As a first time attendee at the 2011 Consumer Electronic Show (CES), I was astounded by the dizzying variety of gadgets on display at the thousands of booths in the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC). Imagine all of the Mall of America's (MOA) retail spaces filled with small booths of every color, millions of flashing lights, a few thousand TVs hanging in the air, dozens of huge flashy stages for the biggest vendors, and throngs of people everywhere. Now imagine it even bigger: the LVCC has almost a million more square feet (3.2M sq ft) than the MOA's retail space (2.5M sq ft).
There were cars that drove themselves, 3D screens that didn't require glasses, and strange new electronic guitars with push button frets. Of course, there were also countless smartphones, tablets, smart TVs, and robotic vacuums (including one version that connects to the Internet and doubles as a security device). So what does all this have to do with the College of Liberal Arts? A lot, actually.
Consumer Electronics and Higher Education
For the past two years, CES has had a special track dedicated to higher education. Last week, people from institutions all over the country presented everything from new technologies and e-learning initiatives to academic analytics systems and data from nation-wide student surveys. Vendors presented new gadgets, including a robotic video screen on wheels for instructors in remote locations to deliver lectures and answer questions while "strolling" through the classroom. (One example: the Vgo.) And of course, many presentations were made about new tablets, cloud services, and their added value inside and outside the classroom.
The Changing Landscape of IT
The near future of technology clearly includes smartphones, tablets, and personal devices all attaching to various cloud services and social networking sites. Many of us already use these things, sometimes without realizing it. Yet the traditional IT office is ill-prepared for recommending, supporting, and maintaining these devices and services. Support teams want hardware standards, vendor agreements, and security systems. Technicians want to know where support begins and ends and have incentives in place for users to "use the right things."
Here are some questions I am asked every day that demonstrate how technology has changed:
* Do you know which smartphones to buy from AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon or Sprint, and how to make them work with our University systems (wireless, VPN, e-mail, calendar, voicemail, etc)?
* Do you know which devices work best with Google Docs?
* What is the best way to secure these devices?
* Is it OK to use Dropbox to store University data?
* What are the best ways to use an iPad in the classroom?
If you know the answers to all of these questions, please contact me: I have a job for you. If not, you are in the same boat as CLA-OIT and other IT organizations everywhere--here at the University of Minnesota and at every higher education institution in the country. As technology groups, we may know some of these answers at a basic level, but many of us (maybe most) simply choose to avoid the questions entirely by insisting on highly restrictive and outdated standards.
The Road Ahead
A "head-in-the-sand" approach to a sea change in IT is not reasonable for teams that are responsible for providing tech support services. Our faculty, staff, and students are being quite clear about their continually evolving technology wants and needs, and we are determined to create services and structures that meet those needs. The entire CLA-OIT staff is excited about the road ahead.