When we think of information technology in terms of education, it is easy to limit ourselves to visions of a room or two full personal computers and libraries full of books with computers replacing the once-ubiquitous card catalog. The only 'academic' software we imagine running on those educational workstations are web browsers and word processors -- with an occasional electronic spreadsheet thrown in for good measure. We often don't think about the wealth of discipline-specific software -- much of which is available for free, or with a textbook -- which is at the educator's fingertips, if they only choose to embrace it.
In primary and secondary schools, getting educators to embrace discipline-specific software is still a huge challenge -- in large part because unfunded mandates and shrinking state budgets have left schools woefully underfunded.
The university environment is somewhat different. Instead of one or two IT guys maintaining two or three dozen hand-me-down computers, in a handful of labs, most colleges and universities have some kind of centralize IT organization -- or several smaller IT organizations -- which manage hundreds, or thousands, of computer workstations. These organizations have ongoing budgets and usually have life-cycle funding. The challenge for them is not the funding itself but to get the finance arm of their institution to recognize that students are better served when their IT resources are governed by a three-year life-cycle instead of the more traditional five-year amortization that drive most accounting units' capital budgets.
Like K-12, web browsing and word processing still dominates the university computing environment, and while students spend an inordinate amount of time on the computer doing non-academic activities, many college educators rely heavily on software geared toward some aspect of their field of study. This is especially true of the physical sciences and engineering but many fields of the liberal arts are also finding tools of great value to their own fields.
The challenge for the IT department is to deliver this wealth of applications on a large number of workstations and do so in a timely manner. If the application has licensing fees associated with it (as opposed to its being available as a 'free' download -- or included with a textbook), then the IT department may have to either find funding for the number of licenses needed or ask the department making the request to fund the application out of their departmental budget.
Some university IT departments fund only those applications which are interdisciplinary in nature -- and thus will be deployed in locations open to all students in all fields of study.
Applications funded by individual departments would generally be deployed only in those locations frequented by students in those particular disciplines.
The larger the number of workstations involved, the more complicated the mechanics of such software deployment. Disk-imaging products work perfectly fine for software distribution when you have moderate numbers of similar workstations. But, when you are talking about hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of workstations in several different configurations and in a number of locations around campus, fully automated remote distribution tools are the answer.
These tools can permit a large installation to distribute new software to literally thousands of computers in a matter of minutes. Similarly, security updates are be fully tested and delivered in a controlled setting instead of having every workstation attempt to load the latest updates every morning at 3:00am!
The final step is making IT policy. Once the tools are in place to deliver software and the funding model for paying for that software has been established, the IT department must establish policies and procedures for your academic departments to follow in order to have their software deployed in a timely fashion.
While this may seem unnecessary to those of you serving a small number of professors with limited needs, as demand goes up it becomes painfully obvious to IT staff that academic units will soon expect special treatment when they find themselves in need of some software for which they forgot to ask when they first decided to use it (often some months back!) Your IT department needs to set reasonable time-lines for the deployment of software based upon when it was first requested by the academic unit and when the software first became available to IT staff.
With reasonable IT policies in place, and published for your academic units to see, exceptions can be dealt with realistically and efficiently -- and your IT staff can finally stop spending their time 'putting out fires' lit because your constituents had little understanding of the challenges of supporting software on large numbers of workstations.