff, students, and faculty, saving IT departments money through efficiency, according to the EDUCAUSE report.

The corporate world has recognized the growing demand for cloud computing in higher education. Amazon Web Services (AWS), Inc.’s cloud-computing service, offers free services to researchers and instructors through an education grant program. One recent grant went to a Harvard University computer science class this spring that let students do coursework with the company’s global computer infrastructure–virtual servers that allow students to complete data-heavy assignments without bogging down or crashing the campus’s hardware. (See “Amazon cloud offer appeals to colleges.”)

“It was a huge win for us pedagogically,” said David J. Malan, a Harvard computer science professor since 1995. “It makes possible resources that universities might not be able to provide for students. … It’s no silver bullet for education at large, but for any course that has computational needs or programming involved, it’s a very interesting opportunity.”

Harvard isn’t the only university that has taken advantage of Amazon’s cloud-computing offer for schools. Student-run computer initiatives at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Texas, and the University of California, San Diego, have been supported by AWS grants over the past year.

The EDUCAUSE survey also showed that maintaining a reliable administrative system remains a key for IT officials. But tracking student enrollment, tuition, alumni records, and business systems has become increasingly complicated in recent years. Survey respondents reported that sifting through administrative systems involves a complex licensing procedure–one that often requires an outside consultant who will cost the campus more money.

Customization of administrative systems could be limited by universities’ diminishing technology budgets, and outsourcing the job might be the answer until budgets recover from the economic downturn, according to the survey.

Campus security also was a main concern among respondents, and balancing privacy and thorough protection has proven to be a challenge.

The Association for Information Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education (ACUTA) released a survey this summer showing that college and university IT administrators believe campus computer networks are better protected than they were five years ago. Only 6 percent said their IT infrastructure was less secure than it was in 2004. (See “Campus IT officials feel safer, but fear botnets.”)

Officials who completed the ACUTA survey said they had invested IT money into programs that defend against botnets — i.e., groups of compromised computers that can cause major damage to university hardware and cost colleges tens of thousands to repair.

Matt Arthur, ACUTA’s president-elect and director of incident response at Washington University in St. Louis, said intrusion detection software “has evolved to the point where it’s almost a necessity.”

Cash-strapped colleges and universities also are turning to Software as a Service (SaaS) options for campus-based eMail, according to EDUCAUSE survey respondents. This was among the solutions to the No. 4 IT concern: infrastructure and cyber-infrastructure.

“eMail is more of a commodity now, so why should we spend resources running eMail servers when Google could do it for free and do it a lot better than we could do it?” asked James Langford, director of web integration and programming at Abilene Christian University in Texas. His school began converting its campus to Google eMail accounts–also called Gmail–in April 2007. “We love it. … I can’t imagine having to go back and run all these services ourselves now. There’s almost no downside to it from our perspective.”


EDUCAUSE Current Issues Survey

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Denny Carter

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