I had an interesting experience last month, I was asked to participate in focus groups to help a university IT services department develop its IT strategy for the next 5 years. The brief was to help generate ideas for what might be required to inform a five year strategy but we were also asked to think about what university IT services might be like in ten years time. I think about four or five focus groups were facilitated by an external consultant. They covered all aspects of IT in the university from teaching and learning to administration. As I am notionally responsible for the technical ownership of enterprise wide teaching and learning systems and research systems at my university I was invited to the focus group on teaching and learning and the focus group on research.
I’ll start with the teaching and learning session. It pretty quickly became apparent that the focus groups were not about developing ideas about what the IT landscape might look like in five or ten years. Instead they were an opportunity to beat up on the IT department concerned. Some of it may have been deserved but much of it wasn’t and it certainly, in my opinion, it wasn’t the right forum.
The facilitator battled bravely on and managed to get the attendees (Professors, educational technologists, a token frontline teaching academic or two) to focus on the future. And what was the big idea that they came up with? That in ten years the university would be a wireless, laptop only university. Needless to say I was a little frustrated at what I was hearing so I eventually decided to try and provoke a bit of out of the box thinking and started to talk about some of Anya Kamenetz’s ideas about DIY U about George Siemens ideas about connectivism, about David Wiley’s ideas about open content, Jim Groom’s thoughts about edupunks about knowledge being everywhere and no longer solely within the university, about assessment only courses and about the rapid growth in informal social learning.
“spoken like a true non-academic”
Clearly these are all big ideas but the reaction I got was interesting. One Professor, who was in the act of leaving because there was obviously somewhere more important that he had to be, was clearly angry and proceeded to rubbish what I had said as being “spoken like a true non-academic”. He proceeded with some more random rubbish but I didn’t really hear much of what he said because I was really quite angry to have my words summarily dismissed because I was ‘not an academic’. When he had finished I managed to thank him for his put down and remind him that in over twenty years in higher education I had worked as an academic, consultant and general staff member and that, as such, I felt what I had to say was reasonably valid.
I’m not sure why I got annoyed. I shouldn’t have been surprised. My path had crossed with this Professor’s before when he was a senior academic manager responsible for online learning at another university. I remember he told me then, in absolute terms, that all Windows servers were riddled with viruses. No doubt many were but it was a ridiculous statement then and it’s a ridiculous one now.
And so, mild distraction over, we got back to discussing being a wireless laptop university in 2020 while all around the world really big things are happening in higher education.
The research focus group was marginally better, probably because the issues are simpler. Researchers want to be able to collaborate easily and quickly, share datasets, carry out heavy duty processing and access the network all with minimal visibility from an IT department. I think we’re all agreed on that.