The Strange Dynamics of Technology Adoption and Promotion in Academia

Kudos to Bruce D’Arcus for writing the blog post I’ve been meaning to write for a while. Bruce notes with some amazement the resistance that free and open source projects like Zotero meet when they encounter the institutional buying patterns and tech evangelism that is all too common in academia. The problem here seems to be that the people doing the purchasing of software are not the end users (often the libraries at colleges and universities for reference managers like EndNote or Refworks and the IT departments for course management systems) nor do they have the proper incentives to choose free alternatives.

As Roy Rosenzweig and I noted in Digital History, the exorbitant yearly licensing fee for Blackboard or WebCT (loathed by every professor I know) could be exchanged for an additional assistant professor–or another librarian. But for some reason a certain portion of academic technology purchasers feel they need to buy something for each of these categories (reference managers, CMS), and then, because they have invested the time and money and long-term contracts on those somethings, they feel they need to exclusively promote those tools without listening to the evolving needs and desires of the people they serve. Nor do they have the incentive to try new technologies or tools.

Any suggestions on how to properly align these needs and incentives? Break out the technology spending in students’ bills (“What, my university is spending that much on Blackboard?”)?

18 thoughts on “The Strange Dynamics of Technology Adoption and Promotion in Academia

  1. Alexis

    In my experience as a former BlackBoard administrator, there was definitely an interest in alternative FOSS packages from the decision-makers – Moodle comes to mind – but they were extremely loathe to make the switch unless they felt that it would be flawless and everything would be puppies and kittens (to put it rather crudely).

    Basically, it was very much a “better the devil we do know than the devil we don’t” attitude. Unless they felt that the new package would be virtually perfect, they just couldn’t bring themselves to make that final leap into the unknown, even after countless reports, tests, comparisons, and positive reviews from colleagues elsewhere.

    Ultimately, the switch began to happen elsewhere in the university because a well placed dean decided he personally wanted it to happen, and so he made it happen. In our case, we simply needed someone to just do it, and enough with the endless committees and academic hand wringing/debate. Although I am no longer with that department, I imagine Sakai will trickle along to them in another year or two.

    Take away:
    1) Make sure the team you have implementing the solution is absolutely, positively the best you can get. You want to remove any hiccups from sight that might give nervous nellies cold feet. Reality aside, every bump in the road, no matter how minor (and we are talking a misplaced button or a too small font) will be proof that your solution is inferior and a direct road to technological damnation.

    2) As per number 1, make the interface as easy to learn as possible. This may include making it actually duplicate the old interface, even if the backend is different. In time, you can begin to sneak changes in. Users (professors) will not be able to conflate their own inability to learn a new system as a problem with the system itself.

    3) Find an important person, like the dean, who can make things happen and then just do it. The phrase “design by committee” exists for a reason, and if you do not simply move forward, the specifics will be debated in true academic fashion until you are all long in the beard.

  2. Bruce

    I sense that as much as there are detail question of implementation that Alexis gets at, there are also really big questions of institutional priorities.

    As a simple example my institution recently recently switched to MS Exchange. I was really annoyed about this, and so sought to find out how this decision got made. When I found the requirements analysis, I noted that “open standards” were simply one among a long list of check box items. As I told the chair of the committee overseeing this, one cannot treat open standards support as simply an optional “nice to have.”

    I’ve seen similar things with Blackboard. There’s simply not an organizational priority put on open source and open standards; one that says that even with the implementational hiccups that may accompany transition to free software, its value eclipses those minor problems. Unfortunately, changing that will take hard evangelism work.

  3. Wally Grotophorst

    I’ve been involved in a number of procurement groups over the years and I have noticed that the likelihood of an open source package being selected seems to correlate with the number of people involved in the procurement. Larger group tends to drive out FOSS.

    Years ago it was known as the “nobody ever got fired for recommending IBM” syndrome. Would have a different name today but the mindset lingers. It requires some bravery to champion and become identified with recommending an open source solution. There’s much less risk in finding ways to rationalize the writing of large checks.

  4. Eric

    My sense (having worked in academia for 15 years) is that lingering beneath the surface for many people–procurement officers and faculty or staff who aren’t necessarily on the technological front lines–is the fear that “you get what you pay for” when it comes to anything free and open source.

    So they think, “Sure, free is good–but what happens if something goes wrong? Who do I talk to? How do I get updates? What guarantee do I have that the company/product won’t just go away in a year?” While these are all eminently answerable in a modern open source environment, they don’t *feel* the same to those people who are familiar with single-source corporate products and support systems.

    Open source still has a ways to go, it seems, before the average organization is familiar with what it really means.

    I like the idea of breaking out the cost for technology spending–but maybe only if there’s a good, less-expensive (e.g. open source) alternative in place. I think a larger form of open source evangelism could still be used–one that makes it clear that this is something much bigger and different than the simple freeware gadgets they used to download from C-NET.

  5. Sean Gillies

    I wanted to reply on Bruce’s blog, and I’m glad you picked up the discussion. We see the same syndrome in the GIS business. Users are married to expensive proprietary software, and the open source alternatives often need to be not just better value but better, period, before users dare to risk the switch.

  6. Chris

    As Alexis stated, it is a matter of the known vs. the unknown, but it is also a matter of how resources are distributed. It takes a very different in-house team to manage Blackboard than it does to manage Sakai. For most open source solutions, the institution will need to not only provide faculty and user community assistance but will also be partially responsible for development. So for a group not set up for true application support and development, the simple financial advantage of open source might not be fully realized right away.

    I work for a university technologies group who has implemented Sakai, Plone, and a number of other open source platforms. The adoption of such platforms usually starts at the bottom on smaller projects and slowly works its way up as it is proven and as the community grows around it.

  7. Bruce D'Arcus

    Chris: while the management aspects makes sense in the context of centralized server software such as Blackboard or Sakai, it doesn’t really explain the continued promotion of RefWorks and Endnote Web in the context of Zotero. I almost have to wonder rather cynically if this doesn’t have to do with some kind of organizational turf-guarding; the belief that librarians alone “own” the bibliographic space?

    Sean: oops, I just turned on the comments.

  8. Alexis

    I do want to just point out that the recommendations I make above are not actually “implementation” recommendations, as Bruce put it.

    Any time a new package gets seriously considered there is a pilot phase. A good pilot with a small group of people can convince otherwise intractable opponents or at the very list tip the scales in your favor by getting profs and users who are on the fence to come over to your side. To that end, I consider the pilot pre-implementation – part of the decision making process. The points I suggested above are for a pilot phase.

  9. Chris

    Bruce: That is a good point. I am certainly talking about content management and server software in response to Dan’s CMS/Blackboard comments, not in regards to RefWorks vs. Zotero, which I realize was the original point of discussion. I’m afraid I can’t offer any real reason for avoiding Zotero. As you mention in your original blog post, the argument that Zotero is ‘free’ has both to do with cost and the freedom of information.

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  12. sylvia martinez

    There is also the factor of the sales relationship. Since there is no sales person for the free alternative, it typically is an internal evangelist. and we all know the value of the “prophet in their own land”. The sales person can promise all sorts of stuff that won’t ever happen, but they will be on to the next sale. The internal evangelist has to live with the decision, and might be hesitant to push too hard. And the internal evangelist has no expense account budget for fine dining!

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  14. Leslie M-B

    When we’re talking about cost, let’s remember, too, that “open source” does not equal “free.” My institution has adopted Sakai as its course management system, and the number of staff required to support it (2 faculty trainers, several undergraduate tech partners, help desk, 3.5 programmers, communications/PR person, program manager, etc.) is really quite stunning. Try adding up those salaries and benefits, and you’ll see the real cost of open source.

    I spent much of the last year working as a faculty trainer, and I became increasingly frustrated by the way that Sakai was offered as a solution to just about any teaching quandary. It’s a fine system for some things (e.g. grading, giving quizzes). But the campus has oversold the system so much that now in my new position at the teaching resources center, I’m stuck convincing faculty that using Sakai without quite a bit of forethought can easily lead to diminished teaching and learning outcomes.

  15. Bruce D'Arcus

    Leslie: I don’t have any experience with Sakai, so am not going to defend it just because it’s free software. But a lot of the problems you note are equally (if not more so) true of Blackboard (which I grudgingly use) and WebCT.

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