CAUSE/EFFECT

This article was published in CAUSE/EFFECT journal, Volume 22 Number 1 1999. The copyright is by EDUCAUSE and the author(s). See http://www.educause.edu/copyright for additional copyright information.

Dogs Are More Fun than Computers: Seven Random Observations about Information Technology in Higher Education
by John W. McCredie

This article is based on remarks made by the author upon receiving from EDUCAUSE the 1998 CAUSE Award for Exemplary Leadership and Information Technology Excellence at the CAUSE98 conference in Seattle last December.

Accepting this award from EDUCAUSE is a very special privilege, and I am thrilled to be this year’s recipient. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Recognition Committee for this honor, the EDUCAUSE staff for developing the award Web site,1 and SCT Education Systems for sponsoring this program for so many years. EDUCAUSE staff members run a very tight ship. When they informed me that a benefit of the award was the opportunity to present some comments about the changing higher education information technology environment, they emphasized that I would have nine, plus or minus two, minutes on the conference program. This limit reminded me that the average short-term memory of adults is seven, plus or minus two, items. This obscure fact, from a cognitive science course taken many years ago, led to my selection of seven observations as the foundation for these remarks. Remembering them will not ensure your success, but might help explain why the world of campus computing is such a wonderful circus.

Observation 1: Dogs are more fun than computers.

One of the great things about computing in higher education is that it is fun, at least most of the time. This fact causes trouble for some of us because it is common to become totally absorbed with a project, to lose interest in other endeavors, and to suffer burnout. The individuals who succumb to this trap often fit the stereotype illustrated by the joke that information technologists are people who are good with logic and numbers, but who do not have enough personality to become accountants. One of the unintended side effects of the World Wide Web is the alarming number of hours that many of our students spend in unproductive cyber-surfing sessions. Becoming completely engrossed in computing can become a real problem. However, many things are clearly more fun than computers. In my case the list includes, in addition to dogs, many family activities, flying, sailing, skiing, and unfortunately, eating. A successful recipe for long-term productivity is--maintain a reasonable balance among several activities, keep the fun in computing, and avoid costly burnout.

Observation 2: "Genetic engineering, solar power, and the Internet will be the three most important technologies of the coming century."
-- Freeman Dyson
2

Whether computing is, or is not, fun is probably irrelevant. What matters is whether information technology applications are truly valuable to society. On campuses they are becoming so important that many observers use the words "transformation" or "revolution" when describing the impacts that the best of these applications are having on learning, teaching, research, and outreach. The belief that what we are doing is truly important leads to a great deal of frustration in our work; it makes it very hard to maintain the balance I am advocating. E.B. White, the famous New Yorker essayist and author of Charlotte’s Web, described this creative tension very well when he wrote: "I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it difficult to plan the day."

The World Wide Web, the Internet, and ubiquitous personal computing and communication devices have already changed the way people throughout the world interact with one another. Our role is to provide our campuses with both the information resource infrastructure and the technical leadership to be successful as we move into the next century.

Observation 3: You never have enough processor speed, disk space, internal memory, or communication bandwidth.

It is well known in the computing industry that software engineers will quickly use, some say waste, everything hardware engineers give them. Moore’s Law describes quantitatively the astonishing rate at which hardware performance continues to improve. These advances have been the salvation of Microsoft and the entire software industry. Even though the personal computers on our desks are more powerful than mainframes of several years ago, and even though thousands of workstations populate our campus networks, many faculty and their students demand constantly increasing system capacity. To be doing a good job in the eyes of these demanding taskmasters, we have to provide these resources at minimal or no cost.

There are short periods of time after the installation of new computing resources when faculty may appear superficially to be satisfied. However, you can count on the fact that this state of non-equilibrium will not last long. The next killer application is waiting just around the corner for them to develop and for us to support. This ongoing cycle is what makes our jobs simultaneously challenging, fun, and frustrating. However, these unbounded requirements make the "free service model" of computing unstable in the long run. Every campus must develop a method for matching its information resources to its financial resources. It is another of our important responsibilities to lead in developing scalable and affordable funding models to sustain the technology infrastructure we develop.

Observation 4: "If it works it’s obsolete."
-- Daniel Burrus
3

This observation is closely related to the previous one; in fact, it may be a corollary. The difference is that I am referring here to applications, not hardware. Many faculty members lose interest in developing an application after it almost works. Another responsibility we have is to support high quality, rock solid applications within an environment of constant innovation. E-mail, the Web, registration, transcripts, Internet access, payroll, classroom support, access to high performance computing, financial and human resources management, and many other production systems are clearly mission-critical applications in a college or university. We must maintain and enhance these core services within the same environment that encourages faculty members and their students to be successful in their next round of innovation.

Observation 5: Organizational architecture is as important as technical architecture.

Most technical people are suspicious of, if not outright hostile to, attempts to make the organization in which they work function better. They believe that technical problems are much more fun to work on than interpersonal issues. In our world of rapidly changing technologies, exploding service demands, continued rapid distribution of information resources, retention-recruiting-retraining issues, and shifting financial models, we must pay close attention to the architecture of our organization or it will become as obsolete as our oldest legacy system. If we want our working environment to be as good as our technical environment, we must develop the culture we want with the same zeal that we bring to developing our networks. To benefit from a culture having attributes such as truth, honesty, responsibility, diversity, accountability, compassion, fairness, and respect, we have to articulate and encourage these values explicitly, not just assume they will be the norm.

Observation 6: "In computing, turning the obvious into the useful is a living definition of the word ‘frustration’."
-- Alan Perlis
4

Developing algorithms that work properly under all possible circumstances is both complex and frustrating, even when the underlying process appears to be simple. The year 2000 problem is one of the better illustrations of Perlis’s epigram. Changing the representation of the year to four digits from two appears to be a tantalizingly obvious process. However, it remains one of the most frustrating projects imaginable. In my opinion, Y2K is clearly a widespread and embarrassing failure to debug programs over their complete operating range. It is hard to imagine that so many people in an industry as sophisticated as ours could ignore this obvious problem for so long.

Often there is a large mismatch between the perceived trivial nature of many processes, and the inherent complexity required to design systems to perform correctly in all conditions. This gap in perception is a contributing factor to what Edward Yourdon calls "death march," or "mission impossible" projects. Until we learn how to convince non-technical managers of the underlying complexity of what may seem to them to be obvious, we will continue to be faced with unrealistic project budgets, schedules, staffing levels, and goals.

Observation 7: Information technology is magnifying our human potential on a global scale.

John Vincent, one of the founders of Chautauqua Institution in New York, declared long before the U.S. Army that "it is the duty of every person to help every other person be all that they can be." One of the great challenges facing our institutions is to make the empowering benefits of education available to everyone, not just to the most fortunate few. High performance networks and innovative educational applications hold the promise of extending our resources throughout the world. Educational applications that are available anytime, anywhere, and on any subject are within our reach. For example, staff members of the Interactive University at the University of California, Berkeley are exploring ways of extending the reach of a great university to K-12 institutions throughout our geographic area. When successful, projects such as this can deliver educational resources throughout the world. If our institutions are not successful in such outreach efforts, the gap between society’s "haves" and its "have-nots" will grow to unsustainable widths. As we all struggle to make the ideal of quality education much more widely available through electronic means, the words of advice and encouragement attributed to Nelson Mandela seem appropriate: "Walk gently. Breathe peacefully. Laugh hysterically."

Endnotes

1 See http://www.educause.edu/awards/elite/98elite/index.html.

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2 Freeman Dyson, The Chautauqua Lecture, Chautauqua New York, August, 1998.

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3 Daniel Burrus, TechnoTrends: How to Use Technology to Go Beyond Your Competition (New York: Harper Business, 1993), 12.

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4 Alan Perlis, Yale University Computer Science, http://www.cs.yale.edu:8800/homes/perlis-alan/quotes.html.

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1998 CAUSE ELITE Award Recipient:
John W. McCredie

Jack McCredie’s professional career spans more than three decades of university, association, and corporate leadership. His achievements are characterized by extraordinary organizational management skills, personal creativity and productivity, and contributions to endeavors that have reflected turning points in the history of technology. As Vice Provost for Information Services and Planning at Carnegie Mellon University in the 1970s, Jack was one of the first to unify computing, planning, and libraries into an integrated research, library, instruction, and administrative information processing environment. During his four-and-a-half year presidency of Educom, from 1980 to 1984, he was instrumental in arranging for an IBM grant to operate the BITNET Network Information Center. In the corporate world from 1984 to 1992, Jack chaired the committee that coordinated Digital Equipment Corporation’s global relationships with higher education.

When Jack joined the University of California, Berkeley, in 1992 as Associate Vice Chancellor, Information Systems and Technology, he initiated a complete review of the campus’s use of information technology. Under his leadership the campus has rapidly moved forward in using educational technology and electronic information resources while absorbing significant reductions in state budgetary support, and now has more than 36,000 network connections, more than four times the number in 1992. Internally, the Berkeley information technology organization has invested in a cycle of activities to improve its own work environment and become more productive.

Jack’s activities are not limited to the Berkeley campus. In addition to service on CAUSE committees and presentations at CAUSE and Educom conferences and the Seminars on Academic Computing, he is a founding member of the board of directors of the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California, the state’s regional network. He chairs the Yale University Council Committee on Information Technology, and is a member of computing review committees for both Carnegie Mellon and the University of California, Davis. Recently he was appointed to a three-year term on the Panel for Information Technology of the National Research Council.

As recipient of the ELITE Award, Jack McCredie chose the Incentive Awards Program at UC Berkeley to receive a $5,000 contribution in his name. This program aims to bring a Berkeley education within reach for high school students who, despite socioeconomic hardship, exhibit exceptional academic promise and leadership potential.

EDUCAUSE Awards Program

EDUCAUSE offers many awards to encourage professional excellence, including recognition of individual leadership, campus networking achievement, innovation in incorporating technology into teaching and learning, excellence in professional publication, team efforts in meeting campus technology-related information needs, and the advancement of scholarship and intellectual productivity through networked information. Information about all of these awards, including application forms and deadlines, is at http://www.educause.edu/awards/awards.html.

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