Review of: Katz, R. et al. (2008) The Tower and the Cloud: Higher Education in the Age of Cloud Computing Boulder CO: EDUCAUSE, available here

Today, I’m going to start with the EDUCAUSE publication, The Tower and the Cloud, edited by Richard Katz, an EDUCAUSE Vice-President. The title is somewhat misleading as it isn’t just about cloud computing, although this central to many of the issues raised in books.

Cloud computing, to use the Wikipedia definition is:

‘Internet … based development and use of computer technology…whereby … resources are provided as a service over the Internet. Users need not have knowledge of, expertise in, or control over the technology infrastructure “in the cloud” that supports them. The concept incorporates software as a service (SaaS), Web 2.0 and other recent, well-known technology trends, in which the common theme is reliance on the Internet for satisfying the computing needs of the users. An often-quoted example is Google Apps, which provides common business applications online that are accessed from a web browser, while the software and data are stored on Google servers. The cloud is a metaphor for the Internet, based on how it is depicted in computer network diagrams, and is an abstraction for the complex infrastructure it conceals.’

It is a pity that cloud computing is not defined or explained early in the book, because Katz gives a subtly different meaning to the ‘Cloud.’ The Cloud, as used by Katz in his opening chapter, is really a metaphor for the uncertainty surrounding rapidly emerging information and communications technologies, and their possible impact on the university. As Katz puts it (p.11) ‘Why has it become increasingly difficult to predict the channels that IT may cut in higher education? Is IT a tool that we control or will information and communications technologies profoundly influence and perhaps deeply disrupt higher education?’

This book explores these questions through a series of essays, some very brief, from 26 contributors, the majority of whom are from the USA. The chapters in the book are grouped around six ‘themes’ (although in practice there is a good deal of overlap between the themes):

  • higher education and information technology
  • the globalization of higher education
  • accountability
  • IT governance
  • open information, open content, open source
  • scholarship in a cloudy world.

Richard Katz gets the book off to a good start with an essay entitled ‘The end of the middle?’, which is an analysis of the historical development of IT in higher education and some key directions in which it seems to moving for the future. His main conclusion is: ‘We are at a cusp – an interregnum that separates innovation and socialization. We are making the leap from one innovation curve to another.’ What are these innovations that are changing the nature of IT and its relationship to the institution?’

One of the key issues raised in the book is the increasing loss of control of central IT units, as computing becomes decentralised and in the hands of the users, operating often outside the institutional networks (and especially through ‘cloud computing’). Richards Yanosky’s essay, ‘From users to choosers: the Cloud and the Changing Shape of Enterprise Authority’, is essential reading about the implications of cloud computing – the use of servers, networks and facilities distributed throughout the Internet – for institutions dependent on IT for their core functions. In a similar vein, Philip Goldstein’s essay discusses the future role of CIOs in higher education institutions, and again examines the possible impact of cloud computing on the role of the central IT unit.

At the same time, information technology is becoming an increasingly core activity, not only in administration, but in teaching as well. If central IT units are not in control of IT policy or management, who is or should be? Katz rightly focuses on the importance of IT governance, and particularly the need for all key stakeholders, including administrative and teaching staff, to be involved in decisions and implementation regarding priorities and policies for information technology. Several chapters discuss IT governance (again, not clearly defined), and again the focus is often on the (changing) role of the CIO. I would have preferred myself much more discussion about the role of the senior executive team in IT governance, and ways in which other key stakeholders, and especially faculty, can best be encouraged to engage in IT governance issues.

I don’t want to give the impression though that this book is all about the management of IT, as important as that is. Some of the essays dealt with the impact of new developments in IT on the core mission and functions of the university. Paul Courant’s conclusion is that the core mission of the university is unchanged by developments in IT, but that the way that mission is attained does require radical change, a similar conclusion also reached by Clifford Lynch in his chapter on ‘A Matter of Mission’. (The assumption though that the core mission remains unchanged is challenged in the next book to be reviewed).

Closely linked were several other chapters on the relationship between information technology and scholarship. In particular, what are the implications of digitization for the storage and organization of scholarly works, and  how does digitization change the nature of knowledge or the way scholars should work? Both the chapters by Katz and Gandel on ‘The Tower, the Cloud and Posterity’ and Paul Conant’s chapter on ‘Scholarship: the Wave of the Future in the Digital Age’ were particularly stimulating reading, and raised deep questions about the ‘security of knowledge’ when it is digitized.

As with most books with a wide variety of contributors, some ‘themes’ were better dealt with than others. In particular, I felt the chapters that related to the direct impact of cloud technologies such as web 2.0 tools on teaching and learning were particularly weak. Thus this book ends up being more focused on the implications of cloud computing for CIOs and IT specialists than for faculty or administrative staff. This is a pity, because these stakeholders will be the ones who will drive the use of cloud computing. I would like to have seen more concrete examples of the application of cloud computing and the issues related to teaching and learning in the book. I would also like to have seen much more discussion of the practical issues for data security and the privacy of student and staff information resulting from migrating administrative services to cloud computing.

Nevertheless, this was never intended as a ‘how to do it’ book, but as an ‘ideas’ book that raises important and deep questions about new technology developments. Thus it is a book that anyone interested in the future development of information and communications technologies and their impact on the academy should read, and I would particularly recommend it to senior executives, administrative directors, deans, and faculty engaged in using web 2.0 tools for teaching. The least it will do is to give you some good questions to ask of your IT people – but expect to be asked to suggest some answers yourself, because you are a key stakeholder and have a direct interest in policies that involve the use of cloud computing.



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