Monday, March 31, 2008

More on irrelevance

In addition my own recent posts, there have been several others discussing the relationship between technologists and faculty. I'm also leading a discussion with a mixed group of faculty and staff tomorrow that may touch on (I hope) some of the issues raised by the online discussions I've been reading. Just as the issue of tenure seems to come up over and over again in the academic blogosphere, the issue of teaching and technology seems to come up over and over again in the academic IT side of the blogosphere. I think the issues are raised again and again because there's a feeling that something isn't working quite right and we feel a need to fix it. And, too, I think there's a sense of a struggle, of an us vs. them mentality that we all seem to get bogged down in (myself included).

Let me start by relaying a couple of incidents that occurred over the weekend. At a social event, a faculty member whom I don't see very often came up to me and said that a bunch of faculty had been talking about me recently. My heart swelled. I thought a great and insightful question or comment or suggestion was about to issue forth. But here's what came out instead: We were talking about blu-ray and we all said, that's what Laura should run workshops on. I won't say how I responded, but suffice it to say it wasn't pithy enough and obviously the comment has stuck in my craw.

Earlier, I'd gone to hear a talk in which the idea of tradition was lauded and commended and put on a pedestal. I found myself squirming and thinking, isn't tradition for tradition's sake a bad thing? Shouldn't we be fighting against traditions that hold us back? The speaker went on to discuss the web and the wonders of the digital age, all the while reassuring his audience that books will always hold an important place in scholarship, perhaps even still the most important place, but that digital work should be considered as well. (Note: the commenter above attended this talk as well.)

I don't think there was any maliciousness in the comment. It was a true misunderstanding of what it is I really do. It was also an indication that the commenter has not really investigated the application of technology to teaching or research. He/she very well could have asked me what I thought about the talk that we both attended and especially about the comments on digital scholarship. But no.

I think it's hard not to feel irrelevant in the face of such comments, but I also think the "protests too much" nature of the talk also indicates anxiety about the future of academic work. What is to become of books in the web world? What about publishing articles? What about our students and their horrible Googling habits? The sad thing is, I'm here to help answer those questions, to help scholars and teachers find relevance in the web world. If only people would stop asking me about blu-ray.

I think, too, there's a little bit of snobbery or something about some of us here in well-resourced schools. Our students and faculty have access to lots of rich materials because of location, because our library has such a great collection, and because our institution has the financial means to send students and faculty to places where they can access materials or to bring those materials to them. Not so at many other places and here, the web offers many opportunities. One of the first images I really looked at online was a digital version of Beowulf. Lacuna took on new meaning for me as it should for many students upon seeing something like Beowulf in the flesh, so to speak. How about accessing images of Shakespeare's work? Or access to scholarly articles freely? The web has the potential to level the playing field and we have the opportunity to define the field. Will it be about quick, fast, surface-level work? Or will we put our work out there so it's more about depth and breadth and access to great scholarship and creative work?

So, here's what I might say to faculty. When you have those panic attacks in the middle of the night and you're thinking that the Internet is ruining the academy, call me and talk to me about it the next day. I'll talk to you about how the Internet is actually making the academy even more relevant but only as long as it doesn't shut itself inside the ivory tower. I'll help you figure out what to do to make your work relevant. You can share your goals and I can help you find ways to reach them. I won't give you nuggets, mind you. I'll teach you how to fish. Just whatever you do, don't ask me about blu-ray.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Making space and time for technology

I'm so blown away by this article in the Chronicle, I don't even know where to begin. It expresses some of my deepest-held notions about what institutions need to do in order to incorporate technology more fully into their curricula. As I've said time and again, my struggle to change the way faculty teach by embracing technology has little to do with technology and a lot to do with the structures of higher education. There's just no incentive for faculty to innovate. And institutions have just thrown up their hands. The CMS is a good example, as Tabron says,
most higher-education administrators feel that they did their bit for instructional technology when they adopted course-management systems in the 1990s.
What more could we possibly need to do? Those systems look mostly the same now as they did in the 90s despite all the development that's occurred on the web. And I'm sorry, but the open-source alternatives aren't a whole lot better. All these systems simply put online the teaching methods that we desperately need to get away from--the idea that students are there just to absorb information, not to interact with each other, or *gasp* to learn how to learn. It's why, despite faculty and students saying that their satisfied with the CMS we have, I resist such complacency. Sure, they're satisfied with it. It maintains the status quo. I want to push them beyond the status quo. Blackboard isn't going to do that any time soon.

Tabron also argues for IT staff with teaching experience, something that we at least have right. But I know plenty of places where this isn't true.
IT-staff members with teaching experience and an understanding of the mission of liberal-arts education need a place in which to demonstrate the latest technologies. And they need both space and time to help professors develop new types of lessons, assignments, and grading methods that can fundamentally change how teaching and learning happen.
My institution is halfway there in that I at least fit the description of IT staff with teaching experience and understanding of the mission of a liberal-arts education. And I guess I have some space and time to help professors. In theory, that's how I should spend all my time. In reality, not enough of them seek me out for this kind of development. What I get called in for is to fix something in Blackboard, cables in the classroom, and other such mundane questions. I provide workshops on topics such as effective use of blogging, using RSS to manage information, and Web 2.0 presentations. But these are sporadically attended. And the people that do attend often respond, "This is great but I don't have time to think about this right now." So it's not me that needs the space and time, it's the faculty. Tabron suggests, too, that we need to resist the urge, when faculty aren't banging down our door, to shift our focus to those more mundane tasks. We have to keep trying. I'll take that to heart and redouble my efforts (look out faculty!).

Because I agree with Tabron's last sentence: "It will be a dismal future if the only thing our graduates cannot do online is learn."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Calling David Allen

I am currently somewhat GTD challenged. Oh, I have my lists. I'm putting things on lists so that they're not in my head. I'm keeping a relatively empty inbox (from over 400 today to 101). But the lists, they are not getting smaller. The stuff on the lists is all little stuff, sticky stuff, stuff I keep trying to do, but I get sidetracked, interrupted, or otherwise prevented from doing. Example, I'm supposed to be upgrading software. I've tried this three times, none successful. I think I know how to fix the issue now, but have not had time to do it. I'm at a point where I'm not sure what to prioritize. There are certain obvious things with deadlines, but then there's the not so obvious stuff. There are things that are important to me but not important to others. Things important to others, but not important to me. See the problem?

A recent David Allen post, in fact, talks about how knowing what your work is (which is the cornerstone of his system) doesn't necessarily make less work. In fact, it usually makes more work.

I'm wondering if what I want is less to do. I don't think I do. I think I am the kind of person who thrives on doing stuff. However, the stuff I'm doing needs to be mostly meaningful to me. I know 100% of can't be. There's always banal stuff to manage in life. But maybe 80% can be meaningful. Maybe 90%. That's a goal. I also need time to step back and assess where I am, process everything, re-prioritize. David Allen says to make time for this. I'm starting to take this more seriously and block off time where I sequester myself away but it's easy to let this slide when a seeming crisis arises. When I do manage to protect that time, I spend a chunk of that time researching, thinking, contemplating the bigger questions in my field. And I spend a chunk of that time processing stuff. I did this before my vacation last week and it's amazing how easily I was able to pick up where I left off. I still feel slightly overwhelmed, but in a kind of controlled way.

The other thing I need is time to not think, to just be free of everything. I'm amazed by how much better I function when I take a few hours, days, whatever, to do nothing. I bought myself a jigsaw puzzle the other day because I wanted a low-tech way of entertaining myself. I have all kinds of (probably wrong) theories about why it's good to make your brain do something else for a while. I'll let the cognitive scientists among you sort that out.

Anyway, I've just been thinking about the irony of GTD. In fact, you might finish discrete projects, but in reality, you're never done. Sisyphus indeed.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Faculty and Classroom Technology

I've been interviewing students for a technology-related internship this week. On the application, I had asked them to describe their worst technology experience in a class. Almost all of them have described a faculty member fumbling around with the projectors and computers and lights in the room. They have explained how this takes up class time and how annoying they find it. On the flip side, I've recently heard faculty complain about how hard the equipment is to use and that it often doesn't work.

When I press the students, I ask them what they think should be done. Their response is to provide more training. To which response I laugh and say that we offer such training, but no one comes. Every semester we recommend that faculty go into their classrooms with or without someone to help them and make sure they know how to operate the equipment. I'm certain this happens about .0001% of the time. We have laminated, fairly clear instructions in most classrooms. Still the struggle. The students also say that often a student will finally raise their hand and offer to help. They find nothing wrong with this scenario. Remember when teachers picked students to run film projectors and turn the filmstrip? Same thing, I'm thinking.

The students have no problem helping once. It's when the faculty member seems to not retain the information that they begin to have doubts. And all of them say that the equipment may look difficult at first, but once you know which button to push, it's not that big a deal.

I do think the equipment should work and should be fairly easy to use. But when you have data projectors, dvd players, vhs players, and computers all piped through the same system, there's complexity there. In most cases, the process has been simplified as much as possible. It's then up to the faculty member to learn how to use it. Honestly, we've had people who've wanted someone to show up and turn things on for every class. Not going to happen. I've also had people want to know if their presentation, which includes images, video and/or sound will work in classroom x. I don't know, I say, go try test it out. It has to work, they say. I'm not clairvoyant, I say. In what scenario is it anyone else's responsibility other than the faculty's to make sure that whatever presentation, whether for a class or a conference, works? Why is it that when classroom technology is involved, it suddenly becomes someone else's problem?

Yes, the equipment should be functional and the complaints are legitimate if it's not. Beyond making them functional, however, it's not anyone else's responsibility to learn how to use it. Or, just don't use it. That's legitimate too.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Mondays are cruel

So it's Monday, a Monday after I took a week off. I'm staring down an inbox with 400 messages in it, a huge to-do list and some ambitious project ideas. I was on a trip followed by a 40th celebration at my house that involved lots of food and even more drink. I wasn't exactly prepared to drag in this morning at 7:30. In fact, I didn't make it here until almost 8. But, I've knocked off a few items on the list and hope to knock off a few more. Still, it's not a good sign that I'm already looking forward to Friday. I suppose it will be even sweeter if I can get through my list.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Big 4-0

The Big 4-0
Originally uploaded by lorda.
Yesterday I turned 40. It was fun to see all the Facebook greetings wishing me a Happy Birthday. 20 years ago, that never would have happened. My birthday always falls over spring break, so no one is ever around for it (not that I care now, but in college, it was kind of depressing). The family did it up right, taking me out to lunch and then shopping for presents. I was showered with WoW related gifts--guides and books galore. But Mr. Geeky outdid himself by getting me the gift that took this picture--an iPhone. My dad laughed when I told him because he didn't think I needed another gadget. But, of course, I live for gadgets. It really is as cool as they say. I love having my email on here and I'm looking forward to getting calendar syncing working. I'm completely geeked out, which is of course the perfect way for a Geeky Mom to spend her 40th birthday.

Friday, March 14, 2008

TGIF Big Time

This has been the busiest week and it was spring break! In part, I think it was busy because I'm taking next week off since it's the kids' spring break (love how that works out), so I felt pressured to get a more things done. But I literally have been working like a dog this whole week. Some of that work was good--reading a few new things between meetings--but some of it was frustrating--trying to upgrade blog software and failing. For those of you who don't regularly deal with upgrading server-side software, you have no idea how hard this can be, especially for someone who's not a sys admin. Often, there's no indication of what's gone wrong. I think I finally have this one figured out, but it took a lot of digging.

So I'm really glad Friday is finally here and I plan to take it easy this weekend and at least the first part of next week. I have a quick work-related trip planned later in the week. I need to get a few things done around the house, mostly laundry (I swear our clothes are reproducing), but otherwise I plan to kick back a little. Here's wishing everyone a relaxing weekend and if you have spring break, a relaxing one of those too.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

I had a dream

About Hillary. And it wasn't good. Pennsylvania is about to be the site of lots of political wrangling and honestly, I'm not looking forward to it. I really don't know who I want to vote for.

In my dream, however, my choice became clear for a really dumb reason. I'm at a rally for Hillary and I'm in the front row because apparently Hillary and I are buds. Hillary starts talking and it sounds like normal Hillary, but then she says she wants to bring out someone special that she's been spending a lot of time with to speak on her behalf. She whispers to me that this is why she hasn't been able to do much with me lately. So this sort of round guy comes out wearing khaki pants and a yellow plaid shirt. And he starts talking and it turns out he's an evangelical Christian. I go running from the room backstage, where Hillary corners me and goes all high school on me, something about how I should stand by her no matter what, blah, blah. And then she's crying and I leave, thinking there's no way this woman can be president.

My friends catch me after this and are describing how wonderful Hillary is and how they're definitely going to vote for her. I try to explain about the plaid shirt man and the weird interactions backstage, but they don't get it. They didn't see that the guy was evangelical or believe that Hillary could behave like a 16 year-old.

Maybe it's a cautionary tale about the flim flam of these rallies or maybe it was just a weird dream.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

On Time

I'm going to guess that most of the people who commented on my last post about office hours are conscientious about their time, trying to be available a reasonable amount of time and trying the balance the time needed for attending to student and the time for prepping, research, committees, etc. These people, I'm going to guess, are not the faculty who swoop in for a class and one office hour (held right before or right after class) and then disappear.

I've been hearing a lot about the issue of faculty time lately. It came up in the planning committee meetings I've been participating in where we got input from faculty about their concerns in addressing the topic of the conference. They almost all said, "Not enough time." I've heard it from individual faculty: "I just don't have time to deal with that." At a workshop on blogging I ran a while back, I heard, "This is great, but I just don't have the time to really learn this." And at a day long workshop on gaming yesterday, that was a big factor in whether or not to investigate the potential of gaming for teaching.

I think the issue is mostly not really about the amount of time available, but how that time is prioritized. It's really about how faculty choose to spend that time. I'll be the first to say that some of those priorities, especially for t-t faculty, are forced upon the faculty. A junior faculty is not going to get tenure based on integrating blogging into their introductory courses. I know that. But I also think that for some of the technology that we're talking about, it doesn't *really* take that much time to learn the basics. What does take time is figuring out how to use the technology effectively and if that's what faculty are wanting to take time to do, then that's great! But that's not my sense about 75% of the time. Most of the time, I think either a) they really think it takes years to learn the technology or b) complaining about a lack of time is an excuse and that they just really don't want to use the technology at all. And that's okay. Really, it is. I'm okay with people being skeptical about the usefulness of particular tools.

Except that I'm not okay with that in some ways. In part, it's because the faculty who are often skeptical haven't even tried. They haven't assessed at all whether something is hard to learn, easy to learn, would add a new element to their class, would add excitement to their class, would achieve a learning outcome more effectively. I think if someone said, "You know, I spent a few days poking around with this thing, trying to see ways it could work for me and I just couldn't see the point" I'd be more likely to accept some skepticism. But saying, "I've watched you do this and I've read about it for five minutes, and no thanks" makes me believe that that person wasn't really interested to begin with. And that they, in fact, think this whole technology thing is a load of hooey.

I guess what I'm saying is that it kind of feels yucky to realize what you are passionate about is just not a priority for a great many faculty. I suppose this is what people who teaching "dying" subjects feel like. My sympathies.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Office Hours

Short answer. What is a reasonable ethical number of office hours for a professor at a teaching-oriented college? Please explain.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Technology and Nostalgia

Today, in a conversation with a group of people planning a conference on writing in the digital age, we slipped into a conversation about classic rock. It was a tangent from the idea of "old" writing methods. I suggested "classic" and we were off. But then it turned into a more serious consideration of the ways in which nostalgia about old technology affects how we might approach teaching with new technologies.

We reflected for a few moments on typing but then moved on to other topics. But I got to thinking about how people tend to get attached to doing things a certain way. My grandmother used to tell a story about a great uncle of hers, who fought in the Civil War. He lamented the loss of the fire as a source of heat. He said he just couldn't feel warm without a crackling fire in the fireplace. The new-fangled steam radiators just didn't cut it. And it didn't really matter whether radiators generated more heat or not. He perceived that they didn't.

It's an interesting parallel since from 1865 to the early 20th century, there was a huge amount of industrial and technological innovation. In that man's lifetime, the world went from horses to cars, from wood fires to steam heat, from candles to electric lighting. And those changes involved huge social changes as a result. Likewise, in my lifetime, we've gone from 3 channels to nearly infinite, typewriters to cloud computing, telephones to Skype. If my grandparents stories began, "Back in my day, I had to walk to school uphill both ways . . ." my stories begin, "Back in my day, I used correction tape to erase, one letter at a time . . ." In both cases, the implication is that the modern era is easier and the stuff we had to do "back in our day" built character and made us better people (cf. Calvin and Hobbes).

We build romantic notions around the tools we used to use, the methods we used that developed around those tools and we have a hard time letting go. We think that the new ways replace those old ways, but that's not necessarily true. They can build on the old ways or make the old ways more efficient. But it does mean we need to look critically at those ways of doing things and not hold onto them out of nostalgia.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Unintended Consequences

Today's post is a presentation I'm giving in just an hour and a half about social networking. I haven't added all the cites yet, but this will update automatically. Enjoy!

Update: Here is a list of the sources for most of this material. All of these are interesting and present a variety of views about issues surrounding social networking sites--our fear of them, our unexamined embrace of them, their commercialization, and the good things they bring us.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Downloading Movies and Music

Has it been a week since I've blogged? Yikes. Mr. Geeky was away last week, so I was single parenting and then over the weekend, I convinced the kids to help me clean up around the house. So there. I spent the rest of the time watching bad tv and gaming. It's what I do when the brain is mush.

Anyway, to keep the kids entertained over the weekend, I decided to download some movies for us to watch. And let me just say, it was rather frustrating. Not completely frustrating. Just rather. As this Wired article points out, the movie industry is going the same way as the music industry did. They're creating restrictive distribution methods that prevent people from doing what they used to do with the old media. Case in point. For me, the best way to download a movie would be through Amazon because that goes directly to my TiVo so I can watch it on the big screen. But Amazon's collection didn't include anything I had any desire to watch, so I switched to iTunes. For my family viewing purposes, iTunes had a better selection, but I can only download to my computer. I can't shift the media to my TiVo. If I had AppleTV, I could, but I don't. In the old media days (and I know most people are still living in those days), I would have rented a DVD (or VHS) and it would have been no problem. I could watch it on the big screen without thinking twice. I guess the only equivalent old media issue that was similar was the VHS/Beta wars. And yes, I remember them.

What we need is a digital version of the DVD player. It shouldn't matter where you rent your digital movie from. You should be able to send it to the box and play it in your TV--or wherever. As it was, I hooked up my computer to the TV and we watched everything just fine, but it wasn't ideal. David Pogue also points out these issues in a recent column. He discusses the most maddening of problems with movie downloads:
Then there is the 24-hour limit. Suppose you typically do not start a movie until 7:30 p.m., after dinner and the homework have been put away. If you do not have time to finish the movie in one sitting, you cannot resume at 7:30 tomorrow night; at that point, the download will have self-destructed.
Again, not an issue with rented DVDs. You keep the movie for 3 days usually (or if you're like me, a week or two). You can watch it over and over if you want. Not so with the digital movie unless you do so within the 24-hour period. And most of us just aren't going to do that.

As both authors point out, the movie industry is pissing off the very people who are willing to shell out money for their products. And some of those people are going to turn to BitTorrent instead of iTunes. It has a better selection, it's cheaper, and you can do whatever you want with it. Come up with the legal version of this and you'll make money.

The same kinds of issues can be found in the music industry, which I also had experience with over the weekend. Songs and artists aren't available through every digital venue, although it seems to be better than the movie industry. Still, just as I might choose which music store I go to because it's close or I like the owner, I should be able to choose my digital music store for the same reasons.

Sadly, I get the feeling that most of this is not going to come out in the consumers' favor.