Monday, October 03, 2005


One thing that both good managers and good teachers encourage is to reframe questions to encourage a different way of thinking about an issue. When problem solving, the reframing often yields a different path with which to find a solution. So reframing is a good thing to do when stuck on a problem. When doing strategic planning, the reframing offers a different way to consider whether proposed strategies are best given the articulated priorities. In other words, the reframing is a good way to accommodate a diversity of views, especially when those views appear to be in conflict.

I often use the expression “draw a circle” or “draw a bigger circle” as a simple way to reframe because often with IT provision issues a big part of the question is the size of the audience and there is a tendency to draw the circle too small. In teaching, we use the expressions “learner centric” or “teacher centric” but I think we’ve reached the point where those labels are less useful. It is more helpful, I believe, to ask about the size of the audience – the top quartile, the median and above, or the entire class and after having identified the audience then talk about how they are being addressed. Regardless of the situation – teaching, IT administration, thinking about a topic for this blog, you name it, drawing the circle differently can have important implications for the course of action we take.

Let’s consider some examples and let me begin with the following observation. People outside the IT organization have no understanding at all about what IT costs. They look at what’s happening in the home computer market and they abstract, in an imperfect way, from that. Consider storage and backup, for example. A lot of what we pay for in supporting our big systems are costs of redundancy – power supply, hardware failover, data integrity. In other words, self-insurance is a big cost. As I said, the folks outside of IT don’t understand that. But the folks in IT don’t seem to ask, is there a better way to self-insure, at lower cost and with greater reliability?

Here I’m talking outside my area of expertise, but certainly Katrina has brought out the fact that having geographic distribution of the data is probably necessary if you are to do an adequate job of data redundancy. In my IT organization we do a reasonable job of insuring against fire in a building by taking tape backups off site, but against a regional disaster we have no self-insurance.

So why don’t we engage in a grid with like schools to do data archiving elsewhere and in turn we do our share of archiving for our sister institutions? Might we get better insurance that way and do it at lower cost, because then we wouldn’t have to take all the other extreme measures we take to protect the information? I know that in the digital library world the multiple copies approach has a lot of enthusiasts. Why not do that for backing up email, Web publishing, and learning objects in the Course Management System?

Two obvious barriers to me are first privacy and security and second the ability to retrieve the data from elsewhere in case a failure does occur. Those are important issues, to be sure, but are they insurmountable? I’m guessing an important third barrier is that we are egotistical, so we want to be in control. A shared approach of this sort implies less control at the organization level. Control, to the extent it exists, gets passed along to the grid or the consortium that runs the grid.

Ask yourself this question on a personal level. Do you have important data on your home computer that you want to protect? How do you protect those data? Have you considered along with some of your friends providing a way to share your data so you each protect the other? And why doesn’t somebody come up with some software to enable a scheme like this so we all can have better data protection? Why when thinking about this issue do we consider backup an individual task, rather than a social task?

It’s usually easier for me to ask questions about making the circle bigger than to pose analogous quations about making the circle smaller and, in particular, one of the values I bring to the campus IT organization is that I have perspective from outside, given my role as a faculty member. Arguing to make the circle smaller means disregarding people who probably should be valued and so the question becomes how can you in good conscience disregard these folks? And yet, of course, in economics we disregard information all the time so we can come up with a simple enough model to analyze and to make some relevant conclusions. So at least in principle, I’m not antagonistic to the idea to shrink the circle to make the task at hand more manageable. It’s coming up with a good example that is the challenge.

I think I’ve got one – writing. Consider the student writer who does much of the writing to fulfill requirements in the various courses he takes. This writer has many masters to please and to the extent that they are not of all one voice and don’t make overt what in the writing will please them, they create a very uncomfortable situation for the student. Writing in that situation can be unpleasant and writer’s block is a natural consequence, because the writer is stuck on what to do to please the instructor and really there is no way to reframe the task as it is posed to get the student unstuck.

Suppose these instructors went out of their way to get this student off the hook by each of them saying to the student, “Write to please yourself. Don’t worry about how I’ll react to writing. But do be concerned about your own reaction. Are you happy with the writing? Does it say what you want it to say? That’s the goal you are trying to achieve.”

I don’t know too many instructors who actually do this, but let’s say it became the practice. What is the consequence on the writing? One possibility is that students become smug and self-satisfied with their work, so we move away from the writer’s block problem into a world of mediocrity of product that the students expect to be labeled as excellent.

But this is really a delightful turn of events, because now we as teachers have something on which to coach the students and we’ve moved away from the apparent student shirking. So our job becomes one of instilling taste in the students and creating expectations in themselves that they can meet that sense of taste in their own work. We concentrate on taste and we do this by showing what pleases us and why. We model for the students what we want them to do. And then we trust them to respect that and therefore to not be self-satisfied when their work doesn’t reach that level.

Will this type of shrinking of the circle actually work? I don’t know. But I can say that anyone who continues to write after college and does so on a regular basis will almost certainly do it to please themselves. And if others are to appreciate that writing it has to be because that author has a sense of taste that the readers value. So why can’t we get students to think they are writers early on and give them a sense of empowerment in the process?

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