Tuesday, May 31, 2005

On Promotion of Ed Tech

I was a seemingly well adjusted kid but then around age 14 or 15 the wheels began to unravel and I lost my personal sense of gravity. The issues revolved around confidence, control, and motivation. And related to that was the role of school. Was my self-worth tied up in performance there or not? And, of course, there was the issue of whether my parents should make decisions on my own behalf or if I could make my own mistakes. I went to Northwestern for grad school in part to get sufficiently far away from New York so that the the ties with my parents would be cut completely. (My realistic alternative was Rochester, which had also offered a fellowship, but that was too close to Cornell where I did my undergrad and not a new enough adventure. I had wanted to go to Berkeley, but didn't get money from them.) It was not until my mid twenties that I learned to feel comfortable inside my own skin. And then my mother had her first hip replacement and all of a sudden I wanted to live closer to them. But that is a different story.

I would characterize my approach to life in general and to my job more specifically as collegial. I want to feel free to articulate my view but you don't have to agree. And I want to give you enough space for you to do likewise. I'm not trying to con or cajole anyone. I try to give information and argument for why we've done things as a service provider. I will represent the bad as well as the good and in that sense strive for a balanced approach. In dealing with faculty who use services provided by one of my units, this is the approach that makes the most sense to me. We're here for the long term and we're trying to do well by them, their students, and others on campus. As much as possible I hope I can have a relationship with them on a first name basis. This is how I'd like to be treated if I were the recipient of the service.

It is far less clear, however, that this approach makes sense in other arenas. If we are trying to bring out social change rather than simply provide a good service, then the message must be more idealistic and aspiring. And even if the goals are not so lofty but the audience is external to the campus, for example in seeking grant funding from foundations or in getting recognition around the state, perhaps my tone, which tends not to vary with audience, is not right. In contrast, let's look at the Sakai project and in particular one of the leaders of that project, Brad Wheeler, from Indiana University. I mention Brad because I'm friendly with him and I think he would not disagree with the characterization I'm going to provide.

Brad presents at all the national conferences. I've seen him at Educause, CNI, and of course the SEPP conference. I've got him to talk via teleconference with our FSI steering committee. He is highly visible and that is part of his job. He delivers a stump speech that is not unlike what a candidate would do in a political campaign. He is literally selling the idea of "Community Source" software development and as a business school professor has a keen sense of what marketing such an idea requires. He too frames the risks inherent in the community source approach. His Educause Review piece on Open Source makes the full argument. But it is clear that work is written by an Apostle, one whose mission is to bring others on board to the Community Source movement and thereby give recognition to the work he and his colleagues have already done.

Sometime we fail in the ed tech arena. Our services are not as good as we hoped they would be or the usage of the software is duller than we imagined and hence has little or no impact on learning. These failures may bother our instructors. But they put a huge burden on the staff who are trying to make things better. Hyping a service or an approach will in general raise expectations. Lifting the bar has the benefit of affecting performance. (In teaching we are constantly told that instructors should set high expectations for their students.) Of course, that can cut both ways.

As an organization in general, we (CITES) are more like me than like Brad. When Larry Smarr was here running NCSA, he certainly was a good promoter (and he championed some non orthodox ideas in the process. But note that NCSA is mostly an outsiders organization that is housed here.) We try very hard to provide a good, professional service. We don't try at all to inspire. I do, in a dabbling kind of way. I wish I were more out in front or somebody else here was, since I'm not sure it is in me to do that.

At the time I got involved with learning technologies, a lot of it did seem inspirational and Burks Oakley here was doing much of the inspiring. We've grown a lot since then and we've also witnessed the bursting of the dot.com bubble. It's not possible to create quite the sense of wonder because the novelty is no longer there. But that maturity does allow a more realistic and nuanced view of what is possible to improve learning. We need a charismatic character to promote yet with a subtle argument. Is that possible?

No comments: