There are three widely held assumptions about the state of technology in liberal arts colleges:
There is a fourth assumption, often mentioned but not well-established:
In December 1999, representatives of Occidental, Reed, Swarthmore, and Vassar met in Chicago to discuss ways to explore the fourth assumption. Each college was facing a dramatic increase in demand for web technologies and was struggling to find a strategy for web support that would be both robust and sustainable. Collaboration offered the prospect of minimizing the risk of making bad technology choices, leveraging the collective technical expertise of our institutions, and sharing some of the costs of web development. The focus on finding ways to weave web technologies into a variety of academic and administrative activities, coupled with the elusiveness of solutions, led the group to refer to the effort as the Web Integration and Sustainability Project -- WISP.
Challenges to Collaboration
Although liberal arts colleges have a rich history of collaborating with one another, there are comparatively few examples of technology collaborations that have yielded noteworthy results. Some of the more successful efforts have involved small groups of colleges with extensive pre-existing consortial ties such as Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore, and Haverford, the Five Colleges in Massachusetts, the Claremont University Consortium, and the Minnesota CLIC group. As the WISP participants discovered, there are formidable challenges to technology collaboration that liberal arts colleges must take into consideration:
Technological diversity -- When forming the WISP collaboration, the four participants focused a great deal of attention on the fact that each used the SCT-Banner administrative system for college operations. The assumption was made that co-development of web interfaces and database-to-web utilities would be expedited by this underlying commonality and that software modules would require little or no modification in order to be used at any of the four colleges. This proved not to be the case.
During the first year of the project, a technical task force of web programmers drawn from each of the institutions did a study of web development tools. Occidental hosted a two-day multi-vendor workshop to allow the task force to examine a variety of products. Despite energetic efforts to identify a single development environment that would meet everyone's needs, the task force eventually concluded that variations in staff expertise, differences in the mix of end-user platforms, prior investments in associated technologies, and other factors argued for the adoption of a diverse set of web tools.
The WISP experience in this regard is instructive. Despite their relatively small size, the technology environments and investments of liberal arts colleges are neither simple nor homogeneous. Even institutions that share a common enterprise system such as Banner may be sufficiently different to make standardization on a single web development tool unrealistic, especially given the range of rapidly evolving choices (e.g., Java, ColdFusion, PHP, Tango, and many others).
This conclusion prompted the technical task force to seek an alternative avenue for collaboration. The search eventually led them from programming to analysis and design. Rather than producing "plug-and-play" modules to be used at all four schools, attention was turned to the development of specifications and strategies that could be implemented, with custom features, in each environment. This approach has proven to be extremely valuable and provides a useful model for other liberal arts college technology collaborations.
Organizational differences -- Groups that support technology at liberal arts colleges come in many different sizes, shapes, and reporting structures. This is especially true for emerging technologies, such as the web. Building interdepartmental teams is often difficult within an institution; the task becomes even more formidable across institutions. During the WISP project, technical staff were sometimes frustrated by their inability to identify an appropriate counterpart at another institution. Working with colleagues who don't have the same set of responsibilities can bring new insights to a project but it makes the adoption of a shared perspective and action plan quite difficult. At times, WISP technical staff realized that only by bringing together a combination of staff from IT, communications, libraries, and other departments could they hope to have the necessary decision-makers involved in a planning or development effort.
Differing priorities -- Another key assumption of the WISP collaboration was that there would be a great deal of overlap in institutional objectives and associated technical priorities among small, private liberal arts colleges. To confirm this, we conducted an internal study to identify areas of potential overlap. To our surprise the intersection of priorities across institutions was relatively low. While all four colleges shared a high level of interest in issues relating to student recruitment, institutional advancement, curricular improvement, access to information resources, student and faculty diversity, facilities enhancement, and so on, the specific technology goals arising from these areas of interest were vastly different. In cases where technical goals did intersect, differences in operational practices were often substantial enough to render a "one size fits all" approach impractical. Some institution-specific customization proved to be necessary for shared modules even in "highly standardized" areas such as budget reporting.
Project Scope -- The administrative overhead inherent in a technology project--planning, budgeting, communication, documentation, approvals, and so forth--rise significantly when collaboration is involved. Unless the scope of a project is sufficiently large, the overhead can quickly eclipse the work of the project itself. Many collaborative web projects that were initially discussed by the WISP group were eventually tossed out because they lacked the necessary scope in terms of software development complexity, range of use, or anticipated life span. Selecting projects that met the "scope" test proved to be difficult. Discussions with other colleges, however, convinced us that an inordinate number of collaborative technology efforts failed to meet expectations precisely because the relationship between project scope and administrative overhead were not carefully assessed in advance.
Distance -- One of the more intriguing challenges of
this collaboration was its bi-coastal character. We speculated that the
use of email, listservs, web sites, blogs, and other forms of online communication
might enable staff at the four colleges to transcend the great distances
between them. Eventually this proved to be true, though not quite to the
extent we had hoped. What we discovered was that face-to-face meetings
were vital in order to establish a foundation for making productive use
of online communications. Sporadic organizational meetings during the
first year were insufficient to build the needed sense of community and
Institutional commitment -- The most difficult challenge of any collaboration lies in the tension between self interest and group interest. While the underlying goal of collaboration is to achieve a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts, in reality there are costs of collaborative engagement that tend to siphon away the benefits of collaboration. These costs include administrative overhead, additional staff workloads, and compromises to one's technical agenda, among other things. In order to deal effectively with these costs, there must be, within each participating institution, a clear commitment of leadership, will, and resources. There must also be a shared understanding and endorsement of the goals and benefits of the collaboration by senior officers, faculty, administrative staff, and technical staff.
Early in the project we discovered that much of the leadership needed to come from users --registrars, comptrollers, admission officers--rather than from IT staff. Without shared goals and shared expertise at that level, it would have been virtually impossible to collaborate on the design of a web module, much less on the implementation.
Leadership and shared commitment were tested many times during the project. Technical staff from each of the institutions often found WISP-related activities to be an unwelcome burden to their workloads that offered no obvious or immediate benefits. Finding ways to relate their technical agendas to the collaborative WISP goals was difficult at times.