Mixing Oil and Vinegar

Do government and academic networks belong together?

by / August 1, 2003
With careful work, oil and vinegar can be mixed into the most delicious salad dressings. But left to themselves, the two ingredients inherently keep to their own parts of the bottle.

Mixing academic and government networks -- town and gown, city and local school districts, state and higher education -- is a little like making salad dressing. When the mixing is done just right and is properly spiced, the result can be outstanding. Otherwise it's often best to keep the two sides separate.

Legislative efforts to deal with the fiscal crisis by forced consolidation are not necessarily a good idea -- likely to neither save money nor improve operational efficiency.

The core problem is that the operational dynamics of the two worlds are fundamentally different. Government IT is predominantly a business tool -- though some of us wish it was more commonly and creatively used to support more active citizenship as well. School IT is predominantly a learning tool -- though some of us wish it was more commonly and creatively used to improve administrative efficiency, decision-making and professional development. There are even differences within the academic world between higher education and K-12.

Learning requires experimentation and mistakes. Business requires absolute dependability and predictability. University networks are notoriously open, while K-12 needs to mix filtering with flexibility. Government networks are locked down. Universities cultivate business partnerships. K-12 needs to protect its E-rate eligibility from for-profit contamination. Public-sector leaders would be brought up on ethics charges if they pushed for resource sharing with firms they work with. Schools run on a semester basis, with evening classes and summer school. University salaries are often pieced together from multiple sources including state appropriations, grants and so on. Government runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., weekdays, with most people paid from a single line item appropriation.

Sometimes joint use of a key resource lays a foundation for successful combined network administration. In North Dakota, for example, the statewide higher education network was merged into the state government system to provide broader coverage for both. As Grant Crawford, CIO of North Dakota State University, points out, using the network they've split application hosting work among the various government and academic data centers, which keeps them all comparably sized and able to serve as backup facilities to each other at a considerable savings. At the other end of the spectrum, urban Cambridge, Mass., negotiated a cable contract that gave the city ownership of its own city-spanning fiber network, which it also allows the schools to use, thereby saving the cost of a duplicate system, according to Jeff LaPlante, CTO of Cambridge Public Schools.

But what makes these shared systems work is an enormous amount of mutual trust, constant communication and joint planning, a letting go of turf protectiveness, and an endless willingness to work through the inevitable problems. In Cambridge, for example, the school's chief operating officer is the former deputy city manager, which means the demand to work together -- as well as the operational support to make it happen -- comes from the top levels of both sides. In addition, the people running the school side of the operation are all former teachers, very tuned in to the unique dynamics and needs of the classroom. As Joanne Krepelka, coordinator for the Educational Technology Office in the Cambridge Public Schools, points out, "If your chief technology officer does not have an education background, you're cooked."

Which brings us back to oil and vinegar.

Warren Wilson, director of information systems for the South Dakota Board of Regents says, "If you have enough communication and cooperation, anything could work."

But unless there is a way to institutionalize these relationships, it's better to leave the bottle unshaken and let each side go its own way.

Steven E. Miller is the Executive Director of Mass Networks Education Partnership, a nonprofit educational consulting group that works to improve educational leadership, curriculum, and technology for all learners. He is the author of Civilizing Cyberspace: Policy, Power, and the Information Superhighway (Addison Wesley, 1996), and has served on the boards of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and the Consortium for School Networking. His work has been recognized by MassCUE, the Massachusetts Software & Internet Council, the Massachusetts Telecommunications Council, the Massachusetts Governor's Office, and the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, and was an invited presenter at the 1999 National Education Summit.