Monthly Archives: February 2012

Perspectives on the Future of Campus Technology

Via strategy group perspectivesFrom online classes to virtual campus tours, technology is having a profound impact on higher education. While universities are home to groundbreaking research and Nobel prizes, until recently they were laggards in the adoption of innovative technology to better deliver on their core mission-learning. I most certainly am not the best person to prognosticate on what new and innovative applications of technology we’ll see in the next few years. But, having been involved in higher education in one way or another for over 40 years, I can take a look back at some of the evolutionary changes that have had a profound impact on the delivery of post secondary education. I’ve experienced these changes personally with my own children.

The first is simply a profound change in how students select and apply to Colleges and Universities. Forty years ago it was quite an arduous and time consuming process. Research relied almost exclusively on printed directories and word of mouth. Campus visits were unstructured and time consuming. Applications were typed or filled out by hand. Today College rankings and evaluations are readily available on line. Every University has an extensive online presence with virtual campus tours. Applications are submitted online and the Common Application makes applying to multiple schools a breeze. In the movie How I got Into College, much was made of the daily trip to the mailbox and the high anxiety of waiting for acceptance or rejection letters. The anxiety persists of course, but prospective students can easily track the status of their applications online.

Next, you’ve been accepted and have to register. Course catalogs were thick and often out of date. Scheduling was a challenging manual process. As an undergraduate, I was fortunate that most engineers’ schedules were predetermined. I distinctly remember, however, my first experience as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. For whatever reason, it took 14 separate physical stops throughout the campus to register for the first time. It took the better part of the day. It got a little easier after that but was still a challenge. Today is a completely different story. Programs of study and course catalogs are online, up-to-date, and easily searchable. Potential schedules are easily seen graphically in real-time. Registration is literally a few clicks and done in minutes.

Forty years ago managing your courses was a challenge. The good news, perhaps, was that, if you weren’t physically present, you had no idea what was going on in class or what the assignments were. Everything was a physical piece of paper handed out in class. Today, everything from the syllabus to the class notes to your grades on every assignment are readily accessible online. In some cases even, videos of the lectures are available. I can easily monitor my own kids classroom performance online in real-time. Unfortunately, there is less incentive to show up in class which remains as valuable as ever.

Finally, research has been profoundly impacted. Not long before I started my own doctoral program, dissertations were typed by hand-with the requisite carbon copies. Even minor revisions were often a massively time-consuming effort. Fortunately for me, word processing had become available by the time I wrote my dissertation. Revisions and multiple copies were trivial by comparison. Earlier, statistical analysis of research data was laboriously done with mechanical calculators. While data collection remained tedious, SPSS made analysis of that data a snap. And then there was the literature search. My wife and I reminisce about our day long trips to the library with rolls of dimes to make copies of journal articles bound in often missing dusty volumes. Today, of course, most of those journal articles are readily available online and can be quickly searched and printed from home.

On balance, these technological advances have made learning and research much more effective and efficient. Striking an appropriate balance between the use of this technology and personal interaction with faculty, other researchers and fellow students will be one of the challenges we’ll have to be more cognizant of in the future.

Perspectives on Mobile Computing

As a self acknowledged gadget freak and lifelong computer engineer, I’ve always been fascinated by the latest and greatest developments in technology. For those same reasons, however, I’ve often been a skeptic of the utility of mobile devices in particular and the spread of mobile computing in general. In almost every instance I’ve been proven wrong, so I view the future of mobile computing with my skeptic’s blinders removed.

Since I first used the Internet 40 years ago, I’ve seen communications technology improve in unimagined ways. Since using punched cards for input and line printers for output, I’ve seen the user interaction models evolve beyond my wildest imagination-and I have a fairly active imagination. Ten years ago or so ago I was involved in some projects looking to put applications on very early versions of smart phones. I was firmly convinced that, even if the screen size grew to match the size of the device, that it would be very difficult to create a user model that would be at all functional-especially as a browser for the Internet. I also doubted that cellular networks and other broadband protocols would ever be sufficiently ubiquitous or fast enough to be practical-although I expected significant evolution in communications. Well, I was clearly wrong in ways that I never imagined. More than most, I do understand the ever popular saying that there is more computing technology in my iPhone than was on board the Apollo moon missions.

With all this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the more interesting current developments and challenges in mobile computing. First, is the proliferation of ultraportable devices beyond smart phones. I was an early user of tablet computers since I’m not a particularly good typist and I felt that, if handwriting recognition could become adequate, I could be freed from my hunt and peck ways. They were actually quite useful but no more, and in some cases less, portable than other notebook computers. And, handwriting recognition never quite did the trick. The operative word in mobile computing is “mobile”. With the advent of the iPad and its android brethren, tablet devices have become very mobile and more than adequate substitutes for notebook and desktop computers (although I still wish I could type faster-I’m a big fan of voice recognition).


Next, the capabilities embedded in these mobile devices, have opened up a whole range of unimagined applications. I no longer have to bring a digital still camera and video camera to capture my children’s sporting events. My phone is more than up to the task. While my cars have GPS capabilities, I often find it easier to simply touch on an address and have my phone automatically locate it on a map and tell me how to get there-even if I’m walking. Augmented reality will allow me to simply point my phone or tablet at a scene and access all kinds of location relevant information. A whole host of business applications are also possible such as real-time delivery tracking. The range of applications in healthcare is too long for a short blog.

This opportunity, however, comes with challenges. As far as we’ve come, new user models will have to be explored. Can we make it easy enough for a physician to switch to writing on a tablet instead of paper records they’re used to? How will, at the moment heterogeneous, communications protocols evolve? Wi-Fi is becoming so ubiquitous, that I rarely find my traditional notebook computer to be without access. Will WiMAX challenge cellular networks? How will firms manage the rapidly blurring distinction between personal and enterprise applications and usage?

Finally, privacy and security become issues in ways we’ve never imagined. How much easier is it to gain unauthorized access to data over today’s variety of wireless networks than it used to be over private wired networks? How do individuals, corporations, and perhaps, most important, government security agencies protect their data? As society becomes more dependent on these technologies we become far more vulnerable. Denial of service attacks, electromagnetic pulses and other sources of deliberate or accidental system wide failures could cause disasters ranging from serious economic distortions to loss of life.

These issues, however, have been with us through every technological transition. New transportation modes (trains, automobiles, airplanes) all brought with them new risks. In each of these cases we’ve believed the good outweighed the bad and we’ve managed to adapt very successfully. I have no doubt, although I won’t be presumptuous enough to predict how, that we will successfully adapt to all of the new risks and opportunities afforded us by developments in mobile computing.