SaaS, Consumer products, shadow systems and e-learning

In a recent post I commented on the trend around how consumer driven computing is driving the development of “software as a service”. In particular, pointing to an article from the Economist that talked about how Arizona State University was using Google Apps to host email accounts for their students.

What I want to do here is to link this trend back to individual academics and how they may use these services to work around institutional structures and approaches to develop shadow systems.

A recent quote I came across from Somekh (2004) summarises why and links nicely with some work some colleagues and I have done previously.

But activity theory goes further to explain the way that institutional structures within national systems, with functions as diverse as education and the postal service (Engeström & Escalante, 1997), construct and constrain the interrelationship of humans and ICTs in mediated activity.

In that some work we built on work by Behrens and Sedera (2004) an examined how a particular shadow system rose and fell (it has since risen a bit further, but may well fall again). Behrens and Sedera (2004) generated a little framework which explains the factors that cause shadow systems to be created. It’s shown in the following figure. We attempted to show that rather than being objects of scorn, things to destroy. Shadow systems are actually important indicators, canaries in the coal mine, to demonstrate that there is a gap between user requirements and the service being provided.

Factors causing shadow systems in an ERP context

Given the diversity in universities there will always be a gap between what academics want to do with technology than can be provided by the support divisions at universities. More importantly, is that there may well be an even larger gap between what universities provide and what students want. Particularly, given the recent rhetoric around the net generation.

So, what’s new? That gap has always been there.

The difference is the growing influence of consumer computing, software as a service, websites/services such as YouTube, Google Video and the rest of the Web 2.0 avalanche, the increasing ease-of-use of personal computers and applications to create and manage multimedia resources and the growing capability of people to use these tools.

This is a significant change. In the early days of the Internet it was the universities that led the charge, that developed the innovations. Jones and Johnson-Yale (2005) give a brief overview of this in their introduction. An interesting aspect is that initially it was the staff driving the innovation, they then talk about the students going out and driving it further (e.g. Shawn Fanning and Napster, Brin and Page at Google).

John Pederson expressed this in a different, graphical form which was picked up by Scott McLeod which includes a Jack Welch quote.

All these changes increase the “resource” and “support” intervening conditions in the above figure. i.e. they make it easier for the staff and students to “fill the gap” between university provided IT services and what they want to do. University IT is no longer the only shop in town. Increasingly academics and students will ignore University IT services.

This is a change that needs to be countered. Initially, the university hierarchy will probably see this change as a “threat” and counter it by banning use of services. I can see university technical staff playing around with routing tables and firewalls to prevent use of sites. This will be counter productive. Obviously not an option that I would suggest.

Instead, university IT and related services should recognise that this change is coming and instead of banning it, they should on board. Recognise the potential benefits that this change may bring and figure out how they will operate in this new world.

This is especially important as this change may offer an opportunity to address the problem of funding, which is rated #2 in the Top 10 issues facing university IT support.

Potential University Responses

There are numerous approaches a university could take in responding to shadow systems and this particular issue. The following is a start of a spectrum of options:

  • Outlaw it
    All such systems are bad and should be crushed.
  • Ignore it.
    Shadow system, what shadow system?
  • Piecemeal adoption
    Some sections adopt and use it.
  • Adopt it
    Investigate and potentially adopt and support it centrally.

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