Friday, February 25, 2005

Economics and Positioning

If you look at the url for this Blog, Guava is the name of the server and CITES is the name of the organization I work in. (UIUC is the university.) CITES is the academic computing organization for the campus. While CITES has many services the big three at present, each with some role in teaching and learning, are Express (the email service relying on the Mirapoint solution); Netfiles (the file storage and Web Publishing service relying on Xythos); and Illinois Compass (the learning management system based on WebCT's Vista software). In each case, while these services get substantial usage, there are similar services being provided on campus, within CITES and in the departments or colleges. I won't drill down on these, but simply note that one can think of these services as coming in different flavors and depending on the particular need, some other flavors may be more palatable than what CITES offers. CITES tries hard to have its flavor as plain vanilla, to satisfy the majority. Rum Raisin should be offered by the departments, not the campus.

I want to get into a different issue with these services - that of underlap or overlap and how these services are positioned. On the underlap side, the gaps may mean unmet needs or they may mean that solutions will crop up in the units, or that entrepreneurial faculty and students will find solutions on their own. All of this is happening to some degree. On the overlap side, for example, files can be stored in Illinois Compass or in Netfiles, one has to ask whether the services complement each other or if they compete with each other. Complementing is happening, for example, when during a course files such as student assignments are delivered inside of Illinois Compass but at the conclusion of the course those files are archived in Netfiles. As an organization, we'd like as little of competition between the services as possible especially because resources are so scarce. Of course, some competition is a benefit in producing higher quality of service and giving the user some choice. But, as a matter of principle, that competition should come from outside of CITES rather than within.

Naturally each of the providers of these core services within CITES would like more resources to support them to make them more robust and more fully featured. And there is a desire to offer additional services to fill in some the gaps. For example, while CITES has two different streaming servers that offer some volume of usage, neither are at present a "production service" that is openly available to all on campus. Netfiles, on the other hand, is probably not the right place to house audio or video files, unless these are really low bandwidth. So there is underlap here.

There is another way that one can think of the positioning of the services and that is in terms of the type of use they engender. For example, PowerPoint though heavily used is viewed as demonous software by some because it encourages the instructor into monolog mode in the live classroom and also via the ability to click from one slide to the next encourages the instructor to go at a pace faster than the one that is best for the students. But one can use PowerPoint in a collaborative way with the class and an informed perspective of how the technology can best be leveraged will generate a different type of usage. To a certain extent, it is recognizing this idea of informed perspective that has CITES supporting Illinois Compass with a consultant approach to help create that perspective while the other core services, Netfiles and Express Mail are supported with a help desk approach and hence the usage is left up to the individual member of the campus community.

One last thought before critiquing CITES positioning of its core services. The current services have been determined in large part by what came before. When the old Unix email clusters were getting long in the tooth CITES looked for more current solutions as replacement. Mirapoint was chosen after a comparison of alternative. But it didn't do Web publishing or file storage. The old Unix cluster did offer those functions. So Netfiles came about to fill that gap. Similarly, when it became apparent that the historical approach to course management with Blackboard and WebCT wasn't scaling, we looked for a new solution that would. Illinois Compass came out of that need.

CITES hasn't done much about looking ahead and choosing services based on the perceived future need. And, noting that once a service is created and has a volume of use that produces substantial inertia to sustain that service, one wonders how the CITES services fit from that view. I'll contain my attention to Illinois Compass, because that is in some respects my baby.

There is criticism out there coming from the burgeoning ePortfolio community, that Course Management Systems in general will have a comparatively short half-life and are soon to become dinosaurs because they promote an approach to instruction that is teacher-centric, while with our teaching and learning hats on this campus and elsewhere we are trying to promote an approach that is learner-centric. While what teacher-centric and learner-centric means may be obscure to those who don't focus on these issues full time, anyone who has taught with Illinois Compass will recognize readily that the instructor has many more tools at her disposal than the students do. So, the argument goes, design software that puts the student work front and center. Doing so will promote good instruction and when the pedagogic benefits become obvious the dinosaur CMS will die, or so the argument goes.

I have been pushing on two fronts, one to get our instructors to think of Illinois Compass as the place for student work and, two to get WebCT to open its tools up to the students in some sandbox area. I've also been promoting the idea that students should be making learning objects, both as part of their course work and afterwards as course designers in training under the supervision of an instructor, to try to to promote the learner-centric approach without necessarily abandoning Illinois Compass as the underlying infrastructure. This way of thinking, however, has not had a big amount of visiblity.

What has been visible is the discussion of open source CMS, notably Sakai, and that potentially our future is with that, either as an add on or perhaps even as a replacement. But what is strange here is that Sakai has now partnered with OSPI (open source portfolio initiative) with the idea that ePortfolio is another tool to fill the space. Unless CITES funding changes radically in the future, I don't see our campus as filling the space with more services, that is not affordable. So something has to give here and at present I'm not sure what. In theory, our community will let us know via their use and their expressed wants. In practice, there are the loud voices of early adopters and then the silent majority of the rest of the instructors. It's getting this to matter to the latter that causes me to scratch my head ---- a lot.

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