Academic Planning and Technology

By David G. Brown




Twelve years ago, while Chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, I wrote about the procedural concepts behind UNCA’s strategic planning methodology:

    1. meander toward a dream;
    2. build on strengths;
    3. pursue the comparative advantage;
    4. ensure broad ownership of the vision;
    5. aim high;
    6. maintain integrity with basic educational convictions.*

*These concepts are elaborated in David G. Brown, "The University of North Carolina at Asheville," in Successful Strategic Planning: Case Studies, ed. Douglas W. Steeples (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1988), 23-32.

From the UNCA planning process emerged a funding plan designed around ten widely endorsed guiding concepts:

    1. concentrate on undergraduate education;
    2. maintain a large and stable set of core courses;
    3. focus effort on teaching and service;
    4. challenge students through exposure to new ideas;
    5. establish national prominence in selected specialty areas;
    6. grow the student head count to 5000;
    7. draw students from the entire state;
    8. use resources in the central business district;
    9. serve Asheville and its environs;
    10. provide logistical support to affiliated educational programs that are not part of the central mission.

Five years ago, as Provost at Wake Forest University, I chaired the academic planning effort of a private university. At Wake Forest, the guiding principles were different. Continuity and institutional momentum were emphasized:

    1. continue to personalize and individualize the professor/student relationship;
    2. strengthen the freshman year experience;
    3. bolster existing institutional themes and programs before expanding;
    4. pursue additional resources.

Wake Forest’s "Plan for the Class of 2000"* added $15 million to the annual budget and identified thirty-six specific recommendations, among them:

*The Report is available at

    1. greater course availability;
    2. required freshman seminars;
    3. upper-class academic scholarships;
    4. study abroad scholarships;
    5. increased library holdings;
    6. personal computer owned by each student.

Although the guiding principles and recommendations were tailored to Wake Forest’s unique

institutional momentum, the procedural concepts were essentially universal. At both the small public liberal arts college and the major research university, the search for the institution’s future is best shared. Comparative advantages, heritage themes, existing strengths, and excellence are best emphasized. Aspirations are best set high and pursued with flexibility. The congruity of procedural concepts applies to all tiers of planning and probably to all types of colleges and universities.

This chapter focuses on these universal procedural concepts as they apply to an academically driven Strategic Plan for Computer Enhanced Learning.


*See Electronically Enhanced Education: A Case Study of Wake Forest University , ed. David G. Brown (Winston-Salem, N.C.: Scientific Division of the Wake Forest University Press, 1999. 113 pp. Order at

Moving from "sleepy valley" in 1995 to the "3rd most wired campus in America" in 1998 required consulting broadly, planning boldly, and implementing meticulously. Today, all students and faculty as well as most staff have anytime, anywhere access to their personal computer and our campus network. Ethernet wiring is available in every campus bedroom, every classroom, 60 percent of classroom seats, campus library, laboratories, and many other gathering places, including at our campuses in Venice and London. Faculty are provided internet access from anywhere in the world.

All freshmen receive powerful laptop computers and inkjet printers. After two years, rising juniors exchange their "freshman" computer for the new "laptop of the year," which they take away with them upon graduation. All faculty and most university staff also receive new laptops every two years. Therefore, everyone with a computer in our community has one of two models, and every model is loaded with a standard software package. * Users with specialized needs (for example, physics majors) download other software packages from our network. About one-third of our academic departments maintain small, specialized computer laboratories to meet very specific needs.

*A detailed description of the computer technology at Wake Forest is available at and

Our library staff provides basic, noncredit computer training to all students and faculty. Each academic department has added a full-time Academic Computer Specialist to assist in using the technology to its fullest. The central computer staff has been tripled to over sixty full-time employees. In addition to supplementary student staffing of the computer help desk, two large corps of students are trained and hired to assist faculty and students with their use of computers in teaching and research. A newly created auxiliary enterprise, the International Center for Computer-Enhanced Learning, trains the staff.

For each student, our system generates a "my.wfu" web page that links to his/her courses, co-curricular activities, and chosen internet sites. All budgeting, purchasing, and registering activities are online. In sum, one can fairly say that accessible computing is ubiquitous within our community.

Semiannual surveys confirm that both students and faculty value the system and believe that learning is enhanced by it.


To succeed, changes of this magnitude require many advocates and the building of a broad consensus. Especially in matters such as course and curricular design, where individual faculty members are the architects, achieving and communicating consensus is essential not only to approval of the plan but also for its ultimate implementation. Wonderful plans can be sabotaged by lack of funding, agreement, or understanding. Lessons from the Wake Forest experience suggest that successful implementation is more likely when planners pay attention to five topics: the endorsers, fora, the message, special interests, and boundaries.

The Endorsers. Most plans emerge from committees. Many students and faculty will pay more attention to who is on the committee and how they were selected than to the recommendations themselves. Generally, elected members are more credible than appointed members. Each stakeholder looks for an "understanding soul" on the committee. Governing boards and cost conservatives applaud the presence of the chief financial officer. Faculties expect a preponderance of membership from their teaching colleagues.

The Fora for Interaction. Every constituency wants to be heard. Those who study the endorsers also monitor the opportunities for "their issues" to be aired. If feasible, planning committees should hold two rounds of hearings--the first to solicit ideas and the second to listen to how the committee has initially dealt with the ideas.

Timing is important. It is best when all constituencies have been asked for advice so often that they want to get on with the process. It is best when every constituency has been given an extra week or month to input ideas and reactions. Tight time lines must be avoided.

Open invitations are not sufficient. Specific individuals (e.g., department chairs) must be asked to make sure that the views of specific constituencies are aired. It is important that everyone who wishes to be heard is heard: thus, an all-faculty town meeting and open hearings are important. However, when these fora fail to attract large numbers, more pointed invitations are essential. To say that everyone had an opportunity to participate is not sufficient.

It is also naïve to expect that everyone reads interim reports from the committee. Interim reports are important but not sufficient. Deputizing individual members of the committee to introduce the interim thoughts of the committee to familiar constituencies may be necessary.

Hearings and fora are most productive when the testifiers know the focus of committee deliberations, the debates taking place within the committee, and the direction the report is headed. Imitating a procedure followed at both Notre Dame and Dartmouth Universities, Wake Forest’s Program Planning Committee published (in newsprint format) a tentative final report. A thousand copies were distributed to every constituency. Hearings and open fora were held. Emails were encouraged. The six months that elapsed between the interim and final reports was viewed by virtually all constituencies as an honest and effective way to solicit opinions from the community at large.

The Array of Stakeholders. Typically, "better computing" is advocated by all stakeholders. The devil is in detailing "better computing." Faculty fear they will cede control of their teaching environment to technologists. Librarians fear their interests in print media will be squeezed by commitments to electronic media. Physicists want number-crunching capacity; artists want enormous harddisks for storing high-resolution graphics; social scientists want robust capacities for threaded discussions. Maximum capability with every discipline’s international community of scholars is mutually exclusive. Administrators seek limited access to sensitive information, while scholars prefer open access; and everyone hopes to avoid learning new programs and transferring existing data to new formats. In short, as the outcomes of a technology plan begin to narrow, each constituency moves away from its "dream conclusion." Resistance and reluctance grows.

In anticipation of this stage, it is important early on to seek formal endorsement of planning principles, such as "standardization of the student platform" and "strong support of those forced to migrate" and "annual reevaluation of decisions." Another successful though expensive strategy is to group together (without the possibility of item veto) a full set of recommendations: for example, to add faculty and student study abroad scholarships and library volumes, while simultaneously expanding the commitment to technology. Such bundling can bring reluctant constituencies to vote for the overall plan in order to secure their favored items.

Equally effective is spreading the responsibility for implementing the gains accompanying technology implementation. Instead of adding all personnel under the Chief Information Officer, consider charging the library with computer training responsibilities (and allocating new budget committed to that purpose to the library), providing each department with its own computer consultant, challenging deans and department chairs to allow software funds, asking the bookstore to manage distribution of the computers, or funding a corps of student computer consultants through the residence hall system.

The Boundaries of Recommendations. The substance of a recommendation will quickly take a backseat to the entity making the recommendation when the strategic planning committee steps beyond its perceived expertise.

At Wake Forest, for example, only five of fifteen committee members were members of the arts and sciences teaching faculty. The committee recommended that a Freshman Seminar be considered by an appropriate committee composed of undergraduate faculty members and students. The larger committee recognized the limits of its perceived expertise. Similarly, the larger planning committee recommended that providing every undergraduate with a laptop computer be considered by a respected group of computer-knowledgeable faculty. It did not attempt to outline a specific program.

Seeking and respecting expertise, especially in those domains where the committee is perceived to be nonrepresentative, is an important restraint for technology planners to honor.

The Rationale. Each university’s heritage includes anecdotes, principles, phrases, and "momenta" that are widely recognized as "our xyz university’s way." Normally, these themes transcend specific stakeholder groups. It behooves a planning committee to think through how its recommendations relate to these universal themes and university icons. These relationships should be highlighted in the report.

At Wake Forest, a key to the acceptance of the overall strategic plan was explicitly tying each recommendation to how student learning would be positively affected. In the technology plan, most recommendations were linked to advancing a more personal and individual, face-to-face learning environment.

Whenever possible, it is wise to broaden shared ownership by working from the familiar themes.


Decisions! Decisions! Decisions!

Technology planners face a sea of alternatives. Degrees of freedom exist in every direction. Many good and useful things are on the market, too many for any institution to afford them all. Choices must be made. A good strategic plan should focus time, effort, and dollars on the most important institutional objectives. From a set of guiding principles, decision-makers throughout the university should be able to infer not only where best to invest dollars but also what not to buy.

For example, the Wake Forest Technology Plan guides decisions by emphasizing five concepts: students first, academic freedom, communication and access, rapid change, and marketable difference.

The computing power made available to faculty is driven not by their research needs but by student need. Laptops were chosen because athletes need access when playing away games; students need access between terms from their homes; students working in teams need the ability to bring their computers to a common site, and students studying abroad need access. Upon graduation, students should not be separated from the intellectual tools they have learned to use in college. They should enter graduate schools and first jobs with the self-confidence that comes from familiarity with the computer systems they will most likely be using. Equality of access means anytime, anywhere computer availability for all students, not just those who can afford to buy them.

By highlighting the academic freedom of students, Wake Forest is led to course management systems that have totally private spaces for every student. All student work must be password protected, and the potential for "advocate groups" to gain direct access to classroom work must be minimized. For the faculty, the emphasis upon academic freedom shapes faculty development policy. Adoption of technology for teaching is voluntary. Use of the campus standard is encouraged but not mandated.

To maximize the use of the computer to increase communication between students and their professors as well as collaborative learning among students, a high premium is placed upon compatibility of systems, dependability of networks, and universality of access. Those institutions maximizing the capacity of, say, 10 percent of their faculty to make truly wonderful multimedia presentations will invest quite differently. When communication is stressed, threshold standardization becomes essential. Everyone should have the same computing configuration for the purpose of communicating. Specialized needs for nonstandard configurations must be met by providing, in some sectors, a second layer of computer access, often in the form of a small computer laboratory in a particular department.

Every technology plan must anticipate obsolescence and the need for refreshment. Equipment acquisition is an annual, not a capital, budget item. Training protocols reflect the need for annual refreshers. Built into the system is constant pressure from the students to update departmental capacity to explore new uses of technology and a reasonable plan for disposing of outdated instrumentation.

By concentrating the gains in computing, the multiple constituencies of the university (faculty, students, parents, trustees, and alumni) can see the gains clearly. Increments of change would have been less visible and change less acceptable. The acquisition of a tangible asset, the computer itself, is now a major factor in both student and faculty recruitment. People will pay for quality. Here, there is a marketable difference. This difference is given greater visibility when a partner vendor can be persuaded to feature the college in its promotions.

It is unlikely that any two institutions would emphasize exactly the same principles or that the principles important for Wake Forest in 1999 will be the most important principles in 2001. What is constant is the necessity to identify, communicate, and make decisions based on a set of guiding principles.


The willingness of faculty and students to participate conscientiously in the curriculum planning process is closely related to what happened to the last plan. Did it accumulate dust on the shelf? Or did it drive the budgeting process and university publicity for the next several years? Was the plan implemented?

Since Wake Forest’s Program Planning Committee Report was submitted in January 1995, thirty-five of the thirty-six recommendations have been implemented; progress has been made on a faculty salary increase goal, but the objective has not yet been achieved. The entire technology plan is in place. Lessons learned from this experience are likely to have broad application to all types of institutions. These lessons are listed below as factors critical to the successful implementation of plans.

Whatever the level of resources committed to technology, 1 percent or so should be held back to respond to the low-cost special requests (e.g., for a nineteen inch monitor) of faculty who will be doubly grateful that their requests are granted.

Faculty development programs should first ignore the "early adopters" and instead focus on the low-effort/high-benefit uses of technology that can quickly be embraced by 85 percent of the faculty. Once "universal" use is in place, more time can be devoted to intensive and specialized applications as well as to administrative computing.

During the "ramp-up" period, existing computer support personnel must somehow balance keeping the current system operating, while installing new systems. When faced with specialized and unfamiliar challenges, it is important to set aside the money to outsource work. It is simply not possible to pile the learning of new material on top of program maintenance and system installation!

The emphasis should be on supporting faculty as they seek to "try out" technology. *

*For a fuller analysis of faculty development policy, see David G. Brown and Elson S. Floyd, "Best Practices in Faculty Development," Multiversity, Winter, 1998-99.

Those who try it and find it doesn’t work for them should receive the same acclaim as those who try and adopt it. Since disciplines and subdisciplines use technology in very different ways, the administration and the faculty as a whole should avoid mandates, such as "all courses must be posted to the web" or "all classes must have a technology discussion group."

Equally important is communication between users and system maintainers. In an

email driven community, rumors fly faster. Misunderstandings grow more quickly. The need for early notification when software systems are to be down for conversion and/or maintenance or when the system crashes are essential. Computer specialists are not always the best communicators, which means that, occasionally, it is essential to appoint a "public relations officer" of the IS division.


Technology as Change Agent. At the millennium, the intersection of academic and technology planning is a crowded crossroad. Technology change is the Trojan horse, the vessel that transports the most influential academic innovations. For most of the nineteenth century, the way to encourage every faculty member and every discipline to rethink the substance of syllabi and curricula was to change academic calendars, from semesters to quarters to the 4-1-4 to early semesters and back to quarters and semesters. That vessel has been broken. The nation has, at least for now, settled on the early semester.

Today, the impetus for thoroughly reconsidering everything we do in the university, all aspects of how we teach and search and discover, is the introduction of a powerful set of new tools that leverage the intellect. Some of these new tools will become standard; others will be left behind. One of the most enduring impacts of this sudden burst of technology is the ubiquitous necessity to rethink every aspect of university life.

For the Sake of Interactivity. When professors teaching ninety-three computer-enhanced courses in thirty-six of America’s most wired campuses were asked why they were changing from traditional to computer-enhanced methods, ninety-one responded that they sought to provide more interactive learning experiences. They wanted to give students greater access to them, to each other, to other cultures, and to professionals in the field. They wanted students to help each other learn, to teach and to learn collaboratively.

The real revolution is not one of technology; it is one of teaching methodology. Technological changes are allowing the teaching in all universities and colleges to be more interactive, to be more customized, to be more collaborative. In the academic arena, strategic planning for technology is directed toward enabling more interactive teaching/learning environments. In one sense, our profession is returning to the apprenticeship model, where a master personally guides the individual development of a corps of apprentices who learn as much from each other as they do from their mentor.

Communication! Communication! In the academic arena, the high-impact changes from technology relate to the way in which learners communicate. Not much has changed within the classroom itself. The big shift is in what happens between classes, in what can take place before the class meets for the first time, and in what happens among class members after the final exam. More people from greater distances are more available to students. Teaming on projects is easier. Feedback loops are shorter. Information is shared more widely, even as more customized exchanges occur.

Planning for academic changes enabled by technological advances is planning for changes in the style, frequency, and usefulness of person-to-person dialogue. The new paradigm is twenty-four hour, seven day a week, multiyear possibilities for interactive exchange.

Support: the Hidden Need. Invariably, technology plans focus first upon the instruments that are to be made available to students (i.e., the laptop or desktop). Laptops are important. The real challenge and, in many ways, the biggest cost are in the servers that house large databases, the networks that connect the computers, the electrical supplies that power the computers, the time of faculty to update their methods, and the computer support personnel.

Sound technology planning must incorporate all of these components if there are to be any learning gains.

Local Confidence in the System. At Wake Forest, the apex of strategic academic planning was the Program Planning Committee. This was the third Program Planning Committee report in the decade. The community at-large feels accustomed to these reports and sees them as considered, important, and influential. It is possible that another structure, perhaps an Ad Hoc Planning Taskforce or "the way it’s done at XYZ University," might yield a wiser report, but it is unlikely that a less familiar, less authenticated process would yield as many results.

In consensual communities such as universities, where top-down mandates do not work, the best structure for planning is the structure in which the locals have the greatest confidence. The lessons learned at Wake Forest should be thought of as starters, not "cookie-cutter solutions" for other institutions.