Yammering Away

We’ve started a an impromptu experiment with a new application to foster additional communication and awareness within our group. During one of my Arc Trainer sessions last week, I was listening to a TWIT podcast and heard that a program called Yammer was the winner of the “Techcrunch 50”. Later that afternoon, I began my emerging technology class by asking folks what new technologies they had come upon in the last week, and Jon Messer mentioned that a few people at the University of Richmond were exploring Yammer, and Maria Elena signed up for an account and invited a few of us to join. For the past week, a number of the AIS group have been yammering about work. (About 10,000 companies began experimenting with Yammer in the first week after the TechCrunch award.)

Yammer is like a private Twitter. Instead of Twitter’s question, “What are you doing, Yammer asks “What are you working on?” As folks answer that question, a feed is produced provding a running list of ideas, news, questions, links and other information. (Unfortunately (IMHO) Yammer doesn’t enforce the 140 character limit on posts, so they have a tendency to go a little longer than the typical tweet.)

There are about 10 of us who are members, and, so far, I’m finding it to be an interesting application. The AIS group is so widely dispersed that we often miss out the opportunity to communicate informally. Yammer encourages quick, informal communications because it only takes a minute or two to raise a quick question about something that’s on your mind. The conversations are archived, so that the history can be captured if more substantial issues arise. For example, a discussion this morning about finding a specific piece of conferencing software for the Writing Resource Center clearly demonstrated that we need a more systematic strategy for responding to requests for applications sharing and conferencing.

However, users can have threaded discussions, as they can on FriendFeed. Users can also use “hashtags” for tagging topics, and they can follow just those tags, which is useful in following a particular project rather than the people working on it.

According a recent article in the New York Times, “social scientists have a name for this sort of incessant online contact. They call it ‘ambient awareness.’ It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does–body language, sighs, stray comments out of the corner of your eye”. Participants in ambient awareness networks develop a sense of the rhythms their fellow participants that they never had before:

This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update–each individual bit of social information–is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like a type of E.S.P, as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.

Yammer is a very low impact technology–much less cognitively demanding than email. All the posts are available in a single place where they”re “skimmable”. (I keep mine on my second monitor, just outside of my field of vision. (I’ve been using Twitter for a year or so now, so I’ve some time to practice my scanning skills.) If my experience with Twitter is any indication, Yammer be one of those pieces of technology that is almost impossible to explain, but that quickly becomes an integrated on-line presence.

Then, it may be just another thing we try that gets jettisoned because it takes more time than it’s worth.

Starting Though The Dogpile

Dogpile.jpg One of the notes that I found in my dogpile was a folded index card from the now-defunct Seminars in Academic Computing. I participated in a discussion with a group of colleagues on the topic of What Do Faculty Expect From Higher Ed. IT? The discussion was described in the program:

Traditionally faculty have needed technical support for the ways in which they use computers in teaching and research. Innovative faculty may also have required support in instructional design or general teaching and learning technologies. Are these expectations changing? Are IT staff becoming more siloed or more symbiotic? Can faculty and IT leaders truly collaborate on transformative projects, or do faculty expect a service bureau only?

When I came back from SAC, I wrote some notes about the session:

Participating in the discussion make me re-examine my current framework for understanding those questions. It also made me realize that my perspective has changed dramatically in recent years. While I’m still fascinated personally by the potential new computing and communications technologies hold for enhanced learning, I’m less optimistic about the ability of IT staff to be the leaders in capitalizing on that potential–no matter how hard we work at it. As someone commented, institutional transformation really isn’t an IT function–though we can help other leaders with the process if they want our help.

Transformation isn’t a high priority for most faulty, since their plates are overflowing with teaching, research, reading, writing, parenting–you name it. These faculty members value an IT organization that is:

  • Transparent: They want to be able to find all the services available to them without having to rely on special favors or insider knowledge of the IT organization.
  • Efficient: They want to get their questions answered or their issues resolved as quickly as possible–even at night or on the weekend.
  • Empathetic: They want IT staff to demonstrate through words and actions that they understand the unique demands of faculty life and that we’re doing what we can to help alleviate those pressures rather than adding to them.
  • Responsive: They want IT members who returns phone calls and email and who communicate clearly–even when we don’t know the exact answer. Caveat: They do expect us to know the answers more often than not.

The vast majority of our faculty are perfectly happy with what at SAC we called service bureau model–as long as we are really good at being transparent, efficient, empathetic and responsive.

Some times the stars align–as they seem to have recently for the dream team at the University of Mary Washington, and I think those of us in the academic IT business have to be tuned in and ready to pounce on those magical moments. For the most part, though, our institutions will be best served if we stick to the knitting and focus on doing the best job on the mundane, non-transformative services that keep the place running.

Through the Dogpile

Speaking of Scott Nelson…..

I was on a task force studying digital imaging with Scott and he often talked about the value of of a “digital dogpile” as a collection of high quality images that could be freely accessible to members of the community who needed them to enhance communications. The reference generally made me a bit uncomfortable–sort of like, “darn, I need a scraper; I stepped in the digital dogpile.”

Actually, the term has a (somewhat) more refined etymology–most commonly used in the old Usenet days days:

When many people post unfriendly responses in short order to a single posting, they are sometimes said to “dogpile” or “dogpile on” the person to whom they’re responding. For example, when a religious missionary posts a simplistic appeal to alt.atheism, he can expect to be dogpiled. It has been suggested that this derives from U.S, football slang for a tackle involving three or more people.

(dogpile. (n.d.). Jargon File 4.2.0. Retrieved September 20, 2008, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/dogpile)

My own personal dogpile is the unsorted collection of index cards, magazine articles, photocopies, books and other artifacts that have seemed important enough to me to save, but not important enough to actually do anything with. A recurring fantasy of mine is that I actually make my way through that basket of stuff and figure out why it is that I put it in the pile in the first place.

Dogpile is also the name of an aternative search engine that attempt to aggregate information from multiple search sources to create a single view of the results. While I still use Google most of the time, I give dogpile a shot every once in a while. They explain the origin of the name this way:

Oh, and the name Dogpile?

Well, that’s a funny story. You see, we love Rugby. It’s traditional in Rugby for players to come together and pile on one another. This is exactly what Dogpile metasearch does-it brings together the best results from the Internet’s top search engines, including Google, Yahoo! Search, Live Search, Ask.com, About, MIVA, LookSmart, and more.

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/soggydan/
Creative Commons Attribution License

Faculty Blogging: My Beat

Back when I was in journalism school–writing my stories for Daily Texan on a IBM Selectric–everyone was expected to develop a “beat“. Your beat might be the night court and police station, the athletic complex, the theaters, or some other part of the institution that you knew better anyone else in the newsroom. Your goal as a beat reporter was to build up a base of knowledge and a web of contacts that allowed you to uncover news that others might miss. (For a while there actually was a Pulitzer prize for “Beat Journalism”.)

Faculty bloggers don’t have formal beats the way that news reporters do, but we do have areas of the college that we have inside and specialized knowledge about. Some of those are formal and tied to our jobs–I think a lot about emerging technology, classroom design, project management and learning theory because my understanding of those topics shape the decisions that I have to make every day.

My “beat” also includes lots of contacts in lots of places that aren’t tied directly to the job. I spend about six hours a week on the Arc Trainer at the Rec Center, some quality time on path or in the halls chatting with other social scientists and a little time most days at the Daily Grind. Those non-work related contacts provide some of the most interesting insights into life at William and Mary, like this one overheard at the Daily Grind.

Student A: One thing I want to be sure to do while I’m here is to take a class from Scott Nelson.

Student B: He’s great. When I grow up, I want to be like Scott Nelson.

Student C: That’s nothing. When I die, I want to come back as Scott Nelson.

Scott Nelson with the Boss
Learning from Scott Nelson, priceless--Scott, his book and the Boss.