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End of the year ramblings…


It is always hard to believe that yet another year has passed. It has been a rich one, with the emergence of HarvardX and edX, major changes in the Harvard Library, and a lot of work being done at Harvard IT.I taught another edition of the course that first brought me to Harvard (Distributed Computing) and the course that I helped introduce into Harvard (Privacy and Technology). A pretty full year.

What I find most interesting in looking back isn’t any of these, though. What I find most interesting is how IT is changing at Harvard, and in higher education more generally. The advent of on-line education is part of this change, but only a part. The full picture is far more complex, and far more radical, than just the advent of MOOCs (which, given all the attention to MOOCs, would seem difficult).

The baseline of IT in higher education really isn’t much different than IT in any other large organization. The goal has been to help run the business (and higher education does have major components that are like a business) and provide basic networking and computing infrastructure for the rest of the business. So Harvard IT runs a large set of business applications that are like any other business’ applications, having to do with payroll, and human resources, and budgeting. We also provide networking, email, and calendar functions for pretty much everyone associated with central administration and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, much like every other IT organization supplies such services to the rest of the business.

Of course, higher education IT has always needed to provide some extras to help with the mission of the university. The most obvious example of this is the iSites application, which is used to run a large number of Harvard courses. Such academic technology is an important part of what higher education IT does, but has historically been a minor piece of the work, especially when measured in terms of the amount of money invested. Historically, between 2/3 and 3/4 of the IT budget has been spent on support of administrative computing, with the rest going to infrastructure and academic support.

This is going to have to change, because the use of computing (and storage) within higher education (in general) and Harvard (in particular) is changing. Computing is becoming increasingly central to both the teaching and research mission of Harvard. As digital mechanisms become more central to the core missions of the University, the role of IT is going to have to change. Rather than being part of the administrative background, IT is going to be part of everything that is going on.

Courses have, for some time, used computing to allow posting of readings and assignments, but we are moving to a time when a course will include streamed lectures, on-line discussions, and the construction of digital artifacts by the students for evaluation of their learning. Research in the sciences has long required access to large amounts of computing and storage, but that need is now moving to the social sciences and the humanities. Just take a look at what Jeffrey Schnapp is doing at the metaLab, or the way that Peter Der Manuelian approaches egyptology.The need for large amounts of computing and storage is rapidly increasing, everywhere in the University.

This may become the newly expanded job of IT, or it may just require coordination with IT. In either case, the job of HUIT is going to be very different in the next couple of years. Our investment portfolio will, in all likelihood, invert. What we do now will, I predict, take up between 1/4 and 1/3 of our budget, and the rest will be taken up in support of research and teaching. Partly this will be done by savings that can be extracted in the administrative work that we are doing, as the cost of machinery goes down. Partly this will be done by adding to the investment in IT, but this will be hard in the current budget climate.

Most of this will occur as we decide to do less of one thing and more of another. There are tasks that we have been doing locally that may be outsourced or otherwise moved elsewhere. I suspect that there is a lot that can be gained from the commercial cloud providers, and other software-as-a-service providers. Some of this will be done by making more of what we do self-service; this can both decrease the cost of the IT group and empower the users, but has to be done carefully to insure that service is not degraded. The way we work now is going to have to change.

I find such a prospect invigorating. Doing the same thing has never appealed to me, so the prospect of major change in the way things are done makes me anticipate the new year. It will be interesting, it will be challenging, but it won’t be the same and it won’t be boring. And who can ask for more than that?

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