Computing power doubles every two years ~ Moore's Law, named after Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore
Technology evolves at a rapid pace. Sometimes it changes before we're even aware of it. If we're not careful, we find ourselves behind the curve, working with outmoded expectations. Consider how we store information. Students need to save term papers, and faculty need to keep copies of their research, articles, and other publications. Not too long ago, we saved this data on floppy disks. The most common capacity of floppies stored 1.44 megabytes of data. At the time, that meant numerous WordPerfect files or Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets. But in today's terms, a single floppy disk is about ⅓ of a song from Apple's iTunes Music Store. We no longer think in quantities as small as a "megabyte."
Technology has moved on. Today, most of our students have never even seen a floppy disk. Instead, they carry USB flash drives to transport their data from their dorm room to the classroom. And that's if students even deign to use something so quaint as storage media to save their files. The 16 gigabyte USB flash drive in my laptop bag gathers dust. A drive that small is almost obsolete, especially when you can save all your files remotely (in the "Cloud") and access them anywhere using a Web browser. Storage is changing, and changing quickly. How will we save information in another five years? Or ten years? Where will we keep our data? That's why campuses constantly need to look towards the technology horizon, and think about how to adapt new technology for the academy.
Let's go back to the storage example. While hard drives remain popular for "archiving" files or saving large data sets, we still need to move data from place to place, to carry our information with us wherever we go. We used to rely on floppy disks. At first, 5 ¼ inch floppy disks, then 3 ½ inch floppies that could store four times the data. Later, 100 megabyte "Zip" drives became popular, then writable CD-ROM discs. But eventually, these were displaced by the advent of USB flash drives. This embodies an on-going revolution in storing information - from flexible magnetic platters to optical media that harnessed lasers, to solid-state devices. Yet each step is really just an evolutionary, incremental improvement to the previous method. The ubiquitous USB flash drive is not too different from the venerable hard drive. Moving data to the Cloud is just storing information on someone else's hard drive. The more technology changes, the more technology stays the same.
Look ahead to the next revolution that affects the academy, and what do you see? To understand the future, we need to examine the past. When institutions first used computers to organize information and process large amounts of data, everything was typically stored on a mainframe. Many faculty researchers shared time on a single campus mainframe. This "timeshare" system allowed all data to be managed centrally. The equipment could be easily audited, the organization could control how information was accessed. If you needed to process data stored on the mainframe, you used a "terminal," not much more than a monitor and keyboard at your desk. But that was only a "window" into the system, providing a view of the data; the real processing always took place on the mainframe, located in an isolated server room, under central control.
In the early 1980s, IBM introduced the IBM-PC. This put individual computing power within the budget of home users - or academic departments in a campus. With the right software, faculty could process research data on their own, without having to go through the university's mainframe. The flexibility afforded by not having to negotiate time on the mainframe meant avoided distractions, and allowed faculty to focus on their research. The academy found they could use the "personal computer" as a tool to solve new problems. But at the same time, the central technology departments began to worry; PCs were not mainframes, and couldn't be managed in the same way. PCs didn't have a security model like the mainframe, and couldn't be centrally managed. Central IT decried the "Consumerization of technology," even as many in IT scoffed at the PC as a mere "consumer" device that was underpowered or lacked sophistication to suitably replace mainframes. Yet the PC eventually pushed aside the mainframe, and IT had to find ways to adapt to the new model, and adopt the PC as a business tool.
Fast-forward to today, some thirty years later. We are hearing the same rhetoric about Cloud services, and tablets and smartphones. Except this time, individual departments aren't bringing them to the workplace - it's the faculty themselves, or the students. This new trend is called "Bring Your Own Device," or the acronym "BYOD." Central IT worries about controlling and securing the data on these personal devices, since they aren't managed by the institution. Some even claim the tablet and smartphone as work devices are a fad, and will pass. If this sounds familiar, it should; it's the same argument made against the adoption of PCs.
Yet, campuses ignore the impact of BYOD at their peril. Two years ago, only a few students used iPads or other tablets in the classroom. Today, they are everywhere, and their numbers are growing. My campus estimates about ⅔ of our students use a mobile device to interact with the university. According to a November, 2011 study by research firm Nielsen, ⅔ is typical of mobile device adoption with 18-24 year olds in general. Students look to their smartphone to check email, not a laptop or a lab computer. They access their electronic learning systems via an iPad. Campuses can't simply assume "BYOD is coming." The era of the BYOD is already here.
The growth of BYOD and mobile computing dramatically alters the teaching and learning landscape. Many universities have already moved from a pen-and-paper learning model to electronic learning systems, or "e-learning." With e-learning, students access their class notes via a course website, participate in online discussions with other students, download certain class materials, submit assignments, and receive grades and feedback from the professor. Universities that adopt e-learning are taking the first step towards the classroom of the future.
The academy must actively embrace the concept of BYOD, and find ways to leverage it. How do we support these personal devices without putting data security at risk? How do we balance the need for mobility with the necessity of data privacy and security. Do we trust our storage to outsiders? Campuses need to plan ahead. How will we access and share information in one year, in five years, in ten years? What changes does BYOD bring to the teaching and learning landscape?
With the widespread adoption of mobile devices and BYOD, e-learning quickly shifts to "learning on the go." With "mobile learning," or "m-learning," students continue to interact with e-learning systems throughout their university career, but they increasingly do so via a mobile device: tablets and smartphones. This radically changes the new model of e-learning, even to how students access the e-learning systems. M-learning is about the mobility of the user, recognizing that students can continue to learn wherever they are, and no longer need to be anchored in a classroom. With BYOD and mobile devices, learning will become increasingly mobile, relying on mobile data networks to connect with the university's online systems. This trend will only expand. Embracing the changing technology allows universities to better serve their students and faculty, and by extension, their academic mission.