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.