Sunday, September 7, 2008

Putting profit ahead of wonder; patents, university missions and LMS decision-making

In the article When Academia Puts Profit Ahead of Wonder” (New York Times September 7, 2008 ), Janet Rae-Dupree reports that in the wake of the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act (also known as the University Small Business Patent Procedures Act), universities have ramped up their tech-transfer offices and focused on patenting more of the intellectual knowledge that is produced through university research. According to the act,

“It is the policy and objective of the Congress to use the patent system to promote the utilization of inventions arising from federally supported research or development” and “to promote collaboration between commercial concerns and nonprofit organizations, including universities.”

While the act was meant “to infuse the American marketplace with the fruits of academic innovation,” critics claim that it has “distorted the fundamental mission of universities.” Instead of openly sharing their research and making their findings open to others who might want to expand on it, universities “increasingly keep new finding under wraps” through the pursuit of patents and patent litigation. From the perspective of critics, the patenting of scientific technique and technologies “puts it out of the reach” of other universities who might otherwise have been able to engage in further research (in the case of a scientific finding) or create further innovations that build on a former invention (in the case of a technological innovation).

While Rae-Dupree is suggesting that the missions of the university are being distorted by the university’s pursuit of patents it’s worth pointing out that this may not be the only initiative that is jeopardizing the university mission and the enlightenment ideal of expanding the public store of knowledge. If universities are truly interested in contributing to the marketplace of ideas, we may not only be interested in revisiting patent activities within the university (although a balanced revisit must also look more closely at the positive contributions our technology transfer offices are making), we may also be interested in making sure that universities collaborate and partner with organizations outside the university that are committed to the vision of expanding rather than contracting the intellectual commons.

For example, for many years, universities have been weighing the relative merits of different learning management systems ( the huge and often very expensive software systems that allow schools to teach classes online). But while universities choose these systems on the basis of a myriad of criteria, many don’t give weight to whether the LMS is eroding the same intellectual commons (and open sharing of scientific technique and technology) that the critics of the Bayh-Dole Act are trying to preserve. In order to promote better LMS decision-making we should make this consideration more apparent. On the one hand, open source LMS solutions like Moodle and Sakai are very much intent on preserving this commons and it’s written into the licensing of the software. On the other hand, LMS companies like Blackboard are engaging in patent suits which are perceived by many in higher education to jeopardize open and collaborative technology sharing among universities.

Of course, whether or not an LMS organization is helping to expand or contract the intellectual commons can’t be the most important criteria guiding what LMS organization a university chooses to partner with. The more fundamental
concerns driving LMS choices need to be driven by the capacity of the technology to deliver quality instruction online. But that doesn’t mean that these issues can completely eclipse the question of the intellectual commons. Good LMS decision-making depends on weighing and considering the fundamental missions of the university including it’s abiding commitment to sharing and disseminating research findings and technological innovations. If particular LMS choices erode this commitment while other ones forward it, these considerations should be factored into university strategic planning in the same way that Rae-Dupree says that critics are reconsidering the way that universities should pursue the intents underlying the Bayh-Dole act.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Frankenstein In The University

My essay Frankenstein in the University was just published in Campus Technology. I'm also making available an unabridged version which explains at greater length why narratives of technological determinism often mask the larger social and commercial forces that drive IT change in the university. In the essay I use the literature of technological determinism as a device for thinking about the amount of influence that IT plays in determining university affairs. But much more could be said on the subject. For example, in the recently published Toolbox or Trap? Course Management Systems and Pedagogy Lisa Lane explores at greater length the way our CMSs constrict our pedagogical practices. And in a much older article titled "Aligning IT Strategy to Open Source, Partnering, and Web Services" Brad Wheeler grapples with open source options that may help universities to better control their IT destiny. For a quick introduction to the subject of technological determinism from the standpoint of political theory see Langdon Winner's piece Do Artifacts Have Politics?. For a topical article surveying technological determinism from the standpoint of a professional historian see Jill Lapore's recent piece in The New Yorker titled Our Own Devices; Does Technology Drive History?.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Will Campus Computing Move Into the Cloud?

A century and a half ago when manufacturers needed power for their machinery, they generated their own. To run lathes, saws, and other power tools manufacturers set up their own waterwheels, steam engines, or in the early years of electrification, their own generators. While independently produced power grew through most of the nineteenth century, with the spread of a reliable and ubiquitous electric grid in the early twentieth century business relinquished this activity to utility companies. Rather than generating their own power, manufacturers plugged into the electric grid and paid utility companies to provide power for them.

According to Nicholas Carr in The Big Switch (Norton, 2008), a similar change is happening today in the development of so-called “cloud” computing. For the past thirty years companies and individual users have used their own software and hardware to process information. There were no alternatives because the communication networks that allow one computer to talk to other computers were not fast enough to facilitate computing at a distance. But with growing bandwidths, and more ubiquitous grids, hosting services in “the cloud” in remote locations far removed from end users has become a viable option. For example, instead of buying and running my own copy of Microsoft Word I can author and store my documents in Google Docs and rely on Google’s server farms scattered all over the world to take care of this for me. Likewise, business users who used to have to buy locally hosted customer relationship management software (CRM) can browse their way to companies like Salesforce and use their vastly discounted CRM services over the Web.

In Carr’s view, Google Docs and Salesforce are only the beginning of a big switch. Much more is to come and it will transform the way we manage information technology as radically as electrification transformed the production and consumption of power. When everyone is hosting their own hardware and duplicating infrastructure that another company has just down the road inefficiencies result. While vendors are happy to sell the same hardware to multiple customers, cloud computing promises to redress this duplication. With cloud computing, these inefficiencies are so radically diminished that the economic imperatives to switch are hard to resist– even if the transformation has not happened everywhere yet.

Carr is an engaging scholar but in spite of this he is forwarding a premise that is bound to raise eyebrows. Is the big switch really happening? Will local I.T. infrastructures disappear? Will everything move into the cloud? Carr is careful to say that if the switch is happening, cloud computing will take many years to mature and that it faces many challenges. As more and more customers are served by centrally hosted services, cloud providers will have to figure out how to centralize and consolidate services while catering to the diverse needs that make up a large customer base. Cloud computing providers will also have to address security concerns which tend to be more acute when company data is moved off site. But if these seem like significant challenges, they pale in comparison to the task of convincing companies to retire and repurpose all of the local infrastructure into which they’ve poured so much money. Will CIOs really repurpose or write off all these investments? And on a more human level will they be able to convince their employees to leave aside technologies that they’ve spent years becoming familiar with?

Carr thinks that the imperatives of the market will drive a great many technologies into the cloud in spite of these challenges. But if Carr helps illuminate some aspects of technology strategy, managers will still be faced with the hard task of figuring out how big the switch is, how quickly they’ll need to respond to it, and what they’ll do with local I.T. once the switch is made.

And if universities are a little less subject to market vicissitudes, if the switch really is occurring, these questions will also face those of us in academe. Here at Weber State I see evidence of it already taking place. For example, we’ve poured millions (yes millions) of dollars into a locally hosted learning management system. But the Utah Educational Network has built their own state-wide system and is offering to provide these services to us at discount. And companies like eCollege are providing large scale fully hosted solutions that are a viable substitute to our locally hosted solution as well. Will we move toward this learning management system solution? Or will we continue to host locally? And what will happen to all the I.T. jobs on campus if we do move learning management into the cloud?

I’'ll make the following prognostications based on Carr's work.

First, even if we take advantage of the cloud’s efficiencies and migrate, there will still be a place for local I.T: we will still want to keep local help desks and provide faculty and students with the training which will allow them to leverage cloud computing to its best pedagogical advantage. (cf. Patrick Masson on the Educause CIO listserv)

Second, information technicians will continue to work in the university – they’ll just be repurposed to other projects which currently sit on the back burner.

Third, in spite of all the efficiencies of cloud computing, it’s possible that we won’t choose to move our Learning Management System (LMS) into the clouds after all. An LMS is a technology that is servicing a core mission of the university (e.g. teaching and learning). If we want to maintain full control of this mission and the way technology shapes this mission, we are likely to want to customize our LMS in ways that can't be met by the cookie-cutter options available in the cloud.

Fourth, I won’t unequivocally embrace the idea that the big switch is here. But having now read Carr (rather than 'of Carr') I’m impressed, if nothing else, by his erudition. In an early passage, Carr takes Lewis Mumford to task for asserting that we can control technology if we can summon the courage to do so. In response to this sentiment Carr replies that Mumford was “mistaken”:

“….the technological imperative that has shaped the Western world is not arbitrary, nor is our surrender to it discretionary. The fostering of invention and the embrace of the new technologies that result are not ‘duties’ that we have somehow chosen to accept. They’re the consequences of economic forces that lie largely beyond our control.”

The big switch may or may not have been thrown. But if it has, in the long run, we’re unlikely to be able to resist it’s economic imperatives. Technology may not ultimately control the university. But in the long run, sadly, market forces do.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Automatic Professor Machine

Langdon Winner, author of Autonomous Technology, and The Whale and the Reactor has, for some years now, been looking at technology through the lens of political theory. Like Leo Marx et al in Do Machines Drive History? Winner is interested in representations of technology that appear out of control and how much human agency people retain in an era of high technology. His Automatic Professor Machine and his picture of The Glow-Ball University's Distant [sic] Education campus are interesting parodies that play on many faculty's anxieties about online learning.