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.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Tools of Empowerment, Enlightenment, and Excitement

In the latest post in his wonderful blog More or Less Bunk, Jonathan Rees quotes from the book Clio Wired edited by Roy Rosenzweig:
“Although a Luddite resistance to technological change may seem appealing at times, we would argue instead that it is worth engaging with these new technologies in an effort to try to insure that they indeed become badly needed tools of empowerment, enlightenment and excitement.” - Roy Rosenzweig & Steve Brier, 1994
This summarizes an argument that I've been trying to make in recent years in presentations and discussions with faculty and others. Change is here - technological, demographic, political, and economic. If the educators that care about students don't find a way to respond, the future of education will belong to those who stand to profit economically or politically or both. Who will build the universities and colleges of the future - those who understand the history and share the values of the educational enterprise, or those who simply want to make a buck?

The Great MOOC Scare of 2012 has resided and the rise of well-funded ed tech startups with (largely) goofy or ill-considered products may be near the bubble peak - at least, we can hope. But the fundamental forces that act upon our institutions are not going to disappear. I salute Jonathan and others who have the courage to explore new ways of reaching their students and learning to navigate of the technology sea we find ourselves sailing on. These are the innovations that can set the course for the future while valuing the past and keeping the focus where it belongs, on our students and our communities. They are building tools of empowerment, enlightenment, and excitement.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Finding Sharla Boehm

When I first researched the story of Sharla P. Boehm and published it in March, I hoped very much that it would be widely distributed and that in a small way I could show my appreciation for the brilliant but sometimes forgotten people, many of them women, that built the foundation of the technology world where I've spent my career. The posting built slowly, and only a few saw it in the first days of publication, but it's slowly taken off to where it's on the verge of being the most popular blog post I've written. Interest in the blog picked up considerably when included it in their Linkspam Agenda for April 24, leading to an entry in the Geek Feminism Wiki for Sharla. But the real breakthrough came in the form of an email on Mothers Day from Barry Boehm, Sharla's husband of 54 years.
Everybody — It’s a bit of a stretch to call Sharla the Grandmother of the Internet, but I was recently pleasantly surprised to receive a link to a blog that celebrated Sharla’s lead authorship of the first computer program to demonstrate the feasibility of packet-switched networks: the organizing principle of the Internet.  Here’s the blog’s Internet address; I hope you enjoy it... P.S. to Michael Berman: Thank you for brightening Sharla’s life.  She had a stroke and has limited speech and mobility, but her spirit is still strong.
The message, sent to Sharla and Barry's friends and family all over the world, generated messages of appreciation and support, many from people who had known them both for years but had never heard of Sharla's important contribution to the pre-history of the Internet. I also received the beautiful photo above from Tenley Burke, Sharla and Barry's daughter.

It's wonderful to know that she has had a chance to see that her significant achievement has been celebrated and will be remembered henceforth. It's also a pleasure to know a bit more of her personal story, filled in by a brief bio that Barry sent. Sharla Perrine was born in Seattle in 1929 and moved to Santa Monica in 1932 where she has been since. She received a degree in Mathematics from UCLA and became a math and science teacher in Santa Monica middle and high schools. In 1959, she started a brief stint at Rand Corporation. She and Barry met at Rand while they were waiting for their security clearances to come through! In 1961 she returned to teaching but continued to work for Rand part-time, including her seminal work with Paul Baran.

Sharla and Barry had two daughers, Romney and Tenley, and became a full-time mother and homemaker in the mid-sixties. She was active in her community through Girl Scouts, youth sports, and as a member of the board for her local library. (Tenley mentioned that when she posted a link to my blog on her Facebook page, it elicited responses from many women who knew Sharla as their scout leader.) They continue to live in Santa Monica in the house they moved to in 1966.

Here's a salute to Sharla and Barry and all the people that they've touched in their lives and through their teaching, and as parents and grandparents. Everyone has a story, and everyone can make a contribution. Sharla had the skill and the focus to make a significant contribution to the early days of the conceptualization of the Internet, and I'm sure she made a huge difference in the lives of many students she taught in school and encountered later in her community, and of course for her family. I am so very glad that I was able to find the real person behind the name on the Rand publication. The tools that Sharla and Barry helped create through their careers made it possible. Thank you Sharla, Barry, and Tenley.

Real-time Intercontinental Collaboration via Twitter, Periscope, and PollEverywhere - sometimes this stuff actually works!

Last October at the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference in Orlando, Raechelle Clemmons ("CIOs Sound Off: To Be, or Not To Be, Social". The idea originally was to present a sort of debate about the advantages and disadvantages or participating in social media, particularly Twitter. The session was Rae's idea, and we brought in Dee and Jack to present the "anti-Social" side, but most of the audience were already involved in using Twitter as a professional resource and were largely interested in discussing how to do so effectively.
@rclemmons) and I, along with Dee Childs & Jack Suess, presented

One of the participants, David Gunsberg (@dgunsberg) liked the concept so much that he recruited Kim Tairi (@kimtairi) to present a similar session at THETA 2015, being held this week at Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia. For their session, they decided to take things to a new level by inviting me & Raechelle to watch & participate via Twitter from California.

The first challenge of course was figuring out when 1415 Australian East on Tuesday would equate to for me & Raechelle. With the help of a handy time calculator I determined it would be 9:15PM on Monday for me, and a couple of hours later for Rae in Wisconsin. Then the schedule got shifted 30 minutes later, not so bad for me but too late in the evening for Rae.

The choice of Periscope to present the audio/video was the most unusual part of the experience. Periscope is a personal video-streaming tool for iOS devices, which they had running on Kim's iPad Mini in the room. Periscope is essentially one-way (you can respond with text comments) and has a very simple and clean interface. It worked extremely well for me - I could see the slides and the presenters (they walked in and out of view) and hear everything. It did freeze briefly a couple of times, but not enough to break my concentration. It also had a remarkably intimate feeling to it - I was getting the view from a table near the front of the room rather than the typical conference streaming from the back. I could see David and Kim when they set it up and finished, talking directly to me. It was a remarkably engaging experience, much more so than the typical "virtual conference" environment.

In addition to tweeting, I was able to participate in the poll questions which they offered via PollEverywhere. It was fun to be able to compare my answers in real-time to the people in the room. At first I was a bit stumped about how to respond - my phone was tied up using Periscope and I was busy tweeting on my laptop - but then I realized I could tweet my poll responses to @poll and it worked like a charm.

This was my second encounter with immersive international participation in a conference, but from the "other side" - I interacted multiple times Maha Bali (@Bali_Maha) who describes her experience here. We've been talking about the potential for technology to eradicate the boundaries of distance for a long time, but I think we're just starting to see what we can really do and we have barely begun to comprehend what it means.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Light My Fire

Walking home today I encountered this endearing scene on campus - students outside, under a tree, on the quad, paining. As I got closer, I could hear a familiar song - they were listening to The Doors' Light My Fire.

Part of me was pleased - oh, they like music that I grew up with - and part of me was annoyed - hey kids, go get your own music. But the scene was also timeless - my Cal State Channel Islands campus, built on the grounds of an old state hospital, looks a lot like my undergraduate campus Pomona College, built around the same time. Trees, quads, tile roofs, grass. Even a young woman with long hair sitting cross-legged and wearing a headband. And I thought about Light My Fire.

Of course the song is timeless because it's about sex and it's got a distinctive sound. But when The Doors recorded it in the summer of 1966, it was just a year after the 1965 Watts Riot in Los Angeles. I was just eight years old then, but I remember it well, because my father was the "re-write man" at the Los Angeles Times, and every day his name appeared as the byline on horrifying stories like "Eight Men Slain; Guard Moves In". Another article on the page reads "Burn Baby Burn Chant Crowds". Consciously or unconsciously, that mantra "Burn Baby Burn" leads right into "C'mon Baby Light My Fire" and carries forward into the killing fields of Vietnam where our young soldiers marched into firefights with The Doors in their ears

My father was proud and embarrassed by the Los Angeles Times and their coverage of the Watts Riots. Proud because those stories he wrote led to a Pulitzer Prize, the most prestigious award in journalism; and embarrassed, because the Los Angeles Times newsroom didn't have a single reporter of color on its staff. It took an African-American man named Robert Richardson who had the guts to walk into the newsroom and say "Hey, I live there, I can call in stories for you" - because the white reporters were driven out by the mobs - or they would have had no first-person accounts from the street. Diversifying the newsroom became a passion for my father and a major goal of his next 35 years at the paper.

So much has changed, and yet justice still eludes us. The Watts Riots started when the police beat a man in front of his mother, enraging a crowd. I thought we'd do better in 50 years, but it still takes violence to get us to pay attention to the suffering and injustice that's right in front of us. My sanctimonious generation has failed to make this right, and we've handed it on to our students to figure out. They listen to The Doors on their phones now instead of on a transistor radio, but as I stood there I felt like time had stopped. And I didn't feel that idyllic or nostalgic. Instead I felt a little sick and sad, and not very proud.

Friday, April 17, 2015

On liminality, not yetness and the pain of waiting

I was on a Twitter binge this morning when as response from Kristen Eshleman (@kresleman) prompted me to look up the definition of "liminal space" - you can find quite a bit of detail in the liminality Wikipedia article. Go read it now or at least skim it (it's pretty long and detailed) - I'll wait while you do that.....

As the article notes: "The term has also passed into popular usage, where it is applied much more broadly, undermining its significance to some extent." Wow, there's an academic lament. Anyway, it's not only a fascinating anthropological concept but a wonderful metaphor, so permit me to contribute to undermining its significance.

I have several friends that are metaphorically in this state of uncertainty, becoming, passage, change, transition - whatever you want to call it. In fact, living in this state seems to be more the norm than the exception - think how we value "ability to tolerate ambiguity" or "quick adaptability to change" as qualities we look for, both in our friends and in our coworkers. Furthermore, the "liminal space" is clearly a state of great creativity - I'm reminded of those moments between sleep and awakeness where the line between fantasy and reality is so blurred - it's a creative space, and a scary one, a moment of possibility and fear.

Kristen reminded me of the wonderful blog post by Amy Collier (@amcollier) on not yetness - and how this space of uncertainty and "mess" and becoming is where so much learning - maybe all learning - takes place. We have to pass through these liminal spaces to grow and learn and to transition to what we can become - and sometimes it's exciting but it's also disorienting and frustrating. We can be in the liminal space and thrilled by the possibilities, or we can just want to get through and get to the answer. That's when the liminal space feels more like the waiting room, or being on hold, and that feels more like pain than opportunity. 

"Waiting for Godot" might be viewed as an extended riff on living in a liminal space; the Wikipedia article relates liminality to the trickster figure in folk culture. Is the trickster having a good time? It seems like a lonely road to be on. If it seems like this blog posting is stuck in the middle and going nowhere, you're probably right.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

PowerPoint Zombies

A few days ago, I was asking a friend how the workshop for faculty was going at her school, and heard, once again, the Lament of Bad PowerPoint. "She's a good speaker, energetic, engaging, but her slides! Lots of tiny text, impossible to read."

At conference after conference, we sit silently and tolerate illegible slides, silly graphics, and speakers who read bullet points out loud. While it's frustrating to see a typical conference presentation like this, it's infuriating when it's a keynote speaker who has typically been paid many thousands of dollars and who somehow can't make the time and effort to present useful images.

Here are some phrases that I never want to hear again:
  1. "I know you can't read this, but..." Then why are you showing it to us?
  2. "I usually have more time when I give this talk, so I might have to rush through some of it." Wait, this is the only time that I'm going to hear your talk. You've never given this talk to me, and you're never going to do it again, so there's no "usual." Please have the courtesy to plan the talk for the time allocated and customize it for the audience.
  3. "Oh, well, you can read that, I won't read it to you," usually after reading the first two or three bullet points. Why not just put up a URL and we can read the whole thing and go home?
  4. "Let me show you this YouTube, if I can get the WiFi to work." Really, you're going to make me sit and watch you fiddle with your computer and wait for the video to load, and "oh, sorry for the ad, hold on a second...?" You brought a laptop, bring a copy of the video with you and don't depend on the conference network.
How about this - if you have no graphics that will enhance your talk, just turn off the projector. You can make a list of your bullet points and put them online later if you think I will find them useful. Your audience will thank you!

As disappointed I get at so many presentations, I had an even more horrifying realization - if this is what we see at a conference, what do our students see in their classes? I mean, presumably giving a conference presentation is a special occasion, and we're seeing the best of what people can do. Most of the people at the conferences I attend are educators; more frighteningly, some of them TRAIN educators. What are they teaching each other, and their students, about how to communicate effectively? It's scary to contemplate.

Just to end on a positive note... there are so many people who do wonderful presentations. One of my favorites is Michelle Pacansky-Brock - you can find her at Here's one example from SlideShare of the kind of slides she creates: Not everyone has the talent and taste of a Michelle, but I know we can all do better. Let's all of us, myself included, vow to end Zombie PowerPoint presentations.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Who is Sharla P. Boehm?

Last November I had the pleasure of attending the Museum Computing Network conference – which I highly recommend. It was at a session there that I watched Rosanna Flouty as she presented the diagram below in her slides, illustrating different models for organizing communication.

Some of you will recognize the source – it comes from the work of Paul Baran in the early 1960’s, when he was part of a small group of people thinking deeply about how to build networks of communication between computers. Baran’s work, completed at Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, was foundational in the creation of what would become the Arpanet and, eventually, the Internet.

The core of Baran’s contribution was what we now know as packet switching – the idea that in order for computer A to send a message to computer B, you don’t need a fixed electronic “pipe” between them. Instead, you can break the message up into small pieces, called packets, and pass them from one computer to another, heading in the direction from A to B. This strategy has tremendous advantages – for example, messages can be rerouted in the event one computer fails or becomes overloaded –  but this wasn’t apparent at the time. In fact, many people questioned whether or not Baran’s idea could work at all.

I’m moderately familiar with Baran’s ideas, at least at a high level, but when Jennifer displayed the cover of one of Baran’s reports on the screen, I was quite astonished by what I saw. Here’s the cover:

This was part of the 11-part series that established the effectiveness of packet switching, or, in the more colorful terminology used here, “hot-potato routing”. As I mentioned, there was far from universal acceptance of Baran’s proposal, and this paper was important because it contained a detailed description of a simulation, written in the programming language Fortran, that demonstrated not only that packet switching could work, but exactly how it could work. And look at the authors of the paper: Sharla P. Boehm and Paul Baran.

Who the heck was Sharla P. Boehm? Paul Baran is generally considered one of the four or five most important “Fathers of the Internet”, but who is Sharla Boehm? I can’t remember ever seeing the name before, and I was determined to try to do some research to find out. Her name is the first on this paper, so obviously she made an important contribution, but one that seems to have been largely forgotten.

It took a bit of Google sleuthing, but I was able to find at least a partial answer. Sharla Boehm was a programmer at Rand in the early 60’s,  married to Barry Boehm, who became a well-known computer science professor. Barry Boehm taught for many years at the University of Southern California, and was an important theorist in the development of the field of Software Engineering. (In fact, the name Boehm seemed familiar to me, and that’s because I had encountered Barry Boehm’s work in my time as a CS professor.)

In 1996, Barry Boehm wrote an interesting memoir about his early days in the software industry, entitled “An Early Application Generator and Other Recollections”.  He mentions, in passing:
Coincidentally, my wife Sharla had developed the original packet-switched network simulation with Paul Baran [Baran-Boehm, 1964]).
So there it is – Sharla Boehm wrote the code that demonstrated the feasibility of packed-switched networks. You can look up the original paper that she and Baran wrote, and read every line of code that she wrote and see the actual output from her program.

I couldn’t find any other references online to the work of Sharla Boehm. Perhaps she went on to write more software, or perhaps she gave that up and moved on to other things. It would not be realistic to equate her contribution to that of Paul Baran, but she was there at an important time doing important, difficult, complex work and apparently doing it well enough that Paul Baran put her name first on the document. (Ironically, even Barry Boehm puts Baran’s name first on the reference, and some references to the article don’t even include Boehm at all.)

So I salute Sharla Boehm and thank her for her contribution. She helped create the online world we live in today, and it’s wrong to overlook or forget what she accomplished.

Once I had found the connection between Barry and Sharla Boehm I searched to see what else I could find. It appears that they are both alive and well and living in Santa Monica, not far from Rand Corporation where they apparently met.  I did find one more thing – I searched Flickr to see if I could find a picture of Sharla, and found the photo below from a retirement party for Barry Boehm. There’s Sharla & Barry in front.  I am glad to have a chance to “put a face” to the name on some 50 year old code that helped to change the world.

(Addendum, 5/12/2015: more on Sharla's story...)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

On building services vs. creating laboratories

This morning at Educause ELI 2015, I heard about experiments at Emory University, University of Oklahoma, and my campus - CSU Channel Islands - with offering faculty & students their own online spaces. This strategy, called "A Domain of One's Own," started with work by Jim Groom & others at University of Mary Washington and is an example of what Gardner Campbell has called "personal infrastructure."

Our version, called CI Keys, was created very quickly, with support from the CSU Chancellor's Office and hosting from Jim & Tim Owens' Reclaim Hosting. Within a few months of the original concept, creative faculty like Jaimie Hoffman were using CI Keys with their students. We now have several hundred users and quite a bit of traffic on the site.

At the ELI session, several people asked valid questions about support and compliance issues. As the campus CIO and most senior administrator on my campus who really understands what's going on with CI Keys, I would be foolish to say that I don't care about these issues. I want to try to explain how I'm thinking about what we're doing.

As CIO I live in the world of providing IT services to campus. IT services should be well-documented, reliable, sustainable, cost-effective, easy-to-use, well-supported, and scalable for a growing campus. While we may not always achieve all those objectives, we certainly try.

CI Keys is something different. I like to think of it as a laboratory for innovation and a place where faculty and students can work together to experiment and learn. As such, it may not have the same characteristics as a "service" (although it's not that expensive & so far has been highly reliable). There should be a sign over the virtual door - "Come on in, explore, play, and be ready for surprises."

So the questions that came up are absolutely valid - and I don't have the answers to many of them. If we had waited until we did, we would never have embarked upon this journey. We are aware that we have a responsibility to students, and that's why we have faculty members actively involved collecting data on how this experiment impacts them. We really don't know what to expect.

Here's how I see it - if universities don't support experimentation and steps into the unknown, we will lose our leadership and miss opportunities. Creating a virtual laboratory like CI Keys is one way to do it. Are there risks? Yes, and they can be mitigated but not eliminated. Sometimes I get a little nervous about this, but I don't have a better alternative.