Bricks, Clicks and Brains

By Steve Smith, Vice Provost for IT/ CIO, University of Nevada, Reno

Steve Smith, Vice Provost for IT/ CIO, University of Nevada, Reno

The flow of technology continues to move us like so much flotsam on a Class 6 whitewater river. Gartner Group predicts that by 2020 85 percent of us will experience customer service without speaking to a human being. A recent report suggests Artificial Intelligence in U.S. education will grow 47.5 percent by 2021. Intelligent learning apps, virtual reality, learning on demand, digital assessment, and more feed the expectations of students and faculty for a seamless technology experience fed by a tsunami of data supplied by smart devices and data lakes overflowing with every aspect of activity from the bursar’s office to the alumni association. 

Clicks of technology need to be seen as integral with the bricks of our physical infrastructure and the brains of our human players. Effective progress into this new era requires that these three be balanced in a state of equilibrium.

"Some schools are starting to build or renovate spaces that feature classrooms with movable furniture, smartboards, and other interactive technology and that foster active learning "

The challenge of this new paradigm is that each has a different time scale. Facility life cycles are measured in decades, even centuries. Digital technology thrives at orders of magnitude faster (Moore’s 18-month law, for example). Engaging the brains—the people—is a constant, ongoing process. Acknowledging the forecasts of digital transformation, how best can we mix the bricks of facilities with the clicks of virtual cyberinfrastructure to make the best environment to serve the brains of our students, faculty and staff?

Recently, science labs on my campus went to the head of the line for upgrades, with millions of dollars set aside for this. As plans were made, I asked about considerations for the cyberinfrastructure. A modern physical lab can generate mountains of data needing terabits of storage. There may also be need for near-real-time high performance computation, including linkage with other data sources. Modern labs need high bandwidth network capacity and the ability to collaborate with others. In the traditional view, this cyberinfrastructure is an add-on after retooling the physical space, assuming there is any money left to do so.

This is simply no longer sufficient. Bricks (the facilities) and clicks (the cyberinfrastructure) need to be planned, funded and implemented together. The physical lab and the virtual lab are one integrated system. If you don’t have the storage and compute capacity for rapid turnover of the data generated in the lab, along with the network to lash everything together, you’ve invested in a museum piece reminiscent of the last century.

When a building is constructed or remodeled, wireless and other technologies need to be an integral part as essential as lights, not add-ons. In the 2017 Educause Student Technology survey, 94 percent of the students responding indicated they use their wireless devices to access school online. Separating the building from the technology is thinking in traditional lanes. On my campus, we’ve turned the corner on that one, establishing a minimum wireless standard with a goal of ubiquitous and robust coverage. No bricks without clicks.

The tight coupling of bricks and clicks is not enough without attention to the most critical piece, the brains—the human element. Facilities and technology is primarily about people. Our spaces must allow people to apply technology effectively. Attention to brains is a challenge on two fronts. 

The first challenge is to provide adequate support to technology users. All too often, new systems are installed with too little attention on training the people expected to use those tools.  As institutions of learning, we seem to fall short in preparing both our students and employees to make the most efficient use of the growing palette of IT services. Just because we have more data and technology tools doesn’t mean we know more. 50 years ago, Herbert Simon noted that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” We have an obligation to help reduce that poverty.

The second challenge is to maintain a stable of IT expertise to provide or manage the services. It is short-sighted to think that as we migrate ever more to “the cloud” there is less need for local deep technical knowledge. Moving core processes off premise doesn’t mean there isn’t a critical need for campus experts who understand the architecture of cloud services and the challenges of integrating those with an expanding portfolio of applications.

Creating campus spaces that possess cloud-like agility to accommodate the brains that drive the clicks often creates a conundrum of daunting time-scale differences in life-cycle between these three elements. There is a growing movement away from faculty offices to open spaces with ad-hoc private space available. Some schools are starting to build or renovate spaces that feature classrooms with movable furniture, smartboards, and other interactive technology and that foster active learning. These are progressive ways to balance the bricks with the brains to make optimal use of the clicks.

Making campus growth nimble with cyber infrastructure is the institutional challenge of our time.

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