Kyle Parker has a big, big, big pipe to play with.
That short starter sentence is silly double entendre that high-falutin’ folks will label sophomoric and wholly unnecessary until they take a few minutes to understand that what Parker is doing with his big pipe will — if used correctly — be a remarkable and rewarding equalizer for the Fort Smith region in academic and economic development circles. And that’s pure How It Is rather than paltry hyperbole.
First, let’s talk about Kyle Parker.
University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Chancellor Dr. Paul Beran hired Parker in October 2009 as the vice chancellor for Let’s Kick Ass with Technology. That’s not the official title but it should be. Parker, just a good old Fort Smith boy connected to an old school Fort Smith family, has been there and done that with technology. He’s one of several exceptions to remember when some pontificating hack wants to traipse out the tired complaining about the They who seek to keep Fort Smith bottled up in the Eisenhower years.
Back in 1989 before Al Gore invented the Internet, Parker started this little company that sought to put legal information in easy to access electronic form. How’d that work out? He sold Loislaw.com more than 11 years later for more than $100 million to Amsterdam-based Wolters Kluwer. He made all the right technology moves without benefit of a business-model precedent during the great technology shift that was the 1990s.
Twenty years after Parker formed Loislaw, Beran was struggling with how best to maximize looming technology opportunities and and how best to focus the overall use of technology on the growing UAFS campus. Parker, a member of the UAFS Board of Advisors, had a few ideas. Beran was able to convince Parker — who doesn’t need a job after selling a company for more than $100 million — to handle the technology struggles and opportunities.
So, here we are, back to Parker’s big pipe. Hopefully you, Kind Reader, know by now that a pipe refers to a large wired connection that allows billions of pieces of data to enter and exit the university in the same time it takes the federal government to spend a dime.
To be fair to Parker and the university, the pipe is technically not his and his job is more than just handling this huge pipe. Parker’s job is broad and complex and at great risk of oversimplification, his job has three primary parts: Maximizing and managing ARE•ON; connecting UAFS students, faculty and Fort Smith regional officials to each other and the world; and the practical management of UAFS facilities via ubiquitous and practical use of technology.
We might consider that Parker has the experience and strong belief in his own abilities to pull this off. He says his primary motivation is to ensure that UAFS students graduate with real world skills — to ensure that they hit the job market with a leg up on any graduate from any public or private university in the country.
“Look, I don’t need the money at this point in my life. I’ve been blessed beyond what I could have ever imagined. And I know this sounds cliche, but it’s straight up: I took this job to make a difference here and for the students,” Parker said.
To that end, he wants to do whatever academic bureaucracy will allow him to do to provide UAFS students with technology tools that are equal to or greater than those being used out in the real world of deadlines, competitive pressures and paychecks.
“It’s no longer acceptable, in my opinion, to teach them (students) theory. You have to prepare them to go to work on day one,” Parker explained.
Parker’s expertise will guide more than $1.2 million in technology improvements at UAFS in the near term.
Now, let’s talk about these three primary Parkerean tasks.
It’s a big pipe. Seriously.
The Arkansas Research and Education Optical Network (ARE•ON) is an electronic network capable of pushing more than 10 billion bits of information through bundles of glass fibers at almost 186,000 miles per second. The almost $20-million system is designed to connect 11 Arkansas universities so the state may gain equal footing in the global competition for research and development, the commercialization of such R&D and for other broad education and socio-economic development purposes.
The potential difference between this new connection and the Internet as we commonly know it is the difference between the Internet as we commonly know it and Gutenberg’s press. Seriously.
Parker is tasked to ensure UAFS is firmly and usefully connected to ARE•ON, and vice versa.
“This is pretty powerful stuff. ... It matters not whether you are across the room or across the world,” Parker said of real-time connections allowed by the new network.
Using ARE•ON, a UAFS professor could teach in real time an advanced math course to Arkansas high school students gathered in numerous connected locations around the state. Each move the professor makes on a special whiteboard would be displayed on a monitor at each location. Also, the lecture can be captured and played back. A student in Pine Bluff can capture a specific part of the lecture he or she doesn’t understand and e-mail it to the UAFS professor for clarification.
“The only thing missing will be the smell of the classroom,” Parker said. “But think about how much (money) they (state education officials) could save with that kind of efficiency.”
Similar technology also will allow similar electronic interactions with UAFS students. A student studying for finals can dial up an October lecture — lectures that could be categorized and searched by dates, topics, keywords, etc. — to better understand a calculus question or physiology puzzle or special welding technique used on precision equipment used in the oil and gas industry.
“Think about what that does to prepare our kids,” Parker said with the enthusiasm of a kid.
We might also consider that Japanese students in Fort Smith whose parents are employed by Mitsubishi may in real time engage in classes conducted in Japan. Or maybe Arkansas and Fort Smith officials are gathered in a UAFS conference room having a real time conversation with officials of a German company seeking more information on a Chaffee Crossing property. The conversation includes separate screens with detailed maps of property that includes specifics — converted into German — on size, utilities, planned or proposed infrastructure improvements and real time video from people on the ground who direct the camera to requested directions.
“Distance means nothing. It puts people in the same place,” Parker said of the technology.
It doesn’t require Parker’s background and experience to realize that the constructive uses of the ARE•ON pipe are limited only by the limits of our imagination.
Less than five months ago there was no immediate backup of what Parker calls “critical keystrokes.” The entry of student grades, financial data, faculty communication, etc., was updated on a less than daily basis in most cases. That now happens immediately.
Also, he’s moving to a virtual server system for computer labs on campus. He says that will “save thousands and thousands of dollars” in lower electricity costs and reduced maintenance and computer replacement costs.
Heating and air conditioning systems on campus are connected via technology. It is or will soon be possible to lock and unlock doors via a computer or mobile device on or off campus. Parker is working to create a wireless campus. With such a reach, Parker’s job includes ensuring the computer systems are 99.9% reliable.
“There is nothing on this campus that technology does not touch,” Parker explained. “We cannot afford for our systems to fail.”
And we cannot afford for Parker to fail. The smart money says he won’t get anywhere close to anything that smells like failure. But he is an excitable entrepreneurial bundle of energy working in what can be a suffocating world of academic bureaucracy often ruled by Ph.D.'s who use book smarts to build walls against street smarts.
Parker admits there are big differences between the private and public sectors. He notes that “ideas are the end of the process” in academia and “the beginning of the process” in the world of business and commerce. However, he thinks the times they are a changing.
“In the past, technology was looked at as an expense at a university. It was a necessary evil. It was not an investment seen as something that, like in the (business) world I came from, could pull revenue levers. ... But that’s changing and he (Beran) has me here for that,” Parker explained.
Let’s hope Kyle Parker ensures we’re all well connected and that he plays well with his big pipe.