On College Campuses, Technology Is Moving Fast

Aug 24, 2010

In this year's Almanac of Higher Education, The Chronicle explores the rapidly expanding use of technology on college campuses by both students and institutions. They found that while many institutions are increasing their licensing of technological research to boost their bottom lines, the majority of public universities are cutting academic computing budgets. Meanwhile, students are spending more and more time online.

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Mobile Technology

Computing in the Cloud

Like everything else in the 21st century, campus technology is changing rapidly - and it's expensive. In a recent survey with college CIO's, The Chronicle of Higher Education learned that most institutions expect their technology budgets to outpace inflation in the next five years. So the magazine asked: What technologies are worth the investment? What do colleges and universities need to develop to stay ahead of the game?

The most common answers were mobile computing, networking and security, cloud computing, business intelligence and virtual desktops. While these are not new technologies, they are the tools that students, faculty and institutions will use and need over the next several years.

Both mobile and cloud computing have become increasingly popular in the last few years due to their flexibility and convenience. Mobile computing offers portable, on-demand access via user-owned devices. Although the rapid and frequent changes in hardware and software on mobile devices can make it difficult for institutions to support, it's so widely used that CIO's still list mobile computing as the top emerging technology for 2010-2012.

The Computing Cloud

Cloud computing offers central access to tools like email or document processing from any computer or device. Those tools - typically software applications - are hosted on a central server or group of computers that can be accessed through an Internet connection. For example, think of the Google cloud. Users of Gmail, Google Docs and Google Calendar can access all of these tools and the linked information from any Internet-connected device, whether it's a personal computer or an Android phone.

Many colleges and universities are following in Google's footsteps. In their CIO survey, The Chronicle found that 75% of postsecondary institutions have taken e-mail off campus and to the 'cloud server.' Other functions that are moving to the cloud include social networks (47%), library applications (18%), alumni applications (15%), desktop tools (13%), enrollment management / registration / grading (9%) and financial applications (4%). By taking services to the 'cloud,' they make it easier to centralize core functions and offer instant access from anywhere to students, faculty and staff.

Students Computing

From the Classroom to the Web

At the core of the effort to expand academic technology is the need to keep up with the student body. The 21st century has seen technology become increasingly integrated with our lives, especially for young people. In many ways, today's college students lives online - The Chronicle points out that with 51% of students spending 15 hours or more each week on the Web, many students will soon spend more time online than in class. Some even treat the Internet as a full-time job - incredibly, 8.8% report spending over 40 hours per week using the Web.

So what are students doing with all this time on the computer? Drawing on data from the Educause Center for Applied Research, The Chronicle reports that the most common computing activity among American students is accessing the college's library website. Ninety-five percent of students using this resource, with an average frequency of once a week. Other popular tech activities include:

  • Presentation software (94% use it an average of monthly)
  • Social networking websites (90% use them an average of daily)
  • Text messages (90% use them an average of daily)
  • Spreadsheets (87% use them an average of monthly)
  • Course- or learning-management systems (86% use them on average several times a week)
  • Downloading web-based media (84% do this an average of weekly)
  • Instant messaging (74% use it on average several times a week)
  • Graphics software (73% use it an average of monthly)
  • Contributing content to websites (45% do this an average of monthly)

Research Funding

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  • Computer and Information Support Services, Other
  • Information Science and Studies General
  • Information Technology
  • Robotics and Artificial Intelligence

Private Licensing Shrinks Budget Shortfalls

In spite of the increasingly important role that technology is playing in academia, many campus IT departments are facing budget cuts. Analyzing figures from the Campus Computing Project, The Chronicle found that the majority of public colleges and universities have reduced their academic computing budgets over the past five years, and other institutions aren't far behind.

Portion of institutions with budget cuts in academic computing over the past five years.

Year Public Research Universities Private Research Universities Public 4-Year Colleges Private 4-Year Colleges Community Colleges
2007 27% 9% 17% 12% 13%
2008 39% 11% 40% 19% 24%
2009 59% 43% 57% 34% 33%

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac of Higher Education 2010-11, page 42

It's interesting to note that community colleges made the fewest cuts to academic computing last year, even though they were roughly commensurate with other institutions in previous years. One possible explanation could be the enrollment explosion at community colleges and vocational schools - a recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 2-year institutions experienced the largest freshmen enrollment surge at the beginning of the recession.

The Chronicle asked CIO's to consider ways that their departments can make up for the budget shortfalls. Some officers reported plans to increase user fees or sell IT and support services to other groups. Many indicated that they had no plans to seek new funding sources, particularly those at institutions with fewer than 5,000 students.

But schools are finding other ways to make ends meet. A number of institutions have turned to selling the fruits of their research to bolster their finances. More and more, schools have been selling licenses to private companies for technologies developed with academic research. The Chronicle found that four institutions earned over $100 million in licensing revenues this year, which is double last year's number.

Drawing on data from the Association of University Technology Managers, The Chronicle tracked licensing and patent activity in fiscal year 2008 (FY08) for several research universities across the country. Although research spending continues to outstrip licensing income for most institutions (but not all - Northwestern University earned over $450,000 more than they spent), schools are busy developing patents, executing licenses and even forming start-up companies. The University of California system formed 55 new companies in FY08.

The U.S. Department of Commerce has been encouraging this growing relationship between colleges and businesses. The feds hope that the economy can grow by tapping into the innovative power of academic research.

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