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The Myth about Techies


© 2007 Diana G. Oblinger and Brian L. Hawkins

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 42, no. 1 (January/February 2007): 8–9

Diana G. Oblinger is Vice President of EDUCAUSE, where she is responsible for the association's teaching and learning activities and for the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI). Brian L. Hawkins is President of EDUCAUSE. Comments on this article can be sent to the authors at doblinger@educause.edu and bhawkins@educause.edu and/or can be posted to the Web via the link at the bottom of this page.


Most senior executives hope to avoid conversations about IT, fearing they'll have to listen to a litany of inexplicable terms like PKI, BLADE, Shibboleth, VoIP, SQL server, DRAM, EDGE, and more. Who could possibly understand what all these terms mean, much less make a disaster recovery or business continuity decision that involves choosing between Web-based backup, serverless backup, continuous backup, and consolidated storage? As a result, it may seem that the best thing to do is leave IT to the techies.

But who is not involved with IT? Do administrators and staff have computers on their desks? Do they use e-mail, Blackberries, or cell phones? Do they access financial reports, enrollment data, or donor-giving reports? Do faculty use a course management system for classes or data processing for research projects? Do food service staff monitor the hottest-selling food products based on receipts from the food court? Do police scan motor-vehicle records or look for previous offenses in a database? Do students register online? Virtually no aspect of campus life is untouched by IT. And most IT users are not techies.

Yet just because they aren't techies doesn't mean that IT is not an essential skill for them. Knowing how to use a search engine to find and order parts online is important for the mechanics shop. Managing a complex database is an essential part of running the development office. Using analytics and predictive modeling may make all the difference to the office of enrollment management in ensuring a strong freshman class. None of these units can afford to leave IT to the techies.

Choosing when and how to use IT is not just a technical decision. Investing (or not) in IT is often a business decision. For example, if the campus wants to attract industry to a research park focused on genetic engineering, does the institution need to invest in massive storage arrays, visualization tools, and supercomputing? Investing in IT (or not) is often a financial decision. Although it might be nice for all faculty, students, and staff to have tablet PCs, it may not be economically or academically viable. Investing in IT (or not) is often a conservation decision. The need to conserve energy may make remote monitoring and control systems a no-brainer. Sometimes decisions are predicated on risk. Deciding whether or not to allow Facebook on campus may hinge less on the students' desire for Facebook and more on the risk that stalking incidents could increase. Sometimes decisions are based on image. Although registering for courses in the gymnasium by picking up a card for each course still works, what kind of image does that send to students and parents?

From a technical standpoint, more technology may seem better. Investing in IT provides new tools and new opportunities to explore. But from an institutional standpoint, those investments must be weighed in terms of cost, benefit, risk, and impact on the culture.

In thinking about leaving IT to the techies, the CIO and other members of the executive team should ask themselves the following strategic questions:

  1. Do we avoid IT discussions because they are technical? Or do we go beyond the technology to the strategy? Discussions about specific technologies or the pros and cons of a particular product may not merit the attention of the executive team. However, some seemingly technical discussions may mask important strategic decisions. For example, which e-mail system a campus should use seems like a technical detail best left to the CIO's office. However, the executive team may want to debate the merits of whether or not the campus even needs its own e-mail system. Why not use Gmail? Why should scarce campus resources be used for a commodity product that is freely available? Or, in another example, should the campus purchase a commercial course management system? The decision may involve more than product specs and contract terms and conditions. Does the campus believe that cooperative software development through open source is the best long-term strategy for higher education institutions? Not all technology discussions are removed from fundamental strategic choices.
  2. Do we ensure that faculty, staff, students, and administrators have the IT tools, skills, and confidence they need to optimize their contribution to the institution? Are institutional leaders confident that all users have the skills to capitalize on the infrastructure and application investments that have been made? Since virtually every campus operation uses IT, it would be easy to assume that all users have the skills they need. However, lack of training and support can undercut even the wisest investments.
  3. Do we recognize—and manage—the IT that is centralized as well as that which is distributed? There are many servers, laptops, and network connections that are not managed by the staff in the CIO's office (the staff usually thought of as "the techies"). Are the graduate students who run the Web site or maintain the database for their research team educated about security? Is the training that is available to the central IT shop available to those in distributed campus units? Is there an overall technical architecture to ensure that technologies align with each other rather than creating more expensive one-off systems?
  4. Do we help the techies better communicate with the non-techies? With IT everywhere on campus, avoiding conversations about IT is not possible. Perhaps the reason some have avoided them has to do with communication style rather than importance. Is the institution helping the techies understand the issues of importance to college and university executives? If they don't understand what the executives are doing or the executives' areas of concern, perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that communication is awkward. Do the techies have professional development opportunities to ensure that they understand others' perspectives and are effective communicators?

IT may be for the techies, but IT is for the rest of us too. Just as we accept that the government isn't only for the politicians and that the environment isn't only for the environmentalists, maybe it is time to accept that IT isn't only for the techies. IT is for everyone.

Diana Oblinger

Dr. Diana G. Oblinger President and CEO of EDUCAUSE

Dr. Diana G. Oblinger is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education through the use of information technology. The current membership comprises over 2,300 colleges, universities and education organizations, including 250 corporations. Previously, Oblinger held positions in academia and business: Vice President for Information Resources and the Chief Information Officer for the University of North Carolina system, Executive Director of Higher Education for Microsoft, and IBM Director of the Institute for Academic Technology. She was on the faculty at the University of Missouri-Columbia and at Michigan State University and served as the associate dean of academic programs at the University of Missouri.

Since becoming president of EDUCAUSE, Oblinger has become known for innovative product and services growth as well as international outreach. For example, Oblinger created the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI), known for its leadership in teaching, learning and technology innovation as well as several signature products, such as the 7 Things You Should Know About series. She also initiated EDUCAUSE's first fully online events and its e-book series, including Educating the Net Generation and Learning Spaces.

In collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation she led the creation of the Next Generation Learning Challenges, a $30M program focused on improving college readiness and completion through information technologies. Partners include the League for Innovation in the Community College, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the Hewlett Foundation.

Oblinger has served on a variety of boards such as the board of directors of ACT, the editorial board of Open Learning, the National Science Foundation's Advisory Committee on Cyberinfrastructure, and the National Visiting Committee for NSF's National Science Digital Library project. She currently serves on the American Council on Education (ACE) board and works with other higher education associations as chair of the Washington Higher Education Secretariat. Dr. Oblinger has testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Employment, Safety and Training and the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Technology.

Oblinger is a frequent keynote speaker as well as the co-author of the award-winning book What Business Wants from Higher Education. She is the editor or co-editor of seven books: The Learning Revolution, The Future Compatible Campus, Renewing Administration, E is for Everything, Best Practices in Student Services, Educating the Net Generation, and Learning Spaces. She also is the author or co-author of numerous monographs and articles on higher education and technology.

Dr. Oblinger has received outstanding teaching and research awards, was named Young Alumnus of the Year by Iowa State University and holds two honorary degrees. She is a graduate of Iowa State University (Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D.) and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi, and Sigma Xi.


Brian L. Hawkins

Brian L. Hawkins was president of EDUCAUSE from 1998-2007. Prior to joining EDUCAUSE, Hawkins was senior vice president for Academic Planning and Administrative Affairs at Brown University. In this capacity, he oversaw academic planning, instructional budget management, campus computing, enrollment management, institutional research, summer programs, admission, financial aid, and student registration. Hawkins went to Brown in 1986 as vice president for Computing and Information Services. In 1989, he filled in as senior vice president for Finance and Administration, and then was appointed special assistant to the president for Academic Planning while he spearheaded Brown’s strategic planning processes. In 1997, he served as part of a three-person team standing in for the president of Brown University.

Before going to Brown, Hawkins was associate vice president for Academic Affairs at Drexel University. At Drexel, he was responsible for general academic planning and the first academic program in the nation to require access to a microcomputer, as well as integrating the use of technology throughout the curriculum.

Hawkins is a management professor by training and the author of one book and many articles on organizational behavior. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Michigan State University and his doctorate from Purdue University. He taught at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and served there as department chairman and assistant dean of the College of Business. His organizational work focused on organizational structure, conflict management, communication, and performance appraisal. He earned tenure as faculty member at both UTSA and Drexel.

Hawkins has combined his academic and business experience to serve as a consultant to more than 350 organizations. In 1983, the governor of Pennsylvania asked him to initiate a corporate, industrial, public, and educational partnership in Southeastern Pennsylvania to create start-up companies and develop new jobs. Nearly two decades later, this program is still thriving.

Throughout his career, Hawkins has served on a variety of boards and committees. He is currently a member of the board of directors of the Forum for the Future of Higher Education and the Washington Higher Education Secretariat. Hawkins served as a member of the board of trustees of the University of Richmond and the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE) General Assembly and as chair and member of the boards of Educom and CAUSE. He also served on the boards of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) and the International Consortium for Educational Computing. Additionally, Hawkins has been a member of higher education advisory boards for Apple, IBM, NeXT, Sun, and Microsoft and has served on more than 60 advisory panels for various colleges and universities.

He has written extensively, including four books, numerous articles, book chapters, and monographs on information resources, academic planning, and the use of technology in higher education. Hawkins has received two honorary doctorates of science. In 1991, he received the CAUSE ELITE Award, a lifetime achievement award for Exemplary Leadership and Information Technology Excellence. He has served actively on accreditation teams as a chair and member, as well as the standards committee for North East Association of Schools and Colleges. Hawkins has been an invited speaker at professional meetings including the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE), Educom, CAUSE, the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), the American Association of Publishers (AAP), the Association for College Research Libraries (ACRL), the National Association of College Stores (NACS), the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC).


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