Friday, January 1, 2010

Future of IT Services - Part 1

Seeing as I lead an IT Services group in our school district, I've been thinking a lot about this topic - what might an IT Services group's value proposition evolve into over the next 5-10 years?  Rather than overwhelm you with one massive post, I've chosen to break this into two or more.  I will share my beliefs about the future of IT Services based on trends in technology, price (read free), and school system's ability to leverage digital devices for productive learning.  This first post in the series will focus on digital user devices and software.

I remember early (mid 1980's) in my career planning (at a research facility in the Canadian Dept. of Fisheries & Oceans) for three months to upgrade a Fortran compiler on a VAX mini-computer before actually executing the project.  Isn't that crazy?!!?  I worked on programming projects for months to do simple (in today's terms) analytical work.  Now, the speed of change with technology is mind-numbingly fast.  Software changes constantly, much through open source methods.  There is rarely time to think / plan enough before embarking on major upgrades or new tech initiatives.  It's a bit frightening at times since the consequences of getting it wrong are way higher now than it was with a Fortran upgrade!  Users of computing services had "dumb" terminals and then PCs with terminal emulators - real work was done on the central mini-computer...  systems changed slowly...

Currently, a lot of what an school district's IT group does today is high touch on 1000's of district owned computers.  Installing software, re-imaging computers, updating software, troubleshooting software or login issues, changing configurations to meet user's needs, etc.  Using a mix of enterprise management tools, remote support, and hands-on support, many 1000's of computers can be maintained pretty well.  Software used to be mostly commercial and required infrequent updates (annually).  However, more and more software is free, connected to web services, and wants to be updated very often.  There is a tonne of work and it's increasing...

However, a shift is occuring...  more and more students and teachers are bringing their own computer, er, digital device (laptop, netbook, ipod/phone, blackberry, cell phone, game console), often more than one to school.  There is a direct relationship between the number of personal devices and their cost.  As the cost continues to drop, more are purchased.  More and more software is becoming free, web based and fully online with a rich user experience.  Forecast this out and I think in five years there could easily be more digital devices in our schools that are personally owned rather than school/district owned.  And the software will be likely be 100% "in the cloud" (on the web).

I believe that IT Services groups need to shift gears and over time at the right pace focus on true services rather than traditional IT computer installation/support work.  If we don't do this and reinvent ourselves, I believe we will become obsolete.  What will our tech forces do if their primary function is to install/maintain computers and software and most of the computers aren't ours and the ones that are access all their software from the web?  I believe and will write more later on this, that IT Services will continue to (increasingly) be an important group but only if the services provided are relevant to the times.

I am interested in others thoughts on this:
  • Do you think this will become a reality in 5 years? 10 years?  Why or why not?
  • Do you think educators will change practice quick enough to leverage the diverse digital tools that are increasingly coming with students?  Why or why not?
  • What do you think a school district's IT Services groups primary function / focus should be in 5 or 10 years?
  • What skills / expertise should be developed?
My next post in this series will focus on what a school district's approach to providing IT infrastructure might be to support the future of a digital powered learning environment.  I'll talk about servers and cloud computing (free, for a fee, and ours).