You brought them along, kicking and screaming ... now what?

No matter how advanced the technology, sooner or later it will become obsolete. Will your faculty (or your education IT department, for that matter) be prepared?
Written by Marc Wagner, Contributor

If you've been supporting faculty in a university IT setting for any time at all, you've found it necessary to drag some of them, kicking and screaming, into the information age while others have been on the leading edge (some would say 'bleeding edge') from the start, always challenging you and your colleagues to provide the latest and greatest in technology -- even if that technology was still immature and expensive. 

Regardless of to which group your faculty belong, and whether or not they took your advice at the time of their technology acquisition, sooner or later the technology they chose will (or worse, already has) become obsolete. 

There are two questions that you must ask:

Will your faculty be prepared to migrate their data?

The university, like most large institutions, stores vast amounts of information about its students, faculty, and staff.  Most of this data must be kept safe and secure and remain accessible for years.  To address this need to store vast and growing archives of information, institutions take into account data migration and accessibility every time they upgrade their technology. 

I've invested lots of blog space to the importance of life-cycle funding and this is just one reason why life-cycle funding and strategic planning are so important to education IT.  If your institution does not build its plans around three-to-five year life-cycles, more likely than not it will eventually find itself dependent upon obsolete technology which is no longer supported by the vendor from whom you bought it.  This is not an enviable position to be in. 

Faculty needs are quite different.  Most of the materials they need to archive are research materials.  There are rarely legal ramifications of the data becoming inaccessible but to the researcher or their colleagues the data may be invaluable just the same -- even if it is rarely referenced. 

The problem is that many faculty, especially those in fields outside of science and engineering are still somewhat new to IT.  They have their favorite tools and they use them but, like many of us, they are not quick to change or upgrade the tools they use.

Just this week, my own institution announced the final retirement of Zip drives in our student computing labs.  The retirement phase of this life-cycle began in 2004 and now, three years later, there are still faculty dependent up this technology.  In response, one such faculty member wrote me to say that it would be helpful if our (education IT) department would a establish a location whereby faculty like himself could go to retrieve data stored on legacy media. 

In his case, he has archived data on 8-inch floppy disks but he went so far as to suggest that there were probably faculty on campus who still had data stored on Hollerith cards or even paper tape! 

(The last time I saw paper tape was the mid-1970's and my stash of Hollerith cards were turned into note cards by the middle of the 1980's.)

What can you do to make sure they are prepared?

The short answer is that you can't do much!  And, with all due respect to my faculty colleague, his suggestion isn't much better.  In all likelihood, his data, stored on those 8" floppies, is lost forever.  To be sure, we have no access to such drives -- which I haven't seen since before Wang computers went out of business.  (The last vendor of which I am aware that used the technology.)  Many of you recall 5.25" floppies but even those are long since gone, along with 10" reels of half-inch tape, let alone teletype machines with paper-tape readers on them. 

Each of those services were retired from our campus over a period of years and with ample warning to faculty to move their data.  Even if we had wanted to keep a single location equipped with legacy equipment around past our announced final retirement date, any kind of support for such devices has been gone for decades. 

In the end, here's the best education IT can do:

  • Provide centralized storage for valuable faculty data.  In which case, it becomes your responsibility to migrate the data as the technology changes.  (And your burden to continune to archive the data whether it continues to have value to the owner or not.)
  • Provide ample warning to faculty if impending retirement of supported storage technology.  Where "ample" means that  you should not wait until after the technology is no longer serviceable to retire it.  Instead, as soon as a vendor announces retirement of a technology, education IT should begin planning to retire that technology from service.  Since most vendors must provide basic support for a number of years after a technology has been replaced, initiating plans to retire aging technology early gives your faculty plenty of lead time to migrate the data they wish to preserve.

Of course, this last tip applies just as well to the retirement of other IT services (software and hardware), not just data storage.   

After years of bring faculty into IT, leaving them stranded without viable solutions to their data storage and retrieval needs, does a grave disservice to your faculty, your students, and your institution -- and so does allowing them to use ancient technology which could fail any day without any way for them to recover their data. 

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