Thursday, April 23, 2009


What the Stimulus Looks Like From Here

(Disclaimer: as I understand it, the Federal stimulus package is run through the states, so each state's version of this may be different. I'm writing about my own state; your mileage may vary.)

With the state budget suffering badly from declining tax revenues, the Federal stimulus money directed towards K-12 and higher education is coming at a wonderful time. In very short order, we shifted from relatively panicky discussions of layoffs to more thoughtful discussions of long-term restructuring. To my mind, this is clearly to the good; we're likely to make better decisions when we have time to include everybody in them, and if we really get lucky, we may be able to effect long-term savings through actual efficiencies, rather than dilutions or work speedups (stuffing classes fuller, say). And I don't mind admitting that I don't want to lay anybody off. Been there, done that, no thanks.

In my state, although K-12 has claimed a generous portion of the money, there's still a substantial amount left over for higher ed. The amount we've been quoted by the state for next year is more than I had dared hope.

That's the good news.

The rest of the news isn't bad, but it's complicated.

At the Federal level, the stimulus money has been specified as lasting two years. It has been earmarked for education, though states can apply for waivers to that. My state has indicated to us that we should only count on the first year; depending on the state of general revenues next year, it may or may not ask the Feds for permission to divert second-year money from education to, say, aid to cities and towns. Based on current projections, absent a neck-snappingly vigorous economic recovery, we're looking at one or two years of stimulus-funded decent numbers, followed by a drop off a cliff.

In other words, it makes no sense for us to use stimulus money to hire permanent (or tenure-track) employees, since the funding will go away in a year or two. (Some of us happen to believe that hiring people is the very definition of economic stimulus, but never mind that.) The directive on campus, which we're working on developing an inclusive process to actually execute, is to treat the stimulus money as a grant. For our purposes, we're assuming that the purpose of the grant is to position the college to better weather difficult times in the future. So the kind of spending that would be privileged is the kind that involves an upfront cost, but that leads to long-term savings or improved efficiency.

Those tend not to be the first things people on campus think of when asked “what should we do with this windfall?” They tend to think first of restoring cuts, of adding to what's already here, and of hiring. Those are all fun in the moment, but they'd make the fall off the cliff that much harder when it happens.

Instead, we're starting to discuss relatively unsexy stuff, like software for room scheduling. Yes, it's boring, but an upfront investment in the software would probably lead to increased operating efficiency over time, putting us in a slightly better position than we'd otherwise be in when the stimulus money goes away. So far, we haven't done it, since we haven't had the loose cash at any given moment to absorb the upfront cost. Now, it may make sense.

We're also looking at using some of it for upgrading the campus wifi, so we can meet increasing 'hybrid' course delivery needs with netbook carts, rather than fixed 'smart' classrooms. The idea there is that it's far cheaper, over time, and improves access for everybody. It also means that we don't have to make existing classrooms clunky with lots of fixed equipment; when you need the carts, you wheel them in. When you don't, you have the basic classroom, so students don't have to look over monitors. It won't solve every need, but it will work well – and cheaply – for many.

And yes, there's professional development. If budgets are going to get tight in a year or two, all the more reason to improve the existing employees' skills now, while we can. Best case, some carefully-defined professional development leads to improved student performance and retention, which puts us in a better position over the long term (and serves our mission nicely).

So far, popular press treatments seem to have subsumed stimulus money under 'avoiding layoffs' or 'general aid.' There's some of that, but it's better to use what amounts to a breather to position a college strategically, rather than to just postpone the inevitable by a year or two. For once, we actually have the slack in the budget to stomach the upfront costs of some long-term investments that we probably should have made by now anyway. It's not as satisfying immediately as hiring faculty, but if it prevents laying off even more faculty in a couple of years, I'll take it.

Your approach is the obvious, sensible one, and hopefully you won't experience much opposition to it. I would recommend laptops over netbooks. The netbooks are cheap, but the small screens make many applications unusable and the cramped keyboards increase the incidence of repetitive strain problems. Netbooks work well for travelling to give a presentation, where you only need a few clicks to load your presentation, but doing real work on them is painful.

What about "greening" your campus and facilities? Wouldn't that be consonant with larger administration goals, both at the state and federal level?

- TL
Whether money put into classroom technology is wasted or invested depends on whether the choices made match up with long term needs. Anonymous' point about netbooks is a good example. Can they be used for a programming class? Will they run the flash or java video needed? Should you get laptops instead? Or how about tablet computers? There is a definite need to involve faculty in this. One would hope the decision is based on experience with each of the alternatives. The same argument would apply to "clickers" or other classroom technology expansions.

A big plus for a portable system is that it does remove some room scheduling constraints, and removes the temptation of facebook when a regular class is in a "computer" room. Our computer classrooms are, I believe, more likely to be idle than a regular room because people do not like teaching a regular class in that environment.

TL makes a good suggestion about making a capital investment in control systems or other mods that would increase energy efficiency. That will pay off for a long time.

Our state will be lumping stimulus dollars into the "general" budget, thereby hiding the risks from those who don't look (like their constituents). You should probably be very wary if the stimulus results in an apparent budget increase, for the reasons you note. Yet you should also avoid being too conservative, cutting recurring expenses down to the level without the stimulus money, since that might damage the institution's ability to compete when the economy comes back.

Those tough choices make me glad I don't have your job.
Yeah, energy efficiency seems like another good approach given your paradigm.

Sounds like you're paying attention. Good on y'all.
Heading quickly to the weeds...

I don't understand the concept of "hybrid" courses, and "wheel a computer cart in."

Most literature I have read views hybrid as blending the tradition in-classroom experience with an online, or "virtual" one. I haven't actually heard of a blending where you have to GO to a classroom, to then be online to take the class.

Seems rather... odd.

And if all you are doing is using the cart to allow you to project your presentation onto the screen--well, aren't all your classrooms equipped with computer/projectors already?

(and please, PLEASE tell me that when you write "hybrid" you don't mean "lecture and powerpoint blended together.")
I've seen traveling laptop carts used very effectively in both computer classes and biology labs. They're great. But I'll second the anonymous post above regarding netbooks. I love my netbook (Acer, 9" screen) and take it everywhere (for word processing, internet, powerpoint). However the screen size would be problematic in computer and biology laboratories where lots of small fonts are required (programming, DNA sequence analysis, etc.). That said, I'll never go back to carrying a full-size laptop around.
I've heard of another green program that is replacing old desktops (6 years, say) of faculty and staff with laptops, with a motivation of improving operating efficiency and energy efficiency. The hope is that the upfront investment will help with cutting the day-by-day electric bill. There are also active efforts to improve heating systems now to cut bills later. I'm hopeful that my office will be more appropriately heated next year, so I won't have to open the window in the midst of a budget crisis.
Yeah, what Anonymous said at 4:22 pm about "hybrid" courses.

If you need to provide support for hybrid courses, you would have to be a really small campus to consider rolling a cart into an unused classroom as the way to provide computer access to students, and netbooks would not be the way to go for that application.
We have a cart of netbooks that serve us well in classes that on occasion want to do assignments that involve Web research and light word-processing or presentation assignments. Yes, they are low-powered and have small screen/keyboards, and they are inappropriate for any long-term computing needs - but they are great for the light work in a classroom environment where it would be impractical to use a dedicated computer lab.

I think one-time stimulus money should be used for technology and other equipment that would otherwise come out of the general budget (or not at all). Of course, computers become rapidly obsolete, so any purchase you make now implies that you will somehow have to come up with replacement money in a few years.
The direction of these comments is hilarious, especially in contrast to such an interesting and thoughtful post.

"I HOPE TO GOD you're not misusing the word HYBRID, DD!"

I will never, ever go into administration.
They tend to think first of restoring cuts, of adding to what's already here, and of hiring. Those are all fun in the moment, but they'd make the fall off the cliff that much harder when it happens.Interestingly, and possibly horrifyingly, this seems to be exactly what NIH has decided to do with its $10 billion stimulus bolus.
The one IT trend today that I would advise you to follow is virtualization. It will produce an enormous savings in your power budget for your data center in the long term, and it will give your IT team tremendous flexibility to add new services without having to buy an expensive new piece of server hardware for each new service.
Interesting. Another anonymous (1156) person, in critiquing the comments, has this quote

"I HOPE TO GOD you're not misusing the word HYBRID, DD!"Interestingly, that is the first time this phrase was used.

Sure, the anonymous comment to which they are most likely referring (4:22) went into a discussion about "hybrid" courses. But first, that anon writer did mention they were "heading... to the weeds."

In addition, you don't think that addressing the desire of administration to use a "hot buzz word" (hybrid courses) to justify spending money on tech, when the actual use appears to be something else--well that is either being ignorant or deceptive.

And I think anon 4:22 was simply asking for clarification, assuming that DD was being neither ignorant OR deceptive.

So--DD, to follow in 4:22's footsteps, in what ways WOULD you be using these carts for "hybrid" courses?
The reference to hybrid courses was intended to mean the first day of class. We've found that students in hybrid classes who don't log on in the first week are basically lost for the semester. By wheeling in the netbook carts on the first day of class, the instructor can walk the students through the LMS site, just like she walks them through the syllabus. The idea is to make sure that the goofy mistakes that students make in isolation, then can't recover from, happen where it's safe. After, say, fifteen or twenty minutes on the first day of class, I'd be surprised to see the netbooks return.
Anonymous 9:09 here again...

Now see, once DD explained how these expenditures would be wisely used for one class each semester, we can now see just how silly any questioning would be.

Silly us...

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