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.

Think First; Type Later

For most people, writing is hard work. Writing for a public forum on the internet is hard, scary work. Once you push the “submit” button, your words are out there for everyone to see and respond to, instantly searchable, and living in perpetuity in the Google cache or deep in the Internet Archive. Yet, tens of millions of folks all over the world overcome their fear to post their content on the web–including 64% of American teens who are “content creators“, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center. One good bit of advice for beginning bloggers, and more experienced folks who are starting a new project, is to “think first and type later.” Before making that first post, take a few minutes and answer three questions. (A number one pencil and a legal pad are the perfect tools for this part of the process, but it’s OK to type if you’ve forgotten how to use a pencil.)

  • Purpose: Why am I doing this?
  • Content: What am I going to write about?
  • Process: How am I going to do it?

There are lots of good reasons to publish on the web. For me, posting regularly is a discipline that accomplishes two goals. First, it focuses my attention by forcing me to look the mass of information that I’ve been exposed on any particular day and evaluate the usefulness (or interestingness) of that information. The half-hour that I’m investing in writing this post could be spent in an infinite number of other ways. What, if anything, justifies the time and energy to highlight a particular idea, pie and hold up for further inspection? The possible stories come from everywhere–something that I read, a TV or radio program, podcast, conversation or just a random thought that popped into my mind. Focused attention helps to make sense from the torrent of information.

The second discipline is to try to figure out the utility of writing about a particular topic for the reader. One major reason for publishing is to allow others to benefit from what I’ve learned from my experience. In my writing, I’m always searching for some way to help members of my community to broaden their perspectives, to look at their information universe a little differently, or to think of ways to improve their practice.

As an official faculty blogger, my purpose is a little different than it has been for other writing I’ve done. We know that the most frequent visitors to the site are from outside William and Mary, some of whom may not be interested in the nuts and bolts of our technology infrastructure. My task here is to look what’s happening at the college from my personal perspective and post about topics that be interesting and helpful to parents, prospective students, alumni and members of the larger educational community. By merging my personal perspective with those of the other writers on the project, we provide an additional window into the William and Mary experience that is emergent, individual, authentic and vibrant.

In my next post, I take a look at how to translate that purpose into something more concrete by looking at the second question: what am I going to write about?

On Becoming a Faculty Blogger

I’ve been asked to be an “official faculty blogger” when William and Mary launches the new college web site in July. The re.web project has been one of the most thoughtfully managed projects that I’ve experienced at any university, and I’m honored to be asked to contribute to the final product in this way. Writing as a faculty blogger opens up a new audience for me, and I’m hoping that it will foster some additional communication and community with the other faculty and students who are also participating.

I’ve used blogs in my own teaching and professional development at least since the term was coined in 1999. My students and I have created (and abandoned!) dozens of general interest and special purpose journals using almost every piece of specialized software that’s been available to us. We write primarily about educational technology issues in K-12, colleges and universities, and adult education. Most of the blogs are focused on class issues and tend to die pretty quickly after the grades are in, but a few have turned into extremely powerful forums for professional development.

I’m currently maintaining two blogs–Techfoot, my primary forum for writing about technology, and a test blog called Academic Technology News , which is an internal journal primarily designed to share technical information with our technology specialists.(The jury is still out on that one, and it could well disappear very shortly.) As a faculty blogger, my writing will still be focused on technology, but for a more general audience.

Blogging has become an integrated part of my teaching and scholarship and that of my students. When it works, blogging permits us to play with ideas in a rough draft format and to get immediate (and candid) feedback from members of our community. The feedback effect on blogs comes much more quickly than in traditional methods of communication and potentially provides a much greater range of ideas.

Here’s hoping that this new forum will bring even more voices to the conversation about teaching, learning and technology at William and Mary.

Gaining Conceptual Clarity

C.R.A.P.:The Four Principles of Sound Design

A post in DailyBlogTips retells the story from Robin Williams (the author The Mac is Not a Typewriter –not the manic comedian) about the importance of finding language to describe things that are important to us. It’s a great parable about the importance of learning to see the important details in the rich content of our educational environments.

Daily Blog

Once upon a time, Robin received a tree identifying book where you could match a tree up with its name by looking at its picture. Robin decided to go out and identify the trees in the neighborhood. Before she went out, she read through part of the book.The first tree in the book was the Joshua tree because it only took two clues to identify it.

Now the Joshua tree is a really weird-looking tree and she looked at that picture and said to herself “Oh, we don’t have that kind of tree in Northern California. That is a weird-looking tree. I would know if I saw that tree, and I’ve never seen one before.

So she took the book and went outside. Her parents lived in a cul-de-sac of six homes. Four of those homes had Joshua trees in the front yard. She had lived in that house for thirteen years, and she had never seen a Joshua tree.

She took a walk around the block – at least 80 percent of the homes had Joshua trees in the front yards. And she had sworn she had never seen one before!

The moral of the story? Once Robin was conscious of the tree, once she could name it, she saw could see it everywhere. Which is exactly my point. Once you can name something, you’re conscious of it. You have power over it. You own it. You’re in control.

Developing a shared understanding within a community requires an enormous amount of work to find ways to name and describe the technologies that might really transform student learning. Defining even simple trees are difficult enough–but think about the activities we want to identify in our own environment. How to we get students and faculty alike to recognize the power of complex interactions like authentic learning, digital imagination or transformative learning? This little story was a good reminder for me that the continuing conversation is important, even it’s hard sometimes to point to specific results.