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New Resource Assists in Software Purchasing Decisions

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By in Accessibility, IT Administration on .

How often do you or your department need to identify the best software to purchase? Or do you face situations in which you need to select the best option among several free versions of software? Accessibility to people with disabilities should be one of the criteria used in making a purchasing decision. However, many are unaware of what questions to ask and what steps to take to assess software accessibility.

Tips for Procuring Universally Accessible Software fills that information gap. Created by Purdue’s Web Accessibility Committee, the document provides simple and straightforward advice for assessing the accessibility of software. It also contains links to other resources for additional information. The free document is available to view or download on the Web Accessibility Committee website at: http://www.purdue.edu/webaccessibility/resources/index.html

Examples of advice included in the resource:

  • Ask the vendor for a demonstration of the accessibility features of the proposed software.
  • Provide vendors with detailed accessibility criteria that must be met.
  • Work with Procurement Services to include an accessibility clause in the purchase agreement.

I invite you to take a look at the document and let me know if you have any questions.

 

Writer: Dean Brusnighan, ITaP Assistive Technology Specialist

Ed Tech Forecasts for 2013

By in IT Administration, Musings on Technology on .

2013 Graphic

Time for my annual crystal ball gazing into the future of ed tech for the coming year.  Technology is notoriously difficult to forecast, and prognosticators are often forced to eat their words in the end (See Top Ten Bad Tech Predictions).  Nevertheless, I’ll try to sweep aside the veil and peer into the new year of educational technology.

There will be a ferment of development and adoption.

Ambient Insight Research points out that the Great Recession was actually good for educational technology companies.  “There was a dramatic spike in private investments made to learning technology companies in 2007 and 2008. Venture capital is flowing at the highest rate since the last recession. Over 160 learning technology companies were funded in 2008, compared to 50 in 1999.” Since it takes 3-5 years to see return on investment, we are about to see a rush of new technologies in education as these companies mature.  As the economic recovery gains strength next year (cross fingers here), state and local governments will be able to afford more ed tech products.

More speed is on the way.

In its 2013 Annual Technology Forecast, Lightwave says that “…100 Gbps will become more ubiquitous” in metro and regional areas.  To compete with optical fiber providers, cable providers will have to try to keep up, and they are working on new standards to do just that – “DOCSIS 3.1 will support 10 Gbps downstream and 1 Gbps upstream on hybrid fiber/coax (HFC). SCTE expects the specification to be more or less in place by the middle of next year, which means technology development will be well underway by the year’s end.”  Educational institutions will not have to implement this capability next year, but they will have to start planning for it.  Of concern is the ability of internally housed applications to keep up with the increased speed demands people are going to have in distance education contexts as faster pipelines become increasingly available.

Security will be an urgent theme (what else is new?)

The Georgia Tech Cyber Threats Forecast for 2013 points out two danger areas for the coming year that will be applicable to education: cloud-based botnets and smartphone vulnerability.  As universities switch many of their services to cloud providers and smartphones become a preferred way for students to access content, higher ed will have to find ways to cope with an ever-changing threat platform.  “In 2013, we expect the continued movement of business and consumer data onto mobile devices and into the cloud will lure cyber criminals into attacking these relatively secure, but extremely tempting, technology platforms. Along with growing security vulnerabilities within our national supply chain and healthcare industry, the security community must remain proactive, and users must maintain vigilance, over the year ahead.”

A trend toward credentialing along with “The Degree”

The Futurist magazine recently released its Top 10 Forecasts for 2013 and Beyond.  One prediction is that “The economy may become increasingly jobless, but there will be plenty of work.”  “Many recently lost jobs may never come back. Rather than worry about unemployment, however, tomorrow’s workers will focus on developing a variety of skills that could keep them working productively and continuously, whether they have jobs or not. It’ll be about finding out what other people need done, and doing it, suggests financial advisor James H. Lee.”  The degree isn’t going away, but in an age when employers want instant results and aren’t willing to do any training, certifications on specific skills will be required of most workers, especially entry-level ones of the type universities produce.  Purdue’s Digital Badges program is a step in this direction.

Attempts to produce individualized automated instruction

No, it won’t be a reality in the coming year, but research will continue.  With advances in Artificial Intelligence and a “Smart” cloud (see the Futurist link above) automated instruction that personalizes itself to the student will be less of a fantasy.  This fits in with one of Andy Blumenthal ‘s points in Technology Forecast: 2013 – “Overall, I see us moving from mass produced, point-to-point solutions to more integrated end-to-end solutions that fit individual needs–whether through continued combinations of hardware, software, and services, man-machine interfaces/integration, and building blocks that can be shaped and reused again and again.”

 

Should be an exciting year!  Provided it arrives, that is.  As I write this, it is December 21st, 2012, the date of the Mayan Apocalypse.  As I look out the window the world seems to still be here – BUT – the day ain’t over yet!

Administration: The (Un?)Necessary Evil

By in General Education, IT Administration, Musings on Technology on .

You know the old saying:  “those who can’t do, teach?”  In the world of higher education, it may be more accurate to say “those who can’t do, administer.”

In all honesty, I don’t put much stock in either saying: the larger truth is that the best teachers are those who “can do”, and the best administrators are those who “have done” what they administer.  But that’s just my opinion, and I digress.

A large university has many moving parts, all of which have to move with a certain amount of synchronicity.  Otherwise, people don’t get paid, classes don’t get filled, students don’t learn.  There is a significant wave of thought and opinion that attributes the rising costs of higher education to the increase in numbers of staff in administrative positions.  Google for “administrative bloat” and you’ll find plenty.  An excellent work on the subject is The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters by Benjamin Ginsberg, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins.   According to Ginsberg,

“Over the past four decades… as the number of full-time professors increased slightly more than 50 percent—a percentage comparable to the growth in student enrollments during the same time period—the number of administrators and administrative staffers employed by those schools increased by an astonishing 85 percent and 240 percent, respectively.”

Whether you agree or disagree with Ginsberg, certainly costs related to administration and management are natural and I would argue appropriate targets when higher education budgets are slashed or funding is cut.

In higher ed information technology (IT), the movement has been toward centralization of services and support.  A university-wide, centrally supported email system requires less resources — the argument goes — than several smaller ones run at the school or department level.   Choices like this are easy and make sense.  What is more difficult is drawing the line between which services and support should be centralized, and which should — for whatever reason — live locally as distributed services.  The trick is to be purposely and strategically selective when making these choices, in the service of avoiding “administrative bloat” while still providing for the needs of students and faculty.

In the last few years, Purdue University has gone through the process of examining the long and leggy structure of its central IT organization.  The result was a reorganization of IT governance at Purdue, described in the April 2010 Campus Information Technology Plan.   Like many other institutions, Purdue made decisions that centralized services and support while acknowledging the special needs of some schools in departments in needing their own local IT service.

Purdue’s decentralized IT history is intricately woven with the history of other administrative processes as well —  procurement, scheduling, and registration, to take three huge examples.  Untangling these to create necessary efficiencies and update old processes is a major undertaking.  It can be difficult to disengage from the details at times in order to see where sometimes the cart (IT) may be deciding where the horse is going.  Or, to torture the metaphor, where the mammoth elephant of antiquated processes is dragging the IT cart and the entire university along behind it.

But it seems to me that one cause of administrative bloat and a continuing challenge for an institution of Purdue’s size is communication and information-sharing.  With 72 academic departments, simply knowing what is going on elsewhere is difficult.  A common inquiry I get from others in my group, faculty, administrators in other groups, higher management: “is anyone doing x” in which x can be using ipads, creating video, using etextbooks, innovative learning spaces, and just about anything else that has to do with IT, teaching and learning, or Purdue.

The constant quest to know what else is going on is one force behind all the meetings that fill up our weeks, certainly, and is a probably an unreachable goal in an institution this size and in a field that moves as quickly as IT — and specifically teaching and learning technology.   What results, inevitably, is duplication of effort in pockets and projects throughout the university.  Someone tries something new, not knowing another department across campus has been doing it for a while and has come up with a better way.  Or staff in both departments might not know that there is a new technology available that is easier and much less expensive.

But these smaller pockets and projects are a positive force for innovation, a vital part of both IT and education.  The central IT organization doesn’t provide the emerging technology centrally (maybe it’s too new, or it isn’t available yet in a version that scales to the size Purdue needs), and so the innovative faculty member asks departmental IT staff to provide it.   This is the natural path for adoption; if the department has technology needs for their own discipline that don’t work across the university – such as an electronic microscope (not much use for that in the fine arts), then it ends there.  But for technologies that can be scalesclassified as “emerging” and potentially valuable more widely, a determination should be made when it is time to evaluate suitability for central support, in whatever form is most helpful to the departments and university community.

The distributed model of IT service and support will always be with us in some form due to departments’ different and varying needs, and the central support model avoids wasting resources — and adding to “administrative bloat” — for those services that we all need.  The tension between the two is always present.  Impossible and frustrating as it may seem, continual efforts and dogged determination to share information throughout the university are the only ways to create the best balance between the innovation and customization of new IT and the efficiencies of scale that central IT provides.

Writer: Donalee Attardo, director of instructional development, Academic Technologies, ITaP

Get Ready for Windows 8

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By in Content Development, IT Administration, Mobile, Software on .

Windows 8 Interface

David Goldman reports that the new Windows 8, due out later this year is a game changer.  It is essentially an attempt to combine the capabilities of a PC with the intuitive look and feel of a tablet.  It has touch screen input but can work with a mouse and keyboard as well.  The opening screen is in the Metro Interface (tile-based), from which you can access apps or a traditional Windows user interface.  It has its own app store, and these look and feel very much like those of the iPad.  At heart, though it is still a PC.

Goldman says:

“The iPad is the simplest entry point to what Apple calls the “post-PC” world, but PCs haven’t outlived their usefulness just yet. Most people still go to their PCs for tools like Microsoft Office and more complex content creation tasks

“That’s where Microsoft sees uncharted territory. It wants Windows 8 to power each user’s primary device, which can be as portable and intuitive as the iPad but also be able to perform all the intricate tasks that today’s tablet users flock to their PCs for.

“Microsoft does that by making the desktop itself into an app. The PC boots to the Metro interface, which serves as the “start screen” and main backdrop for Windows 8.

“Metro is ideal for everyday tasks like Web browsing, e-mail, photo sharing, social networking, and casual gaming. But when you need to manage files, edit a document, or do anything else you wouldn’t typically try on an iPad, a tap or click on the desktop app launches what looks and feels like the Windows 7 interface.”

Not everyone is so taken with Windows 8.  Preston Gralla writes that a backlash against it is building.  The main complaints seem to be that although those who have tried it on a tablet generally like it, on a PC it is difficult to use with a keyboard and mouse.  Another complaint is that trying to meld desktop and tablet OSs produces an unholy and tenuous alliance.  “Metro and the Desktop are essentially two different operating systems incompletely bolted together.”  He points out this humorous YouTube video of a writer filming his father trying out Windows 8 for the first time.  He gets out of Metro to the desktop but can’t get back!  The gentleman says “Who puts this out?”  On being told, “Microsoft,” he retorts “They trying to drive me to Mac?”!

Well, this is a preview version, so hopefully they will fix some of the problems.  It is easy to see why Microsoft is trying to put out a universal OS.  They only have to maintain one product rather than separate ones for tablets and PCs.  It would be easier for organizations (including universities) to maintain a mixed platform of desktop PCs and tablets if they all run the same OS.  App development would be simplified because the same apps would run on both.

We recently had a rather lively debate in my department on the merits of tablets vs. PCs.  On one side are the iPad supporters, who see its intuitive features as the future of computing, and the desktop/laptop people who point out that, try as you might, you still have to come back to a traditional workstation to do work requiring high-performance resources.  As for me, I’ll stick with my laptop for now.  True, it is a lot heavier and bulkier than an iPad, and the battery life is much less.  But I have a larger screen that doesn’t get mussed with fingerprints and I have office on it and plenty of power to do the things I need.  It’s a tradeoff I’m willing to live with.

To my mind, if Microsoft can come up with an operating system that can work on all types of devices, it would be great, provide that it works.  Goldman points out “Windows 8 meets Microsoft’s goal of producing a ‘fast and fluid’ operating system. It’s so lightweight, in fact, that even on a five-year-old, battered Dell laptop with a puny Intel Centrino processor, Windows 8 booted up in 16 seconds. By contrast, my iPhone 4S takes 27 seconds to start up.”  Windows 8 seems to have a very small footprint that would enable it to run on tablets and make PCs blazing fast.  Seems like they learned some lessons from Vista after all.

Anyway, we’d better get used to the idea, because it looks like Microsoft is redesigning the rest of its product line to take advantage of Windows 8 duality.  Matthew Shaer reports that the latest version of MS Office, officially titled Office 15, is now out in limited preview mode.  It has the Metro style interface and has touch editing features.  So it looks like Microsoft’s foray into the mixed-mode world is more than just some toe dipping.  It seems to be a major shift for the company.  You can’t blame them for wanting to stay relevant.