Technical Debt in Higher Ed

technology in the classroom

In the IT world the phrase “technical debt” is a well-known phrase and it is used effectively to describe problems and why they are so difficult (expensive) to fix. The term first came about in 1992 and was coined by Ward Cunningham. Cunningham was particularly referring to software coding, and that is a common way the word is used. However, I think that it is a phrase that can be expanded to apply well to our classrooms and AV systems across colleges and universities.

I define technical debt as “the cost a business accrues when they put off fixes or cut corners on systems that will cost them money in the future.” The term debt is very relatable because everyone understands debt, and understands that the longer you keep the debt, the more expensive it is. In particular, your CFO is keenly aware of the cost of debt. So, technical debt is when you do not spend time or money today, knowing that it is going to cost you more in the future.

An example of technical debt would be a college that puts in a digital signage system. Over the years that system changes, new software and players come out, but the college never replaces or updates anything because they still work. It is known that someday they will need to make the expenditure, but they “take on debt” by kicking the expense down the road. Eventually, the system stops working. Suddenly the debt is very expensive because no one can edit the content, and the screens have outdated information on them. The solution may be to turn off the displays until it is fixed. Now, you have lousy-looking buildings with blank displays in all of them. Fixing the solution requires the time and expenses of going through and replacing each and every system, retraining staff and redesigning all the content. Rather than spending time and money every year on this, you have accrued significant debt that must be paid off.

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Another typical situation in higher education is the question of programming, and who owns the programming. We faced this challenge at my institution years ago. We had a building that was 10 years old and required some much-needed updates. However, no one had the programming to the systems. The company that wrote the program had not handed them over and had since gone out of business. Doing something as simple as replacing a DVD player, projector or touch panel literally became dozens of hours of programming, which would also require the room being offline for those hours until all the programming had been rebuilt. We were stuck and could not move forward, because of technical debt. Sometimes a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, this cartoon (which is hanging in my office) is one of those pictures and accurately describes how many of us feel when talking with our superiors.

One of the reasons I think it is important for AV to use typical IT terms is that people understand these terms. If you talk with your CIO or CFO, they will know what you mean when you use the term technical debt. Additionally, using the language of the industry makes it easier for your superiors to recognize you as part of that industry. This in turn leads to them taking you, and the work you do more seriously. Talking regularly with your leadership about where the debt lies, and which debt is accruing faster than others ensures that you do not get blamed when that digital signage system stops working. Below is another image describing technical debt and where the increase in debt starts to grow exponentially. When you are 25% up the “hockey stick” curve, it is time to seriously start talking with people about how expensive (in time and money) putting it off becomes.