Monday, February 15, 2016

Three Laws of Bureaucracy

Basset Hound asleep on a patio in the sun

As I executed one of my important job functions as a senior administrator - scrawling my name in ink on pieces of paper - #2 below came to mind. For completeness, I figured I needed three. Not terribly original I know, but it made me feel a little better...

The Three Laws of Bureaucracy
  1. An institution at rest tends to stay at rest.
  2. For every action, there's an equal and opposite pile of paper.
  3. The life of any initiative is inversely proportional to its impact.
Got any more?
Photo credit: Don DeBold @flickr CC-BY 2.0

Friday, February 12, 2016

What Happens When Everyone Gets Their Own Logos

One of the hats I wear on campus is oversight of Marketing & Communications. Like most campuses we have a style guide and a set of web standards, which discourages you from creating your own logo and putting it on the web along with the campus logo.

Creating a logo is fun, and no matter what your campus logo is, there are some who will hate it and want to use something different. (Usually people want to use the old logo, which of course was once the new logo and was hated, often by the same people.) I get it, I really do, but if you want to see what a web page looks like when everyone gets their own logo, take a look:
screen capture of the home page at illustrating what it looks like when you have seven different logos on one page
Welcome to - wait, where am I?
This is not just ugly.... it's confusing! Where am I, and what am I supposed to do here? How do the SEVEN DIFFERENT LOGOs relate to one another? What's the different between GOES and FAST? What the heck is FLUX? Sentri? (And how did Homeland Security, the parent agency of Customs and Border Protection, miss a chance to get in on the fun?)

You can't build an interface from the inside out, and you can't build a coherent brand from the bottom up. Letting everyone choose their own visual identity results in an ineffective and unappealing mismash, despite good intentions.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

How Broken is Email?

Email, which started as a transformation in the history of communication, seems to be close to a complete breakdown. Do any of you not struggle to find the nuggets of important information amidst the noise? How often do you send an important message via email and have to follow up via text or phone to find out if it got through? I don't know what will come next, but it's depressing to see where we are now.

Just to illustrate - this is ONE DAY'S WORTH of the spam collected for my campus email account. True, the spam filter caught all these messages, but a) occasionally there's a false positive, so I miss something important b) dozens of crap messages get through every day and c) my campus spends A LOT OF MONEY for the hardware and software that does the filtering.

So when our students tell us that they don't read email or read it only under duress because we tell them we have to - maybe they have already figured out something we don't seem to know yet.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Using Technology Alone Doesn't Guarantee Better Outcomes - So Why Reward It?

For 25 years, my colleague Casey Green has surveyed campuses about the use and impact of technology in his Campus Computing survey. I'm a big fan of the survey because it's the largest body of longitudinal data we have on the topic. Just last week, Casey released a summary of the 2015 data, and as usual, there's lots of interesting stuff to chew on. I want to focus here on one particular question, which deals with the incentives campuses use to encourage faculty to use technology. 

The particular question in the survey is worded as follows:
Does your campus/institution have a formal program to recognize and reward the use of information technology as part of the routine faculty review and promotion process?
Now, the whole issue of how faculty are reviewed for promotion (and tenure) is fraught and complex and related to controversies around tenure, the appropriate relationship between research and teaching, the rising role of contingent faculty, and indeed the very value and purpose of faculty. But even asking the question suggests that this is something our institutions should be doing.  As Casey puts it
For example, even as instructional integration is the top institutional IT priority again this fall, less than a fifth of campuses (17 percent) recognize instructional IT efforts as part of the faculty review and promotion process.
If it's a top priority, why wouldn't we tie it to the way we review and provide incentives for faculty?

Here's Bryan Alexander responding to Casey's findings:
How do colleges and universities support faculty in using technology?  Badly, it turns out, according to one critical measure. A look back at decades of campus computing strategy finds that the majority of American campuses neither recognize nor reward professors who integrate tech in their teaching and research. 
To use Bryan's word from the title of the posting (and I know he chooses words carefully) our institutions "refuse" to recognize the use of technology by not using it as part of the criteria for faculty recognition. 

I'm an advocate of providing technology to faculty and providing the best possible training and support that my institution's resources can muster, but ultimately technology is a means, not an end. Technology has the potential to transform instruction, improve engagement, and expand access to learning. Technology constantly opens new avenues for research and enables new exploration and discovery. But faculty should be rewarded for excellent teaching and research. If my campus had a practice of providing some kind of weighting or quota for the use of technology that was used in a review process, I'd be concerned that this would become a check box, detached from the meaningful goals at the center of the faculty role. 

There's a lot to critique about the way that faculty are reviewed and rewarded, but I don't believe that adding "did you use technology" or "how much technology did you use" to the review process will provide the outcomes we want. Those of us who provide technology need to listen carefully to our faculty colleagues, work in partnership with them to incorporate the right technologies (and ditch the wrong ones) and keep the focus on the goal: student learning. That's the outcome that concerns me, not how much technology we use. So it doesn't concern me at all that 17% (and holding) of institutions refuse to "recognize and reward" the use of technology - except that 17% might be higher than I would like.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Virtualizing the Right Part of the Conference

(Note: The posting originally appeared as a guest post at Virtually Connecting - thanks to Rebecca Hogue and Maha Bali for encouraging me to write it.)

I'm so pleased to see the interest and attention that the Virtually Connecting project is getting. Our traditional models of conference attendance are not only dated, they exclude many people - those who can't travel to attend in person because of health, location, family, and most often finances. We need to figure out how to offer new options, but how?

We already know how not to do it. About 10 years ago I got a chance to experience HP's "Halo" telepresence system. The promise of Halo, and Cisco Telepresence and other systems was that low-latency, high resolution video and audio, combined with careful design of lighting and furniture, could allow widely separated teams or individuals to meet remotely while creating the illusion that they were in the same room. The tech was impressive, but there were big problems with the model - the equipment and connections were prohibitively expensive for all but those with the deepest pockets, and you needed to schedule a time and a place for a formal conference. HP got out of the business a few years later, and while others including Cisco still push expensive teleconferencing systems, I haven't found them to be particularly effective for most uses in education.

One insight into the limitations of expensive, fixed telepresence systems came to me about a week after I visited HP's Halo. I was speaking with a colleague who was describing corporate meetings in Japan. He told me about a culture where meetings were a tightly orchestrated and constrained form of communication, in which very little authentic feedback was given. Instead, the real meeting occurred later with alcohol and karaoke - an environment where the individuals were freed to discuss what they REALLY thought. It occurred to me that most models of remote meeting virtualize the least useful portion of the communication.

Now translate this to virtual conferences. What works well? Consider keynotes. Personally, I find that watching an 18 minute TED talk without distraction only happens when I really care about the topic, and it's a really excellent presentation. I've seen a few wonderful conference keynotes, but it stretches my attention to sit through the average 60 or 70 minute keynote when I'm in person. On line? Not likely to happen. Besides, so many keynoters give the same talk over and over and you can find a version of it on Vimeo or youTube anyway.

How about conference sessions? The best sessions are interactive and involve the audience. Set up a camera in the back of the room pointed at the front and broadcast the PowerPoint - that's a recipe for faithfully recreating the virtual experience of a boring lecture. To me, the whole notion of "lecture capture" is so deadly that I like to refer to it as "lecture capture and release - capture the lecture and take it far away to release it where it can do no harm."

I go to a conference for the interactions, the buzz, the sense of what (and who) is new and different, the trends, the issues. A typical virtual conference, a camera in the back of the room and a PowerPoint feed, gets you little of that. Maybe if there's a good Q&A session AND the people in the room manage to remember to use the microphones, you might get something, if you can wait through the talk to get to the Q&A. The best sense I get is usually the Twitter feed - sometimes you can get a lot, and other times it's just confusing without the context of the conference.

And that brings us to experiments like Virtually Connecting. It's personal - the connection is usually, literally, in someone's hand, rather than mounted in the back of the room. An iPad is not the world's greatest teleconferencing tool, but it's relatively cheap, it's portable, and it's personal. Google Hangouts is free and it's mostly pretty good, and it works fine with the bandwidth at many locations, even overseas. I've also used Zoom (my personal favorite) as well as watching a session via Periscope which works surprisingly well. There's a big psychological difference between watching a feed from the back of the room - clean, cold, impersonal - versus a tablet or a phone propped on a desk with someone's backpack - warm and  human-scaled. The audio and video might not be as good, but the immediacy and the sense of connection is heightened. You feel like you're in the midst of the action rather than watching from afar.

I've been on both sides of the conversation and it's a qualitatively different experience. When you're physically present at the conference sharing with someone remote, you're trying to figure out what that person wants to know and what they've already heard. When you're remote, you're trying to decide what would be a good question to ask to get a sense of what's happening there. It's a somewhat different kind of social interaction and I think it will take most people a little bit of time to get used to it.

But the chance to ask a few questions and see the response is just marvelous. It's deeper and richer and more personal, and the slightly underground feeling adds an authenticity and appeal that draws you in. This is worth so much more than high def video with perfect lighting. People can speak naturally, and it's more like the karaoke bar than the Halo room.

The beauty of Virtually Connecting is that Rebecca and Maha have figured out how the virtualize the right part of the conference - the personal interaction. I'm thrilled by their experiments and I'm sure they will be widely imitated. I'm glad I've had opportunities to experience Virtually Connecting and look forward to more chances to try it out and build connections from afar.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

CI Keys: Defending the pilot, questioning the adoption curve

It was just over a year ago that Chris Mattia and I heard Jim Groom at the 2014 ET4Online conference speak about the Domain of One's Own project at University of Mary Washington. His effective evocation of the early days of the "tilde space" struck a chord with me, and suggested that making it easy for faculty and students to have an online space that was fully under their control might be a solution to the frustration that some faculty on my campus have had using the LMS and similar tools. By the time we were halfway out of the room we said "hey, we should do this, we can do this!" and then found Gerry Hanley from the Cal State Chancellor's Office who promised to support us with seed money.

Just a few months later we had created and launched CIKeys as a "laboratory" for CSU Channel Islands. It was truly a "Field of Dreams" project - build it, and believe that someone will come. And it was definitely a pilot - we tried to make it clear to everyone who is involved that this was an experiment, a laboratory to try something out, with no long term commitment that it would continue. Sometimes you do the research and the planning and build a service with the confidence that the campus wants and needs it and will use it - and sometimes you just have a hunch that it will work for someone, so you try it out. (The first project I did like that was connecting my campus to the Internet in 1990...)

Well, come they did. A dozen faculty and hundreds of students have created 400 sites. (This is on a campus with just over 100 full-time faculty and 5000 students, so these numbers are significant.) A dozen more faculty spent 2 days in our faculty space learning about CI Keys so they could incorporate it into their Fall courses. And now, we're committed to supporting it and taking it as far as we can. You can learn a lot about what people are actually doing with CI Keys, and how it impacts faculty and students, from Michelle Pacansky-Brock, Jill Leafstedt, and Jamie Hoffman. We agreed we'd each publish a blog post about CI Keys simultaneously and see what we come up with.

Here's a few things I've learned (or relearned):

  1. Follow your heart. Sometimes it's worth trying something just because it seems like a good idea, even if you don't know how it will work.
  2. Pilots can be a good idea. If you don't really know whether or how something will be used, trying it out a low cost and low scale CAN be useful, despite some doubts. Some pilots fail because they are bad ideas - nice to find that out quickly and cheaply rather than launching a complete campus-wide service and then finding out. Worse, if your expensive campus-wide service is a failure, there's a strong temptation to claim it's a success and try to force it down people's throats. After all, you made that investment, it's too big to fail! Yes, scaling up can be hard, but there's still a place for pilots and organic evolution of services. (And see 4 & 5 below- scaling up can be a whole lot easier than it used to be!)
  3. Question the curve. I am coming to question the usefulness of the innovation diffusion curve in Ed Tech. First of all there's an implicit value judgment that early adopters are better than late adopters - not to mention the infamous laggards. Not all technology adoption is useful, to say the least, and some is downright harmful. Second, why is success measured as universal adoption? If 20% of the faculty at my campus find CI Keys to be a useful and even transformational tool for encouraging student learning, does that necessarily mean that the other 80% are missing something by not using it? Perhaps, but I'm not so sure. It's nice to think that we can provide a single tool for everyone to use but we can see where that's gotten us. Instead, some will use institutional tools, some will use open source, some will use commercial tools, and faculty and students will use different tools (really, media) to accomplish different things. Is that hard from an ed tech support position? No doubt! But I think that's the world we live in, not one where we always think in terms of scale-up and universal adoption - that ship has sailed.
  4. Use the cloud. Cloud computing can make innovation a lot cheaper and faster! It was very easy for us to work with Reclaim Hosting to launch this environment - thanks Jim & Timmy! There was almost no "IT" work involved, except for...
  5. Single-Sign On always wins. By tying CI Keys to our Shibboleth environment, there's no need to create new ID's or provision service on CI Keys - a new user just uses their campus login and they can launch or access their CI Keys space. Instant scale-up! So that was the main IT investment - and it was just a few hours to set it up and test it. 
That's my perspective from the second floor. Be sure to read what Michelle, Jill, and Jaimie have to say about the impact on teaching and learning - that's what really matters. (I promised I would post my reflections before reading theirs - I can't wait to see what they have to say!) I'm just glad that a hunch and a little support from the CSU Chancellor's Office has paid off big-time. Thanks to the entire team, including my partner-in-crime Chris Mattia who has moved on to other ventures but was instrumental in creating CI Keys, and who came up with the name.

Photo Credit: OldOnliner@Flickr (cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Open Design

I've been thrilled to watch what's happening at Next/Thing Co, not only because their latest project, the $9 computer, has been a huge Kickstarter "hit" (closing in on $1.8 million), but also because I'm a proud uncle - my nephew Thomas is an industrial designer who's part of the founding team. Perhaps the biggest long-term impact of Next/Thing is their commitment to openness - not just open source software, but open sourcing the hardware. All the schematics will be online, and their message is - buy it, hack it, mod it, build your own. They have truly taken the hacker ethic to heart and it's great to see the impact that they are making.

They've just released a video on the design of their handheld "Pocket C.H.I.P.", a $49 portable - take a look at the video to see what I'm talking about.

Designing PocketC.H.I.P. from next thing co on Vimeo.

I love this video, because it demystifies the process of design. It says to me not that design is easy (becoming a GOOD designer takes a lot of training and a lot of hard work) but that it's ACCESSIBLE - see, this is fun and interesting and if you want, you can do it too.

Let's contrast this to the most famous design-driven company, Apple. Apple is famous for its secret design studio, to which only the specially anointed are allow admittance. For example, here's how it's described in a recent New Yorker profile of Apple design guru Johnny Ive:
An invitation to visit Apple’s studio is rare, and is withheld even from most employees. Inside the door, a ten-foot-long internal vestibule, in stainless steel, serves as a visual air lock.
The Apple mythology is that these are special people performing an arcane and priestlike process that yields magnificent design. And no doubt, Apple has build some beautiful and amazing stuff. But Next/Thing Co presents a different vision, a sort of Protestant Reformation of the design church. Design for the people! How cool is that! I hope they continue to be successful and that from their work a 1000 new designers are born.