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January 7, 1999

Pitt developing long-range plan to address computing demands

A chancellor-appointed committee of administrators, professors and other info-tech wonks has begun work on a long-range plan to address Pitt's escalating computing needs.

Robert Pack, vice provost for Academic Planning and Resources Management and a member of the Information Technology Steering Committee (ITSC) that's drafting the plan, said the plan will be aimed at: € Setting funding parameters for information technology at all five Pitt campuses.

€ Ensuring that the tens of millions of dollars the University spends each year on information technology actually advance Pitt's academic priorities.

€ Seeing to it that the money is spent as efficiently as possible.

"We've never done anything this ambitious before in the area of information technology planning. It will be a comprehensive plan, covering all forms of information technology in the University: faculty and student computing, [World Wide] Web-based instruction, networks and library automation as well as the underlying infrastructure," said Pack, who has been interim director of Pitt's Computing and Information Services (CIS) since last spring.

According to Pack, the info-tech plan will be modeled after the facilities improvement plan approved by Pitt trustees in April 1997. The facilities plan established construction and renovation priorities based on goals previously endorsed by the board, such as improving undergraduate education and quality of life for residence hall students. The facilities plan also outlined a year-by-year schedule of projects through the year 2008.

Pennsylvania legislators praised the facilities plan as a well thought-out, ambitious yet realistic blueprint for campus development. Gov. Ridge cited it in pledging $138 million in state funds to Pitt over the next five years for the planned convocation center and other campus projects. Pitt fundraisers refer to the plan in soliciting private gifts for "bricks and mortar" projects.

Because computing technology changes at dizzying speed, the info-tech plan likely will cover five years rather than 10, as the facilities plan does, Pack said. But will an information technology plan likewise help Pitt's fundraising? "I don't know that there are the same opportunities for external funding for information technology as there are for facilities improvements," Pack replied. "But certainly, a prerequisite for any fundraising is being able to make a persuasive case that you know what you're doing and where you're headed.

"And this is the first clear attempt on our part to understand in detail exactly what we are now doing in the area of information technology, to understand what the needs of the University are going to be, and then to establish priorities and costs for meeting those needs." q Right now, no one even knows how much money Pitt spends annually on information technology. CIS's University hard money budget is about $14 million annually; CIS's telecommunications office does $10 million worth of business per year with University units on a cost-recovery basis; and Pitt departments buy about $2.5 million in software licenses and other services annually through CIS Software Licensing Services.

Beyond a few large numbers like that, however, much of Pitt's info-tech spending is embedded in departmental budgets. "Anytime anyone buys a computer on behalf of the University, it's an information technology expenditure," Pack said. "Right now, it's hard to know whether we're spending enough and in as coordinated a way as possible." While seeking to identify the many sources of info-tech spending at Pitt, the plan will not attempt to undercut the fiscal autonomy of individual units, Pack said.

"This isn't so much an attempt to centralize all the money as it is an attempt to get everyone to agree upon the priorities and to ensure that all of the people who expend money for these [info-tech] purposes expend it in a coordinated way, therefore getting the most for our money," he said.

Nor will the plan result in the central administration dictating hardware and software choices to all units, according to Pack.

Administrative units that use certain Windows-based Pitt computer systems, such as the PRISM financial records system, can't use Apple computers, for example, Pack noted. But otherwise, he said, the University will continue providing support services for Macintoshes as well as PCs.

"We're a multi-platform University and we will continue to support all of the major systems," he said. "We will support Windows. We will support Apple. We will support UNIX. Because we have people here who use these for quite legitimate reasons.

"On the other hand, users vote with their feet. In the student computing labs, for instance, Windows machines are being used more and more each year, and Apples less and less. So we will continue buying fewer Apple machines because we're trying to provide what our students prefer to use." q Perhaps the info-tech plan's greatest purpose will be "to establish information technology as a clear, high priority University budget item, as we did with facilities," Pack said. "Increasingly, information technology is at the core of everything we do at this University." Last year, Pitt launched PRISM, and the University currently is developing new databases for Human Resources and Institutional Advancement.

Another example of the way information technology has become central to the University's mission: Last fall, Pitt enrolled about 2,000 students in courses using World Wide Web-based instruction to supplement traditional lectures and lab sessions, according to the Provost's office.

That number is expected to double for the current term. "The demand among our faculty for training in Web-based instruction is growing very rapidly," Pack noted, "and without a comprehensive plan in place, responding to that demand is – I won't say it's haphazard, but it's not very systematic." Two essential issues for the info-tech plan are faculty and student computing, Pack said.

"For faculty, some of the questions we need to deal with are: To what extent should the University provide desktop computers to faculty members? What is the program through which those computers should be provided? What software should we make available to them? And which staff members should faculty go to when they need technical assistance?" Another issue of particular interest to faculty is off-campus access to computer networks. From June to September 1998, CIS added 230 telephone modems, bringing Pitt's total to 800. "That's one of the biggest challenges as people become more dependent on computing: How do they get access to the network? Our faculty do much, if not most, of their work off campus, and not during traditional business hours. Off-campus access will be one of the key things we look at in this planning effort," Pack said.

In recognition of the fact that many students likewise do the bulk of their work off campus during non-business hours, CIS last year beefed up its Help Desk from an 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., weekday operation (which mainly served staff) to a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week operation (which now primarily serves students).

Pack said the info-tech plan will build upon those and other changes CIS made during the last year, including: completing installation of computer network ports in all Pitt residence halls; creating a website through which students can check on their grades and class schedules; replacing the old microwave connection between the Pittsburgh campus and the University's mainframe facility at RIDC Park with a faster, more reliable fiber-optic link; remodeling the David Lawrence Hall computing lab and making it a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week facility; and closing the PC Center in favor of an Internet-based, on-line "e-Store" offering cheaper prices and a wider choice of hardware and software.

Within the next several weeks, Pitt will join two major research networks, Abilene and vBNS, which provide greatly expanded bandwidth and a wealth of scientific data.

The changes have carried a price, and not just in dollars. While upgrading services and facilities without an increase in its operating budget, CIS cut its staff last year from 272 positions (some unfilled at the time) to 216, then re-hired some workers with appropriate skills and recruited new ones to reach the office's current strength of 245 employees.

Many of the new hires were student workers. Last year, CIS instituted training programs for students and internships for high school graduates and community college students. CIS also supports two graduate students in Pitt's School of Information Sciences, paying their tuition in exchange for their technical expertise. "We've increased our total budget for student workers by 30 percent," Pack said. "The private sector is moving increasingly to hiring students. Well, we already have students here, so we're trying to make it more attractive for them to remain here. A number of these students remain working for CIS for four or five years after they graduate." q As with the facilities plan, Pitt faculty, staff and students will get a chance to comment on draft versions of the information technology plan before it receives final approval, Pack said.

ITSC itself includes members of the Senate's computer usage and libraries committees, one student, a regional campus representative, members of the Executive Committee on Academic Computing and several administrators and staff members.

Pittsburgh won't call the shots for the whole University system, Pack said. "This plan won't be uniform across all five campuses. The Bradford campus's needs may be different from the ones in Pittsburgh. We've asked the regional campuses to include their computing issues and concerns within the academic plans they're to submit to the Provost's office by March 1." There is no firm deadline for completing the info-tech plan, Pack said. "It's hard to know how long the process will take because we don't know what the extent of comments [on the draft] will be," he said. "But we would like to have the plan in pretty significant shape by the end of the term."

– Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 31 Issue 9

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