Bursting the Campus Technology Bubble Where are the Flying Cars?

Where are the Flying Cars?


Welcome to The Campus Technology Bubble

It may well be time to rethink campus technology. “What’s the deal with not knowing what our tuition buys?” This question was asked over a recent Sunday night dinner by a young former University of California student of a long-time, about-to-retire faculty member.

To senior higher education administrators or trustees this question is generally brushed off as fast as their eyes avert when they’re asked about the function, structure, and size of student debt in the U.S. —debt, which funds a portion of every U.S. campus. These are the uncomfortable questions that live alongside declining enrollments, challenges to survival on many campuses, and high first and second year dropout rates.

Now let’s add campus technology to this already overburdened list: we are long overdue for a review of campus technology solutions and how their fractured nature likely contributes to many of the other problems facing colleges and universities across the country.

The technology solutions that operate modern campuses today exist in a bub-ble sealed off from the natural evolution of every day technology everywhere else but on a campus. In fact, the current core technologies on campus are largely antiquated systems that have been modernized but not transformed.

This means solutions that started on ledgers, then migrated to floppies, then to server rooms, and are now in the cloud, are essentially the technologies that today’s students’ grandparents might have known. The need to accommodate shortcomings resulting from the lack of foresight that allows these core systems to evolve past the boundaries of their original roles, even though they are using the latest programming, has led to the emergence and purchase of layers of workarounds, peripheral solutions to address these issues.

In fact, there are solutions reporting on solutions. This has become a very expensive cottage industry. At a time when we should be looking for cheaper and more form-fitting hybrid solutions, we are still trying to soupup old gas guzzlers.

Playing the Technology “Twister” Game

While CIO and academic technology offices spend much of their time stitching together all the sys-tems necessary to service compliance on one hand and being highly reliable on the other, there is no organization, association, or president’s council in our community colleges, state universities, or even at our most selective campuses actively thinking about where the eventual consolidation, innovation, and evolution will come from.

This problem is exacerbated by the confounding fact that all this technology has yet to produce a unified student tool or toolset to manage daily life on campus, to integrate learning with looking forward to the job market, or mining academic paths taken by alumni and correlating them with their current careers and the courses they themselves took as students.

And, instead of servicing students directly, especially in the face of justified concern over their success and retention, multiple systems effectively spy on them and turn the results over to faculty and deans through yet other sets of solutions attached to the core technologies. This is the Twister game of campus technology.

Finally, in today’s world if students are not in the center of their own lives from a technological perspec-tive, it could be argued that the campus does not have a bona fide relationship with them, which likely contributes to the retention and dropout rates. This is not rocket science, and it should not require the creation of yet another instance of Twister. It should instead be the starting point for rebuilding and consolidating the campus tech stack with students in the center.

The Stakes are High

The technology mismatch would be just an “academic” problem if the issues facing higher education as a whole were not so challenging, troubling, and present. But they are. These problems in sum are problems not only for students, for faculty and administrator job security, they are also critical eco-nomic problems regionally and nationally.

Outside the campus tech bubble, the need for relevant, efficient, reliable, and easy-to-use services is what drives general app, technology, and user innovation – which, in turn, drives the economy.

Unless something hinders that process, new services will routinely remake and replace old solutions. Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, and Tesla are remaking transportation. Unfortunately, there is no effective threat or counterbalance to higher education that will cause such a service to materialize. For now, the only threat is made up solely of students voting with their feet by not showing up in the first place or leaving without a degree.

The Barriers to Evolution

The former University of California student mentioned above who asked the logical and-not-so naïve question about what her tuition bought, like many others, lives on consumer, social, and other technologies that far exceed the quality and utility of campus technology. Ditto for faculty and administrators. How long can this gap exist and who will address it?.

It could be argued that the evolution of campus technology is stalled because of four primary factors:

  1. Inertia, Narrow Perspectives, and Fatigue — There is no effective way to stop and start campus technology all over again. The incumbent technologies are needed daily. The switching costs involved in money, time, and changing behavior are immense. Yet, the problems confronting these institutions are potentially life-threatening to their own survival and to cost containment. Why there is not a clamor for more modern technology is a sociological mystery.
  2. Governance, Authority, and Budgets — There is no effective, overall owner of the campus technology plant and equipment. Due to the programmatic, academic governance, and administrative makeup of a campus, decisions on technology and data solutions are distributed to the silos responsible for the technology solution each programmatic or academic units uses and to the gating of faculty committees. Campuses do not have counterparts to corporate CEOs, so there is no single point of mission ownership.
  3. Lock In, Shut-out, and Lack of Dialogue — The incumbent campus technology companies and their investors spend tens of millions of dollars on marketing, wining and dining, and essentially dissing potential game-changing newcomers. Several modern technology companies that started in corporate, government, and healthcare are beginning to see the campus as ripe for disruption. Corporate giants like Salesforce and Workday that manage integrations through modern APIs will eventually prevail, though they are very far from being tuned into the unique nature of campuses.
  4. No Safe Space for Innovation — While many campuses shelter their students from disturbing points of view with “safe spaces,” there is no space in the campus organi-zation to “try before you buy” technology solutions or to set up dialogues between campus users and testers and developers. While it is common to use expert pan-els and focus groups, that is a far cry from deploying pilots and constant feedback.

Technology Anchors

If you wonder why there is no Elon Musk or Uber of education, it is simple. The cost of entry, slow adoption cycles, lack of a forum for discussion, and nowhere to experiment makes it difficult for an all-in-one, student-and-faulty centered solution to rise to prominence. So far, there is also little financial incentive for the private equity, venture, or large corporate funders to under-take this challenge.

Unraveling the Maze

The Student Information System (SIS) is at the heart of the core technology problem on campus. This is the system of record that manages the official enrollment, program, course, grade, and transcript. It is controlled by the campus registrar’s office. Much like your official file you weren’t allowed to see in the old days, the SIS has been modernized, but the functions remain the same.

The tension over credentialing is just starting. Many learners and worker-learners need broader credential solutions. They do not want to chase transcripts across multiple campuses and certificate and badging programs. This problem will grow quickly and could be the lever for change at the student level, from students who learn in more than one place. Complying with one university, community college, or training provider will become old hat and cumbersome. Many institutions and start-ups are looking at how a person can hold multiple credentials in one place.

Not Your Grandmother’s Ledger

What is unfortunate about the SIS is that it should be, in today’s world, a multipurpose student data and identity system. It should be and could be “the” system on campus and it could also easily “talk” via APIs to all the other systems on and off campus. Instead, it is an anvil of a doorstop in the digital era.

It could function as a portal for each student as their access to campus and pre and post campus. It could shuttle and manage data flow through various systems on and off campus. It could securely manage the data a student touches, utilizes, or produces across campus, including their interactions with other departments and their interactions off-campus in the “real world.”

Unfortunately, this is far from the case. Thus, the SIS, like other systems, currently has a range of peripheral systems that can be integrated to do what the SIS could and should do but can’t. In addition, the student success products, which are generally expensive and leave the student out of the center, are mainly used by campuses to manage what is largely a campus-generated problem.

Student success solutions essentially look over the student’s digital shoulder (spy) and report back to the administration how they are doing by their grades, class attendance, and a variety of other factors. A modern SIS could do all these functions and could also include the student centrally in the process. Why administrators don’t learn from the overwhelming social media, sharing sites, consumer appli-cations, and the app culture when examining what it takes to recruit, retain, and graduate students is another unanswered sociological mystery.

Not Your Amazon of Learning

The Learning Management System (LMS) is the other core campus system. This all important solution is the nexus between student, faculty, programs, courses, content, assessments, and grades. Even the best of the LMSs, and there is one that is substantially superior to the others because of its native cloud functionality, are not data-wise.

In today’s consumer and health world, if you have thousands or millions of people doing essential-ly the same thing on a technology platform, they and their interactions are deeply data mined in real time. There is no other way to produce and improve service in an on-going way. Thus, outside the campus tech bubble, natural language processing (NLP), machine learning (ML), and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are doing the heavy lifting by sifting through data and interactions to look for patterns of success and failure, and areas for improvement. These are not done by ancillary add-on services. They are managed in core products designed for extensibility.

In a modern LMS, the LMS would not simply be made up of calendaring, content delivery, test giving, grade-posting, or faculty comments. It would be first and foremost a data reporting system that exam-ined its functions in relationship to the overall success and failure pattern and trend mapping for each student specifically, times all students generally, in class or a program.

And it would do this across many campuses, analyzing content (OER and publisher) and the effectiveness of quizzes, midterm, and high-stake assessments. This data would be invaluable and it would be linked with the cost of services. Instead, at present this core system must rely on a whole class of analytic products that are either up-sells to the core platform or third-party solutions. And the list of addons is growing. Likely many of these will be absorbed in the various LMS companies through acquisition, but not truly integrated into the code base.

What About Employment, a Job, a Career?

If the core tech solutions (SIS, LMS) could have a rich data dialog mediated by modern APIs, aided by or ignoring the supplementary systems, a base of data would then be available from the enrollment and progress of those students (as well as from previous alumni tracks), and these, through the magic of data-matching and data-mining, could connect with labor data and open jobs in whatever region of the country a student might be looking for work.

This form of linkage is logical and needed.

There is one company, Emsi, that is superb at showing where alumni end up in the economy. Their economic tracking solution is largely used to guide community colleges, helping them determine their occupational programs.

What We Need

A core solution, not another ancillary solution, should manage the career “fit” analysis; it should be part of what the modern core system looks like.

Such a solution would change the nature of academic advising and career counseling—not two separate program offices on campus supported by two separate categories of technology solutions.

Academic advising and career counseling are two sides of the same balance sheet and should be deeply linked. Are we getting the picture yet?

The two core systems, SIS and LMS, and their attendant supplementary systems, Student Success and Analytics solutions, should have a healthy minute-by-minute dialogue via common APIs “talking to each other,” just as advising and counseling should. Unfortunately, this is not the case with most of these solutions because they are separate and in many cases aging code bases that are not “data-first” solutions.

These systems should also be free to connect to the outside world, similarly to students cutting class and going outside the campus bubble because their lives no longer stop at the campus gate.

Why doesn’t this happen?

Likely, because vendors are maximizing revenue by limiting options to campuses. They are not required by the state, regulatory agencies, or institutions to deliver optimal well-integrated solutions.

This is perhaps a possibility for legislatures to consider, especially if the vendor earns more than 50% of their revenue from public institutions.

The LMS only knows the student as a number from the SIS. The SIS does not know what the student is doing within the LMS except for what is reported as an official test score or grade. When an advisor looks at a student’s record, they are not looking at rich data, and there is no accompanying “graph” to help them advise well or to connect their advice to the world outside the bubble regarding future work opportunities.

This is most unfortunate because these are giant workarounds to the way technology works elsewhere. There are at least two companies that are now routinely extracting data from all campus systems and can deliver to end points. One of these companies is able to deliver those data to a dashboard that has an imbedded career exploration tool linked to live jobs and labor trend data. This should not be another add-on, but the front and back door students use routinely.

The Cost of Technology Stalemate within the Bubble

It is unlikely, given the distributed nature of management and governance on campus and the inability to think about how everyday personal technology could guide product development, that these problems will be addressed by campuses. If they were, which happens occasionally through consortia, the solutions would need to take into account how modern technology systems operate and factor in how data science linked to identity can deliver on the promise of education as a platform for lifelong learning.

The cost of not looking for overall solutions that acknowledge the learner is clear:

Faster die-off of wonderful liberal arts institutions, the budget squeeze in the public systems, and the eventual push-in to the academic space by the large tech companies with little knowledge of the subtleties that need to be addressed with students and faculty.

What can be done?

It is not too late to form a higher education futures group that pole vaults beyond the technology twister world of integration and standards, mostly driven by the incum-bents, to consolidated systems through modern APIs.

In such a reworking, adapting some of the incumbent campus technologies and the publishers’ con-tent lock-in could produce an actual ecosystem model for technology and data “dialogue,” and better and more universal data-sharing down to the student level and to universal records.

There is no reason in today’s world to have so many technology work arounds or so little consolidated data going to students, faculty, and advisors.

We need consistency from more central cloud based systems that know the students and their interactions and rely on rich APIs rather than on more ancient integrations and standards that are controlled by education technology vendors and publishers.

Campus Three Column “Value Accounting”

At the center of the technology and data twister problem is the fact that all technology and data work on campus is inherently tactical. It is currently about fitting technology solutions to administrative offices and academic departments rather than to a strategic framework to guide campuses at higher level on their whole mission delivery including the centrality of students.

The campus mission is a blend of service, administration, and outcomes, all of which need to live within a budgetary reality that projects attendance realities.

If the focus is on one-off licensing of multiple solutions, times ten, the end service is not likely to fit what is needed to attract and retain students in addition to bringing costs down and servicing regional and national employers.

There should be inherent mission guidance from the president and trustees that gates the fusion of technology and mission to delivery of services and return on investment.


The Central FocusIn column one, Student, all the costs associated with managing that student can be analyzed and reviewed for redundancy, costs, and effectiveness. This column could have an owner on campus.

There has to be an overall equation that starts with students before they come to campus that includes information and counseling during the recruitment period, and then, without a drop off in intensity, con-tinues once the student sets foot on campus (or starts online).

The solutions that are important to students must be bundled from one access, feedback, progress entry, and continuation point. The campus student app can and must evolve to be like apps in the rest of the world. Student isolation is the condition to mitigate.

Also, from a data collection point of view, if the student’s consumption of services is collected in one spot, these data are more reliable and holistic than “spying” on that student or inferring their activity with a variety of student success tools without involving the student directly.


Connecting Students, Faculty & Labor OutcomesIn column two, Administration, all the overhead expenses need to be evaluated for consolidation includ-ing the production of new core technologies that consolidate in the cloud, through APIs, and gauge the connection between the Student and the Outcomes.

Higher education is top heavy and at the same time everyone generally works hard within their program-matic areas. However, like the Student column, the Administrative column is generally managed through ERP solutions (HR, Finance, Payroll, etc.) that manage the campus budget, spending, resource allocations, and analysis. This, again, is just the modern version of old ledgerware. It should be modernized and serve multiple masters via data and API.

The question of the former University of California student who asked where her tuition fees went should have her answer, continually available and updated.

For those who manage campuses, provide governance, state funding, and accreditation, a dedicated ROI category needs to be part of the institutional strategic framework.


Two Way Program & Labor Outcomes DataIn column three, Outcomes, the question of relevance and connection of the institution’s services to students, academic field, and regional economics has be accessible and accounted for. If not now, these will be regulated, unless an institution goes out of business before this can happen.

The question of relevance and where students go is slowly becoming a strategic issue, as it should be. Whether a liberal arts campus is preparing a student with a solid foundation for many careers, or prepar-ing students for certain STEM careers, where those students end up is critical to account for the efficacy of higher education institutions. This needs to be a separate Outcomes column.

Such economic modeling solutions could easily be adapted to orient campuses and their programs, directly support students and advisers, and point to outcomes that are making a difference for alumni and the economy.

Outsiders Heading Inside

At least two large external players are moving into campuses with increasing commitment and expenditures on sales and marketing. There are others as well. These outside companies have several things the incumbents do not.

They are corporate cloud level enterprise systems with rich APIs that manage an actual well-connected ecosystem of sub-services that are not separate integrations.

The problem with huge outside firms coming in is that they are generally ignorant of the history and functions of existing campus solutions doing what they actually do well from a service perspective. These companies generally do not commit to R & D to become a next generation solution. They are largely sales-driven to the point that there are no internal offices trying to model or understand complete campus needs nor to develop the type of thought leadership that could help lead campuses to experiment until they are comfortable in a new world of data.

The most aggressive and directed of these companies are Salesforce and Workday. Their solutions are compelling but to scale in utility, outcomes, and ROI, a lot more will be needed.

Salesforce provides customer relations management solutions (CRM) to 150,000 corporate and government clients globally with annual revenues nearing $10 billion. This scale dwarfs anything in the education space. CRM systems initially tracked salespeople’s sales activity. Today, the company is the underpinning for tracking people-employees, customers, clients—across all their activities in a corporate, health, or government enterprise. In higher education, this means Salesforce wants to own the student journey from recruitment to attendance to alumni. This type of system creates an expensive but reliable overlay on top of multiple campus systems. However, the solution does not remove the mess of incumbent solutions. The company is still a distance away from understanding the nuances of education institutions as a whole or an inclination to learn more, though they service singular functions well.

Workday is a different kind of solution, but akin to Salesforce. The founders of both were at Oracle. In the case of Workday, the PeopleSoft solution was acquired by Oracle. Workday has gone far beyond the roots of PeopleSoft by entering the top end of cloud computing to manage HR and finances across the corporate, health, and government enterprises. At about a fourth the size of Salesforce, Workday has a promising data rich, API driven replacement for the traditional SIS, called “Student,” which it can link to its world class financial and HR solutions. This would allow it in time to calculate the ROI to questions like, “Where did my tuition dollars go?”

The Bottom Line

Notwithstanding the distance these and other solutions outside the bubble have to go, their value propositions are appealing and numerous campuses are looking for outside strategic cloud services alongside their incumbent and aging solutions.

However, without strategic foresight and experimentation there is no guarantee that such systems will change the retention, dropout, relevance, and cost issues.

Larger strategic dialogues are needed. Just making choices in technologies new or old will not fix the problems confronting campuses.

Flying cars might not be here yet, but cars are rapidly evolving. Higher education needs to catch up and evolve to provide the service that is expected by learners, faculty, and employers.


In 1946, ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) became the first fully functional digital computer. Built at the University of Pennsylvania Moore School of Electrical Engineering under the direction of J. Presper Eckert, a Moore School elec-trical engineer and John Mauchly, a physicist for the Ballistics Research Laboratory, its first programmers were female, recognized in this link. The Army was proud of its accomplishment as seen in this press release and newsreel.


Gordon Freedman is president of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, a research and development nonprofit dedicated to modernizing learning, training, and job-seeking, and a Fellow at National University’s Precision Institute. Previously, Freedman was vice president of global education strategy at Blackboard, Inc.