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The Web Integration & Sustainability Project is being supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.




Technology Transitions: The Challenge for Small Colleges

During the past few years it has become increasingly evident that one of the most serious problems facing higher education is how to keep up with the unprecedented rate of technological change. The impact of such change is being felt in every area of the academy, from instruction and research to admissions and financial aid. The dizzying speed at which new technologies are introduced makes it difficult to hire and retain qualified technical staff, allocate resources effectively, and provide suitable training for students, faculty, and staff. With institutional investments in information technology rising dramatically, colleges and universities must develop new ways to manage transitions from one technology to the next.

The problem is especially acute for small liberal arts colleges. Unlike research universities and other large institutions, small colleges are rarely able to achieve the economies of scale required to make the acquisition and support of new technologies cost-effective. There are too few technical staff members available to investigate new technologies without jeopardizing critical daily operations. Likewise, there are insufficient funds available with which to purchase software or hardware for product testing and evaluation. As a result of these limitations, small colleges are often forced to choose between increasing the size of the technology budget or foregoing the potential benefits of new technologies. Neither option provides a tenable long-term institutional strategy.

The problem of technology innovation at small liberal arts colleges raises four key questions:

1. Can colleges remain current with new technologies and at the same time maintain a rigorous cost-containment discipline?

2. Are there ways for existing technical staff to investigate and develop expertise in new technologies or must staff size be permanently increased each time a new form of information technology takes hold?

3. Are there cost-effective ways to provide training for students, faculty, and staff that will enable them to keep up with useful technology innovations?

4. Can small liberal arts colleges establish methods of selecting and implementing new technologies in a timely fashion while minimizing the risk of making costly mistakes?

We believe the answer to all four of these questions is 'yes' and that the solution lies in collaboration. While individual small colleges may not be able to achieve critical economies of scale, groups of colleges have the potential to do so. Occidental, Reed, Swarthmore, and Vassar Colleges are committed to testing this assertion by entering into a new technology partnership.


A Case Study in Collaboration: The World Wide Web

This project focuses on the integration of web technology into diverse areas of instruction, research, communication, and college operations. The use of web technology poses a number of challenges. At most small colleges, staffing and budgets for computing support are already stretched to capacity. Allocating additional resources to support the integration of web facilities into existing technology infrastructures is extremely difficult. The majority of small colleges, even leading liberal arts institutions, employ ad hoc approaches to web support that are often costly, labor-intensive, and technologically fragmented. In the long run, ad hoc practices that lack a flexible, long-range strategic foundation are destined to fail.

This situation exemplifies the problems of technology transitions in general and provides an ideal context in which to explore the benefits of inter-institution collaboration. The rapid, unpredictable changes in web technologies, along with the difficulty of finding, hiring, and retaining qualified staff, require us to develop new ways of working together and better strategies for managing continuous change. Identifying solutions to this problem may enable us to deal more effectively with other technology transitions in the future.

The project comprises two phases. In Phase I (2000 - 03), the four colleges are pooling their resources to investigate the methods and costs of integrating web technologies into the routine functioning of small colleges. Based on this investigation, models for staffing, training, and technology deployment will be developed to enable small colleges to provide web support in a cost-effective, sustainable manner. An external assessment of the support strategies and demonstration software we develop, as well as the results of the collaboration itself, will be conducted throughout Phase I.

During Phase II (2003 - 05), the collaboration will be extended to other small colleges, including both national and regional consortia. In this phase, the focus will be on the implementation and evaluation of the software and support strategies developed in Phase I.