Managed Cyber Services as a Cyberinfrastructure Strategy for Smaller Institutions of Higher Education

by Todd Kelley, NITLE

Technology and Relationships
Director of the National Science Foundation, Arden Bement, recently stated that “At the heart of the cyberinfrastructure vision is the development of virtual communities that support peer-to-peer collaboration and networks of research and education.”[1] Just as Bement emphasizes networked relationships as an essential component of cyberinfrastructure, I would like to address how small to mid-sized institutions might meet some of the critical challenges of this vision.

I propose that in order to realize the cyberinfrastructure vision, colleges and universities reconsider how they approach technology and technology management, which have become just as important as constructing and maintaining the physical facilities on campus. Providing Internet access, for example, should be seen as a key infrastructure asset that needs to be managed. A robust connection to the Internet is necessary for a successful local cyberinfrastructure; however, it is by no means sufficient. The new cyberinfrastructure should include cyber services that enhance existing organizational relationships and make new ones possible–on a national and global basis. However, for some institutions, deploying and sustaining sophisticated organization-wide tools and infrastructure are complex and risky activites.  Smaller institutions often simply cannot implement, sustain and support these initiatives on their own.

Cyber Services
While colleges and university libraries were pioneers in using the Internet to provide access to scholarly resources, rarely have they used it to access enterprise technology tools. Instead, most campuses have tried to meet these needs through combining their own hardware infrastructure with (mostly) proprietary software systems that are licensed for the campus, such as Blackboard, ContentDM and Banner. This approach to learning management systems, repository and administrative services may have made sense at a time when the Internet was still in its early stage. It may still make sense for large institutions that have a degree of scale and deep human resources where the organizational benefits of locating all technology services on campus outweigh the costs.

However, smaller, teaching-centered colleges and universities require an attractive alternative to locating all hardware, software, and the attendant technical support on campus, without the onus of locating and selecting application service providers, negotiating licenses and support agreements. They also need to avoid becoming trapped by contractual relationships with new vendors or Faustian bargains with technology giants Google or Microsoft. One option for these institutions is to obtain managed services from organizations such as NITLE, which provide a broad array of professional development and managed information technology services for small and mid-sized institutions. Through using such managed services, institutions are reporting that they lower their technology risk and increase the value proposition for technology innovations.

Lowering Technological Risk Encourages Innovation
Typically, there is a high degree of risk of failure for smaller colleges and universities when they deploy a new technology system. This is because the technical resources and organizational processes required are just not part of the primary focus of these organizations. Typically the risk might be mitigated through devoting significant technological resources and organizational focus to altering the infrastructure in the hope that the institutional culture and processes will adjust to it. But this does not appear a wise approach.

When smaller colleges and universities need organizational technology they often:
1) work to identify the most appropriate vendor and negotiate to obtain the technology they need;
2) focus on how the technology works and on how the technical support for it will be provided; and
3) create organizational processes and procedures that attempt to connect the technical work to the perceived need and the promised benefits.

The focus in this process is often the technical or procedural aspects of a project when the institution would be far better served if the emphasis were on the substantive innovations, relationships, and other benefits that technology can provide. Relationships that are about technical issues per se are off-focus, distracting, and ultimately unproductive, relative to organizational mission.

The continuing development of more sophisticated and complex technologies and the increased dependence on them by these institutions will only increase the potential risk of failure for those that do not make a significant commitment to hiring technology specialists. Increased risk thwarts any interest in using technology to innovate, so technology becomes much less interesting and viable as a route to organizational strength and sustainability. The challenge for smaller colleges, then, is to have dependable, secure and innovative cyber services while reducing the risks and resources traditionally associated with creating new technology systems on campus.

Managed Cyber Services
What do managed cyber services look like and how do they work? In the case of NITLE, it aggregates the cyber services needs of smaller colleges and universities and provides managed services via the Internet so that each individual institution does not have to replicate the hardware, software and technical support on campus for each enterprise application that is needed. NITLE does the legwork, finding reliable and cost-effective hosting solutions and negotiating agreements with applications service providers for services and support. Open source applications are used wherever it is viable. Individual campuses do not have to become involved with these processes, as the goal is to provide an easy on-ramp without legal or contractual agreements with participating campuses. There are also opportunities to test services and experiment with them before participants commit to beginning a new service. In addition, NITLE provides professional development opportunities for campus constituents to learn about the functionality and features of the software in the context of campus needs. Moreover, it encourages campus representatives to participate in communities of practice that it supports.

NITLE currently offers four managed cyber services. The criteria used for selecting cyber services include: participants’ needs; the technology benefits; the development path for the technology (including reliability, scalability, and security); and the expectation and understanding that when adopted by peer institutions, the technology will support the learning communities on campus and peer-to-peer collaboration among campuses.Advantages of Open Source
Colleges are advised to consider open source software (OSS) whenever possible, because OSS offers distinct advantages. The first is the cost savings, as there are no annual licensing fees, and many OSS applications require less hardware overhead, thus helping contain hardware expenditure costs. Second is the support that OSS can provide: a common infrastructure, readily accessible to all, can enable institutions to collaborate more effectively and to focus together on the substantive activities that technology supports.

As a case in point, NITLE provides a repository service using the open source DSpace repository software. The twenty-five colleges and universities that participate in the repository program share their experience and expertise about how the software helps them meet their individual and common goals. Their stated goals include:
1) creating a centralized information repository for information scattered in various difficult-to-find locations;
2) moving archival material into digital formats and making it accessible from one easy-to-access location;
3) bringing more outside attention to the work of students and scholars and thus to the campus;
4) providing the service as a catalyst to help faculty and students begin to learn about and use new forms of publishing and scholarly communication, including intellectual property, open access and publishing rights;
5) preserving digital information.

According to one participating organizational representative to NITLE,

“the open-source approach is definitely helpful in terms of cost. Having [a dependable vendor] administer the hardware and software has been wonderful, since we can concentrate on the applications and not worry about the technical end….Having colleagues from similar schools work on this project has been beneficial, since we can play off of their strengths and weaknesses. They have also given us some good ideas for projects.”*

Another participating organizational representative has added,

“The open source nature of the software is important to us because we know that we are not locked into a closed proprietary system whose existence depends upon the livelihood of a software company. Furthermore, we wouldn’t have gotten started with d-Space on our own because of the infrastructure we’d have to provide to get it going. We don’t have the staff with the skills needed to handle the care and feeding of the server or to customize the software to our needs through application development. Having that part out of the way has given us the opportunity to focus on creating the institutional repository rather than being mired in technical detail of running the software.”*

Open technologies are more than a path to cost savings. They are a critical condition for innovation, access, and interoperability. Many colleges are using OSS for important critical operations, including email (Sendmail), web serving (Apache), and operating system (Linux) applications. This use of OSS suggests that there is a growing acceptance and adoption of OSS. The use of OSS can leverage economies of scale, support network effects, and dramatically increase the speed of innovation.

There is, however, still resistance to making consideration of OSS the de facto approach to meeting organizational software needs. There are several reasons for this opposition, including the view of OSS as hacking, the historical lack of accessible technical support and the paucity of documentation which has complicated the learning curve. Many have long recognized the potential of OSS, but they were reluctant to pursue it because of the increased need for specialized technical support on campus. Thus, for every OSS system, an institution would need to find and hire a technical specialist to support it. This approach certainly is not scalable and smaller institutions were right not to do it.

Multipoint Interactive Videoconferencing (MIV)

Another example of cyber service that institutions should consider is Multipoint Interactive Videoconferencing (MIV). MIV systems enable participants to communicate visually and aurally in real time through the use of portable high-resolution (and inexpensive) cameras and microphones attached to their computers. Participants can see and hear each other, not only on a one-to-one basis, but one-to-many as well. MIV is not a completely new technology; however, its enhanced level of functional maturity, the reduction in costs to provide it, and the need for such systems, have made MIV a technology that is on the verge of widespread adoption and use in a variety of settings.

In the winter and spring of 2007, a dozen participant colleges agreed to evaluate the use of MIV on their campuses and provide NITLE with feedback on the application and their perceptions of its utility. During this evaluation period, participant institutions discovered many types of needs for this technology, both for on-campus and off-campus communications. Uses included guest lectures, meetings between faculty working remotely and connecting with students studying abroad. Since this assessment, NITLE has used MIV for:

1) facilitated conversations led by one or two practitioners among a group of practitioners in an area of common interest, such as incubating academic technology projects or the application of learning theory to the work of academic technologists;
2) presentations by individuals who are using technologies of interest in their classrooms or other campus work to groups of others interested in whether and how they might do something similar, such as historians using GIS;
3) presentations by experts on topics of interest to others in their professional field, such as the academic value of maps;
4) technology training for the participants and users of the cyber services that NITLE offers.

The experience of MIV service participants suggests that the adoption of MIV may be most successful when placed in the context of next steps, developing relationships, individual experience and expertise, and common goals and objectives. This premise suggests learning and collaborative environments that include the use of MIV as part of a range of learning and communications options. Through the pilot study, the many positive benefits that participants have experienced have been documented. However, these benefits are a fraction of what can be realized when many more institutions participate because of network effects and because participants may use the MIV service to collaborate with other organizations outside of the opportunities organized by NITLE.

The “Open” Movement
The promise of information technology can not be met when only large, powerful, and for-profit IT organizations are in control. Open access, open courseware and open source initiatives point toward a world where there is a level playing field for individual learning and organizational innovation by not-for-profit institutions. Where just a few years ago it was difficult to name more than a few organizations that provide technical support for open source applications, the number of service providers is growing. Identifying these providers, selecting the best ones and negotiating agreements–these are the important challenges for managers of cyber services. Providers report that it is often financially unfeasible for them to market to and negotiate with individual institutions for providing cyber services. Creating a reliable and scalable approach to cyber services that works for colleges and providers alike would seem to be an important advance for smaller institutions, both individually and as an important segment of higher education.

The open movement is not about software tools alone, as Arden Bement noted in his comments about the importance of virtual communities. Success depends upon achieving a balance among essential human, organizational and technological components. The potential benefits of the open movement will accrue to colleges and universities that collaborate through using a common set of tools, actively participate in peer information networks and make a priority of mission-focused knowledge and skills. Many institutions know that the value of peer-to-peer communities for individual institutions will increase proportionally to their equal investment in all three of these components. The question may ultimately center on how to support these activities in a systematic and sustainable fashion. This is where small and mid-sized institutions may want to innovate in their approach to technology management.

Collaborative Relationships Foster Organizational Strength and Learning
Technology that supports wide-spread virtual collaboration among smaller colleges and universities such as the repository and MIV services described above demonstrates the potential power of cyber services to enhance organizational innovation, learning and productivity. These peer communities of practice allow campuses to: 1) exchange information about usage, technical issues and support; 2) learn from one another; and 3) synchronize their efforts to use technology to promote shared goals and processes. Having campuses work together and share knowledge as they engage with enterprise systems is a crucial part of the equation. The community of smaller colleges and universities needs a robust organization for that collaboration to happen. Organizations such as NITLE can help fill this need, while also providing opportunities for community participation and encouraging institutions to play lead roles in needs identification, service development, and training and education. As one participant has stated, participation in a managed cyber service is “an opportunity for a group of us to make a leap forward and learn from each other along the way. In addition, [our participating college] saw it as an opportunity to overcome our geographic isolation…I think we have the potential to achieve something tremendous that we will all be proud of.”*
Summary
Technology seems to be much more compelling to smaller colleges and universities–and more cost-effective as well–when it provides substantive benefits while the procedural and instrumental aspects of technology innovation are kept under control. This is not to say that technical expertise at smaller institutions is not necessary or that all cyberinfrastructures should be moved off campus. These extreme changes would be neither productive nor prudent. By working collectively, smaller colleges can use managed services to more effectively apply advanced technologies. Bringing institutions with common needs together in a shared organizational network and aggregating many of their common technology needs through cyber services seems to be a powerful idea. Participating campuses can then provide the scope and scale of programs and services that larger institutions provide while retaining their intimacy and sense of community, and also controlling costs. At the same time, a strong foundation is created both technologically and organizationally for the type of cross-institutional endeavors and learning communities that can help smaller institutions promote scholarship that is vital and attractive to students and faculty alike. When common goals are met in cost effective ways, mission is strengthened for all.

[1]”Shaping the Cyberinfrastructure Revolution: Designing Cyberinfrastructure for Collaboration and Innovation,”  First Monday, volume 12, number 6 (June 2007)http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue12_6/bement/index.html. Accessed September 26, 2007.

* Responses to a survey administered by the author to a subset of NITLE participating organizations during July of 2007.