In some sense the difference between IT in a K-12 environment and a university computing environment is about the same as the difference between the small business and the large enterprise.
Whether a small business or a school district, there is usually one or two IT people supporting at most a few dozen computers, maybe a server or two, and a small network. Even at the school district level, the environment is not much different.
In this environment who exactly is the 'IT Guy' supporting anyway? There are several answers to this:
- Administrators -- who run the school or school district. They mostly need help with their desktop and laptop systems, and with the server-based applications where 'institutional' data is stored.
- Educators -- who also need help with personal workstations as well as computers in the labs their students use. The more advanced of them also rely on their local 'IT guy' to get their discipline-specific applications deployed.
- Students -- in this environment, support of student computing is 'hit or miss'. Few schools or districts have a place where students can go for IT help.
If the school's 'IT guy' is a teacher, then students can go to him (or her) and, if the need is great enough, maybe the 'IT guy' has made some on-line resources available for his students but, from the school's perspective, the student as an end-user is not part of the equation. Instead, the student is the institution's 'charge' -- someone upon which they are expected to impart knowledge -- as defined by the school board via it's curriculum.
In a university setting, the view is quite different. In a very real sense, the student is a paying customer -- although the term constituent, or consumer, or even end-user sounds more palatable. The student is also over 18 so the student is much less the 'charge' of the university than they are someone being served by the university.
Even though parents are largely footing the bill, they have little input into the relationship between the student and the university. Other than that, how is the IT landscape different?
Well, for one thing, there is no school board to establish curriculum. That is established by the faculty on a department-by-department basis. Major decisions about programs offered are at the discretion of a board of trustees but the content of those programs is out of their hands. Academic freedom is the rule, not the exception.
Back to the point though... the university IT department consists of many tens, if not hundreds of people, usually organized into subgroups servings different IT needs.
The institution's administrators rely heavily on the IT department to produce institutional data -- not just provide the tools for it, providing a much higher level of support for administrators who may not understand the data as fully as the IT staff providing it.
Similarly, faculty who depend upon IT support for the deployment of discipline-specific software have a much less direct role in that deployment -- but they also have a much higher expectation that their software will be available when and where they need it for instruction.
In his blog, Standardize, standardize, standardize my colleague Chris Dawson makes a good case for standardization on the K-12 level and I could not make his point any stronger. In a university setting though, establishing standards means establishing multiple standards driven largely by need -- not cost.
How can this be? Because by the time the project reaches the acquisition phase, the funding has been established and the costs are already well understood. Usually, the appropriate platform (Windows, Macintosh, Linux, or UNIX) has already been selected as well. At this stage of any project, the number of suitable hardware vendors has also been defined, largely by the needs of the project and the capabilities of the various vendors to meet those requirements. Competitive bidding is still open though few but the 'usual suspects' are among the bidding vendors.
Because of the scales involved in a university setting, each project is large enough to leverage those economies of scale to which Chris refers to allow multiple standards to exist without conflicting interests coming into play. There is no room for platform bias in this setting. You use the platform which best meets the needs of the project.
In the end though, the focus of the university IT department is on the student -- and on serving the larger needs of the institution (such as supporting research initiatives).
What does this mean for IT? First, it means that a robust support structure must be in place, including a telephone hot-line. It also means that an extensive knowledge-base is available online.
Platform specialists need to be available via this front-line support model but they must also be supported during business hours by application specialists to address questions not otherwise answered by the knowledge-base.
Unlike K-12, a university doesn't close down at night and neither should it's IT support. This level of support should include a 24-hour location whereby students who are night-owls can do their studying when it is convenient for them -- not just for the institution.
It would serve secondary education well if it were to learn from the examples of higher education in focusing on the needs of its students instead of whims of its school boards.