Saturday, August 21, 2004

Complexity of scope and integration

A presentation I gave on integration of web services in Pasadena a few months ago caused me to reflect on the ways in which academic computing has changed in the ten years that I've been involved in the field. The superficial answer isn't wrong in this case: web, web, and more web. When I first got in the game, academic computing was mostly about two things: computer labs and specialized desktop applications to address niche academic needs. Our focus on relationships with individual members of the faculty far outweighed our focus on our relationship with THE faculty. Those traditional roles still exist, but they account for a much smaller portion of our work. The world wide web changed the technology ecology in a way that forced rapid evolutionary adaptation in technologists. One year, let's call it 1993, we were just trying to facilitate specialized activities to address specialized needs. Within the span of time it takes for an undergraduate to get a degree, we were expected to enable everybody, everywhere, to access and use just about everything.

The never ending demand for web services has forced the world of academic computing to undergo a form of industrial revolution in the last few years. Where we once could work on a series of small projects to help faculty get their personal documents or learning objects on the web—not that we called them learning objects until a few years ago—we now are focused, even obsessed, with scalability issues that can only be addressed with mass production. Thus, we have seen the explosion in "XYZ Management Systems." We're in the age of automated course site construction, digital asset management, and syndicated content. Although they're separate products, these web management systems are really just variations on a theme: automagic web content creation from backend databases.

One of the side effects the industrial revolution of information was the mainstreaming of academic computing. The old academic computing was often inhabited by odd ducks in the I.T. world. Our new focus on enterprise systems has turned us into closer colleagues with the traditional administrative computing types--database administrators, sysadmins, and programmers. Likewise, our colleagues are being drawn into the academic computing world because their skills are being leveraged for projects outside their traditional realms of finance, fundraising, and human resources.

It's all simultaneously fascinating and terrifying. I drew up the diagram below for my Pasadena presentation. It shows the various layers of web management systems that I.T. and I.S. organizations in higher education are currently involved in managing and—more importantly—integrating.graphic showing vertical layers of applications and services provided by Higher Ed. technology services departments. Vertical and horizontal arrows suggest that integration of multitudes of web services takes place within and between application/service layersThe intersecting vertical and horizontal lines are merely my suggestion that these systems and services (along with many others not shown) usually realize their maximum value when they are integrated with each other across and between the levels I've identified. LDAP data about people not only populate scheduling and commerce systems, but they are also useful for defining permissions to alter content in a course management system or customize one's personal views on the campus portal. Images and documents in digital asset management systems are needed in course management systems. And portals? They need to integrate with everything. That's their raison d'être.

Of course, few of these products interoperate out-of-the-box. Even in cases where an extensible architecture exists, it falls to consumers to build the connections between most of the web products they use. There are notable exceptions, of course. Blackboard, Inc. has a modular product line that allows their customers to buy integrated one-card, portal, and course management products. (Their products can also use an LDAP directory for authentication.) If Blackboard's offerings in those product classes fit your institution's needs, your implementation of each may be vastly simplified. Of course, if you subscribe to the full suite of Blackboard products, you have a frightening case of vendor-lock on your hands. There's a risk management scenario that somebody had better be thinking about strenuously before signing the contracts.

Each college and university meets its clients' demands for web services differently. We haven't yet seen the emergence of a software vendor for the academic community with designs or means to achieve total world domination. (Phew!) We are buying, building, leasing and integrating highly customized online environments for our communities. The investment of resources to realize our ambitions is huge, so the scope, mission and priorities for the institution's online existence deserves serious attention at all levels of institutional leadership. Each institution needs wise decision makers who know their communities as well as they know their technologies to help steer their organizations to the best expenditures of resources.

Enterprise computing in academia is a fascinatingly complex puzzle to work on. At long last, technology is as essential to our academic programs as it was fifteen years ago to our administrative offices. As a result, academic computing is finally as deeply woven into the central mission of higher education institutions as teaching and research are. That's a pretty interesting place to be.


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