[ Editor's Note: This interview was conducted nearly 20 years ago as part of a project I completed for the UCLA Educational Leadership program. The goal was to understand how educational leaders use computers in their daily lives and how they manage technology's many challenges in their workplace. I am amazed at how well the issues raised by the twelve K-12 leaders and higher education professionals I interviewed have stood the test of time. The hardware and software has changed, to be sure, but the challenge of using technology as a leadership tool still remains. Enjoy! *extra credit if you answer the questions at the end of each interview! ]
For your Ed.D. culminating project you created a needs assessment for technology at Cal State Northridge. How has the needs assessment instrument you created helped your organization? What has it enabled you to do better?
We have been able to use the needs assessment for the last couple of years now. My unit uses that document to help in our planning. One of the things that came out of that assessment was that we recognized the need for better communications mechanisms on campus when there were problems of a technical nature with the network services. For example, when our e-mail system goes down, how do you tell people its down, especially when you can’t use that same e-mail system to tell them that its down. On that particular item we spent about six months working out an emergency communications process for all of our services. And what it does is outline the various systems and if any one of them goes down, it establishes the mechanisms for us to communicate that technical problem to the rest of the campus community. It also defines what constitutes a system failure. Many of these things are covered. But just the notion of having everybody to stop and put into place a notification system isn’t practical, so we’ve established some guidelines. A problem that remains for 30 minutes, we follow a certain protocol, and that protocol is changed if the problem persists past 60 minutes, etc. If the e-mail system goes down, for instance, use the voice mail system to notify end users, and vice-a-versa.
Has this new system allowed you to have a smaller staff?
Well, its primary purpose was two-fold: One it was to improve communications internally. One of the biggest problems you run into in a situation like this is that the staff is busy trying to recover the systems. Their primary responsibility is to get that system back up. What we want to do is make sure that they aren’t being distracted by endless phone calls while they are working on resolving that very issue. At the same time, they have an obligation to take a few minutes out of their time every once and a while and tell everyone what is going on. So that we can do our job to keep people off their back, they have got to tell us what the prognosis for a fix is so that we can take that information back to the people who need it. So it really hasn’t enabled us to reduce our staffing overall, but it has allowed our people to work more efficiently.
How would this system contrast with what existed five years ago?
There has always been various mechanisms, but they haven’t always been the most effective or most efficient. One of the biggest things we learned from the needs assessment was that people become frustrated at the technology when they have technical problems and don’t know when they will be resolved. People have come to rely on the technology working, and when it doesn’t, its can be a problem.
How quickly the technology becomes outdated is a big concern among educational leaders.
One of the challenges as far as I’m concerned for leadership is to determine when upgrading technology is important and when it isn’t. Technological obsolescence is not the same as personal obsolescence. You have to ask yourself how important is it for you to upgrade your applications every time Bill Gates wants to deliver you a new product on the market. I’m still using Microsoft Word 5.1 and I like it a lot. I use it for everything. I hate version six. Its one of those things were the market will drive this much faster than we need to accept it sometimes. Sometimes we don’t have a choice. For the vast majority of the faculty here Windows 3.1 served their needs well. But Windows 95 came along and we all made the jump, and I’m not sure we are any better off. Here in the technology group we skipped Windows 95 entirely and went straight into Windows NT servers. That served us really well. A lot of this is sort of crystal ball gazing, some of the decisions are not clear. The challenge is you really have to look past the hype. You can’t always afford to be on the cutting edge.
And in K-12, if test scores don’t rise after five years, its hard to justify your technology purchases.
You really need to make wise choices. Ultimately it goes back to what are the outcomes you are trying to achieve? To give you an example from this campus, we started several years ago using electronic mail in our developmental writing program. Its a great tool for interaction, getting students communicating with each other, teaching them the basics of written communication skills, etc. It put a terrible strain on our internal e-mail system because so many users were using it simultaneously. It was an example of an instructional use of technology that really put a strain on the infrastructure and the in-house systems.
The important lesson we learned from that experience was that we didn’t need the latest and greatest e-mail system. It was the most basic, one of the earliest mail messaging systems and it served its purpose and fulfilled an instructional objective. A similar system might work just as well today. Whether its Pine-mail or Eudora or Netscape mail or something else, in my mind, it shouldn’t make a difference to the nature of the instructional objectives. The fact of the matter is, if you can identify the need, you don’t have to have the latest and the greatest software or hardware.
How do you see technology changing Cal State Northridge in the future?
We anticipate that more and more things are going to be web-based in the future. So our goals here are to get more involved with that. People need to recognize that technology is so accessible now to the general community. Ten years ago, if you wanted to know about computers, you visited our campus computer center or the computer science department, because nobody else knew about it, and nobody else had the equipment. Now everybody has computers and the fact of the matter is we have people on this campus who know far more about this stuff than we do. There’s two ways you can respond to this new reality. One, you can get upset over that and get all bent out of shape or you can start taking a leadership role and start looking at the problems and challenges that the access to technology creates. Now everybody has a PC and web access and anyone can set themselves up as a publisher. The challenge now is how do you manage that. We are trying to establish ourselves here as facilitators of that process. How do we facilitate conversations among key individuals in order to move this process forward in a meaningful way. We are consensus building, establishing momentum, etc.
One thing to remember is that its hard to apply a rationale business-like approach to what is in some cases a political environment. One thing that Ted Mitchell said that I will never forget is “in a political environment no decision is ever final.” And certainly that’s true here at Cal State Northridge as well. The issue then becomes how to achieve consensus on key issues, even for the short term. The other thing that is interesting in higher education is managing the tension between limited resources and the need for a basic, robust technology infrastructure that meets the needs of the students and faculty and administration. Add to that basic tension the need for an institution to be involved in innovation that is part and parcel to the institution of higher education. We have to be able to test and evaluate and experiment with new technologies without crashing everything, for example, in the business department. So it really is a challenge for leadership in knowing those issues. Sometimes I have to be able to show them an alternative, something better, then that to which they are holding on to so dearly to show them that there is a different way.
Is it pretty much accepted by faculty that the technology is here to stay?
I think on some levels yes. I think people have more or less gotten to the point where they recognize that the technology is here to stay. The basic stuff yes, but there is still a debate and I think its a good debate over how helpful this is in terms of the educational outcomes. Some faculty members here at Northridge have actually done some research comparing online courses with traditional classroom approaches. They’ve found that there are benefits to the online method. That kind of stuff is out there. Having said that, I don’t think any of them believe that you can replace 100% traditional face-to-face classrooms.
I’m curious as to why the mentality exists, that it is either or, one or the other.
The folks that are actually working on this don’t see it that way. Part of the answer to that questions, though, comes from outside of education. Certainly in higher education there is an assumption that the technology is going to allow us to teach more people, better, and with fewer resources. So things like Tidal Wave II can be handled without building additional campuses. Now, there are some real problems with that, but the proponents of that approach rarely sit down and go over the details.
Right, who has done the math.
Yeah, it doesn’t pencil out. That’s a challenge. We need to have a flexibility in our technology responses. Distance learning can be used appropriately, but you need to understand the very complex issues that work behind the scenes to support it. Its going to be challenging to go in that direction without an adequate support structure in place.
Distance learning, training teachers, etc. But the costs are an issue, access is an issue, and I’m waiting for all of the pieces to fall down.
Right. It all boils down to choices. Last year I had an opportunity to add an additional 40 modems to our model pool. The $50,000 purchase cost is just part of that total cost. When you add the $20,000 a year in annual maintenance costs, then weigh the benefits of a momentary improvement in dial-up access, sometimes you just have to say no. The solution for the students might be to just get an independent Internet Service Provider. Maybe its just part of the costs of going to school, like books and parking, etc. The question is to what extent do you subsidize the technology and when does it just become a ubiquitous part of going to college? None of this is free. The cost may be hidden from the end user, but somebody is going to have to pay for this.
Are there any other big leadership issues related to technology. You mentioned access, costs, decision-making.
The biggest leadership challenge is that its not about the technology, its about the people who use the technology. Taking care of end user needs is far more important than just making sure that their PC turns on. Its understanding how they are using the technology. When you get right down to it, most of us use the same basic tools. What I think is fascinating is how individuals use those tools. E-mail, for example, was never designed to be used in a development writing course, but some enterprising faculty members started using it for things that it was never really designed for. All of a sudden, somebody created a use for it that matched the instructional outcomes of the university. I can’t believe the people at ARPANET had any clue what they were creating 30 years down the line with the Internet.
- Dr. Crase mentions that Ed.D. students should “learn the basic tools.” What do you think he had in mind? What are the basic computer tools that educational leaders use day-to-day? What software programs do you use on a daily basis? Which would you like to master for the future?
- Technology and technical problems go hand-in-hand. How are technology maintenance problems handled in your organization? What is the process (or lack thereof) for repairing broken or damaged equipment?
- “ One of the challenges as far as I’m concerned for leadership is to determine when upgrading technology is important and when it isn’t. Technological obsolescence is not the same as personal obsolescence.” When should you upgrade software and equipment? How do you handle “people” upgrades?
- Dr. Crase - “ You can’t always afford to be on the cutting edge.” What is the difference between Windows 3.1, Windows 95, and Windows 98. What are the advantages/disadvantages to upgrading? How might you convince your colleagues that they DON’T need to upgrade to the newest system?
- “The important lesson we learned from that experience was that we didn’t need the latest and greatest email system. It was the most basic, one of the earliest mail messaging systems and it served its purpose and fulfilled an instructional objective.” Identify ways in which simpler technologies might be substituted for state-of-the-art technologies.
- Addressing the management task of true technology integration. When the whole institution becomes reliant on PC’s and web access, for instance, what are the ramifications for staffing, budgets, etc.
- “Certainly in higher education there is an assumption that the technology is going to allow us to teach more people, better, and with fewer resources. So things like Tidal Wave II can be handled without building additional campuses.” Can technology actually reduce costs, as in not having to build additional campuses? What evidence exists to show this is true?
- When it comes to technology planning in your organization, do the needs of the “end user” come first? Is the purchase of equipment predicated on how it will be?