Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Today we’ll try an olio on a bunch of different themes.

Yesterday I posted a comment to Barbara Ganley’s blog and this morning she had responded to me (and to the others who had made comments) with warm and heart felt remarks of her own that showed she had thought about what we said, this in spite of returning from a conference in the UK. I know that if I made a transatlantic flight then I’d be crabby and disoriented afterwards and not inclined to be generous of spirit in anything I’d write. So I do want to note how unlike that Barbara seems and this must be at least part of the reason she has such a strong reputation as a teacher. I will try to read through at least part of her archive of posts to get a better sense of the range of her ideas on blogging. My comments may have given the impression that we’re far apart in thinking about issues. Maybe we are and maybe we aren’t, I don’t know, but it seems worthwhile to find out. BTW, there may be some problem with the Middlebury blog server, since it seems now that there are now comments to Barbara’s most recent post.

One of the things Barbara remarked about is whether students communicate differently with their professors depending on discipline and in particular whether students are more circumspect with Econ faculty than they are with English professors. I don’t know about that, but I’m interested in a similar comparative where the defining feature is the instructor’s age. I’ve now reached the point where getting carded means I’ve had a good day, where most of my peers compare notes on the amount of gray we have (mine is mostly in my beard), and where the senior moments are becoming sufficiently frequent that I’m not sure if I’ve really lost the trend of thought or simply wasn’t paying attention to begin with. For the class I taught this past spring, there was about a 30 year age differential between me and my students, so I’m guessing that I’m older than most of their parents. I don’t believe I’ve yet experienced teaching students where I’ve also taught the parents, but that is likely in the offing in the next few years.

I believe the instructor’s age matters. In my case, and although I’ve tried many different things in the teaching, I believe the age conveys a sense of rooted-ness and that the things I evidently value, based on the nature of the work I had the class do, comes from substantial experience and reflection. A younger instructor trying to do similar things might be perceived by the students as following the latest fad and not really knowing whether the approach is a good one. Also, and while I still have needs for ego gratification, I’ve been around the block enough to know that I don’t have to dominate the conversation in class to get those rewards, and can intercede more based on the economic points that should be raised. Then, too, relying on the crotchety aspect of the aging process, I’m more willing to please myself in thinking how to teach the course and care less about what “should” be taught.

Let’s switch gears and consider time frame for staying within one version of an enterprise learning management system. We use WebCT Vista here and started with version 3.x in our production service during the fall 2004 semester. While WebCT has released several service packs and we’ve implemented (most of) them, we’re still in the 3.x product line and likely will stay there for another academic year, with the plan to implement Vista 4.x for the fall 2007 semester and some transition/pilot/testing between now and then. Using the metaphor that my colleague Kathy Christoph from Wisconsin taught me, that managing an enterprise LMS is like steering an aircraft carrier, the turns are slow and one has to plan in advance to execute them, as well as our bias here that stability and reliability of the LMS service trumps any other consideration, the three years that represent our current plans for staying in the Vista 3.x environment probably provides a good rule of thumb for how long we’re likely to within any environment in the future. I don’t know if this maps well with how smaller universities think about these things, but without committing my colleagues as peer institutions to agree with me, I believe they are reaching similar conclusions, because of huge reliance on these systems on their campuses and like concerns about reliability of performance.

Some time ago, I posted some comments on Campus Technology’s Website, in response to an article by Chris Vento about open standards versus open source in LMS development. One of the points I raised, imperfectly to be sure but I think relevant, is on the product development cycle and when companies come out with new releases. If companies are coming out with new versions on an annual basis, we simply won’t keep up. We do seem to be able to stay approximately current with the “service pack” releases, and to the extent that those are mostly bug fixes and only a little bit of feature changes, and that our own internal testing process gives us a good sense of what is likely to happen when the service pack is implemented in production mode, that extent of innovation seems to be manageable. Major feature changes with a significantly new version are hard for us to handle especially within a narrow time window.

One more gear change. I’m part of an internal group here discussing “messaging convergence,” which is in part driven by the observation that some students have moved away from email in favor of more rapid response modes, notably IM, and that the proliferation of cell phones (as well as the offerings of network vendors) seem to be bringing voice communication and text messaging into a unified framework. Relative to the others involved in this conversation, I’ve been pretty much a stick in the mud. (For example, somebody proposed that the campus offer a Jabber service and I thought the students were doing fine with what is provided by the market.)

Part of my issue can be cast by making a too simple assumption that students can be lopped into one of two categories – engaged and disengaged. I want our IT services to enhance the experiences of the former, and then I’m really not so concerned with whether the students uses these services in a curricular, co-curricular, or purely social way, but I don’t want to offer IT services that seemingly exacerbate the disengagement in that they will only be used in a social context and not at all for academic purposes.

This nuance seems to be lost on my peers in our discussions and my sense is that they feel we should be the provider rather than the market so the students feel happy with us as an IT organization for providing the infrastructure to support their online existence. We are not very good now in answering where our comparative advantage lies, what enablers we should provide to leverage what the market does well, and how supporting the academic mission should define (limit) our scope.

Other places, including some public universities, don’t seem to be troubled by these issues, for example offering a blog service to everyone on campus whether there will be an academic benefit or not. They may be wrong but they get the advantage of learning by doing. There’s only so far one can go about essentially empirical matters based purely on self-reflection.

Maybe I’m behind the times.

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