Sunday, October 21, 2007

Edu Pause

I’m headed to Seattle tomorrow. I’ve got a pre-conference workshop Tuesday morning on Learning Spaces and the conference starts for real that evening. Since I missed the conference last year because of my leg injury, I really look forward to seeing folks. That will be great. But I continue to feel a sense of unease about where the profession is headed and how IT is perceived, both from within the profession and from those outside the profession in Higher Ed looking who are looking in.

Last week we had our Online Learning Symposium on campus. The opening keynote was given by Mark Milliron and at lunch there was a presentation by Sally Jackson, our CIO. Both talks were provocative though their emphasis was quite different. It was almost as if they were opposed to each other. In his presentation Milliron focused on forces from academia pushing us in Higher Ed, for example due to change in the technology itself or to the increased demand for accountability based on performance data, as has recently been the scourge of the health care. Sally, for her part, critiqued our past in Higher Ed with learning technology. Too many of our attempts at innovation didn’t stick. They were done with incentive that didn’t produce long coattails and when the incentive went away… She argued that our focus should be on those technologies that are embraced because they offer value in and of themselves and especially those where the adoption by one enhances the value for another. Examples of those technologies include eBay and Wikipedia, but of course the marketplace supports that type of technology. Within Higher Ed we need to support the long tail of research needs specific to disciplines, presumably with applications that are of interest to us all. But on whether this means mostly to keep doing what we’re doing or if it is a call to invest in new applications that have not hit the mainstream on most campuses is unclear to me.

Here are a few of the other dichotomies we are facing, or so it seems to me.

Openness versus Privacy

One of the second year MBA students, somebody who was on my advisory committee last year, bumped into me last week and he told me the students weren’t happy with Illinois Compass, the Campus Course Management system (it is powered by WebCT Vista). While he admitted that some of this might be transition issues, he also said the main complaint is that students don’t have enough control configuring the spaces to their liking and making discussion areas just for them – they had that in FirstClass, an application we’re trying to stop supporting in my College. Recently I’ve been playing with iGoogle and Google Docs in combination, along with other Web 2.0 tools that can be brought into an iGoogle page. Functionally, it would work quite nicely for the students. But the content would sit outside the university. I like the solution very much in terms of functionality and convenience. I don’t like it that the students would have to bear the risk, rather than the campus. In my own work, I’m ok absorbing that risk. But imposing that on others? I’m still trying to figure out where I come down on this. The powers that be on my campus don’t seem to think outsourcing these services are a good idea. But what we have to offer that is campus supported is much less convenient.

Respect versus Defiance of Authority (Copyright, Plagiarism, Accountability, and what else?)

I’m turning into a curmudgeon. There is no doubt about it. I’m beginning to enjoy “giving it to the man” to quote the Jack Black character in The School of Rock. I’ve got several posts in the last year or so in this vein. But this is not being contrary for no reason. It is because the maintained position has problems with it. When the MPAA and the RIAA raise a ruckus about student file sharing, and within recent memory we have DMCA, an example of their lobbying power to subvert the public interest, it is entirely unclear that we in Higher Ed should bow to the proposition – respect of the law – and end up being policemen of our own students. Absent an ongoing stream of effective rhetoric and policy making on the other side of this proposition, what should respectable folks in IT do, especially those not old enough to become curmudgeons like me?

Leader versus Follower

The Pied Piper myth gives us belief in miracle cure to intractable problems. Technology offers such miracle cures, at least it does so in the minds of the believer. This is the argument for technology as the driver, to take us to the new world. But too many technology “solutions” seemingly don’t end up fitting the problems at hand and end up being critiqued for not living up to their promise. One might get a better fit by choosing a technology base on a scenario articulated entirely absent the technology. This is the argument that technology should be second fiddle to the other issues on campus that we confront. Sometimes we call this the alignment issue.

I’m not happy with technologists who seem oblivious to this question. I’m equally unhappy with others on campus who don’t even try to see technology as a possible solution. But I have been arguing for some time that we in IT shoot ourselves in the foot by ignoring the question entirely. As long as the rhetoric within IT (and within Educause) promotes this dichotomy rather than attempts to reconcile it, we’re apt to be ignored and not trusted.

Data versus Trust

I’m still in pain over the Yankees being outed in the playoffs and Joe Torre no longer managing the team. This Buster Olney column puts the trust-data tradeoff in a different light. My reading of the sports pages the last few days is that trust wins. Old fashion values don’t always die hard. Sometimes they live on. It’s the new fashioned ideas that go the wayside. Does the analog apply to Higher Ed as well? I really don’t know, but I posed the question in this post. I’m guessing that at the conference there will be a lot of unquestioning folks arguing for the data side of the equation. I’m happy to have a beer with any and all of them. I’ll be less happy if they brush me off and take it all as a given.

Cost Add versus Cost Saving

It’s odd being in a Business School which has a $62M instructional facility due to come online next summer. We’re spending a pretty penny on the AV in the classrooms – our tiered classrooms are supposed to have three lcd projectors, the two on each side will show the same image and since the room is horseshoe shaped are there to guarantee all have a decent line of sight to at least one of the screens. The other larger screen in the middle is there to show a different image. Some of our faculty have asked for the ability to display multiple images simultaneously. Our flat classrooms will have two projectors, each for a distinct image.

Since buildings are funded by donors, its not hard to build up a case of use that justifies their largesse; multiple projectors in a classroom is only one comparatively minor instance of that. But elsewhere, where tuition and state funding combined seem inadequate to support our activities, we think of instructional technology different, as a substitute for the TA we don’t have or for the reasonable student/faculty ratio that we also don’t have, particularly in the gateway courses. That there is one or the other, I could adapt myself to that fairly easily. That there are both simultaneously makes me wonder repeatedly which will win out. I really don’t know. Nor do I know whether the Business school is special in this regard or if it just like the rest of campus.

* * * * *

I’m not expecting the conference to resolve these dichotomies but I am hopeful that they come up now and then during the week. Even if one doesn’t find truth, it is comforting to know there are others looking to answer the same questions.


Bryan's workshop blog said...

It would be good to see you in Seattle!

Gardner said...

Great blog post, Lanny, and great to see you (albeit briefly) in Seattle. I am looking forward to your post-conference post to see how it inflected or affected your pre-conference perspective. The Spellings panel was particularly painful for me, and I'll have to blog about it, though I don't look forward to living through it all again. Perhaps I'll have conveniently repressed the more distressing bits.

Lanny Arvan said...

Gardner - thanks for boost. Not sure whether I will make it to ELI or not, but at one of these we should have a chat and share war stories.

The sentiment seems to be forces behind the Spellings Commission report will remain in play even if there is a Democrat in the White House in 2009. But one might take heart from, of all places, Rudy G's candidacy to note that the political wisdom can be quite wrong.

I'm hoping that backlash about NCLB will keep us from making the same mistake twice.

Will try to post something about the conference in the next couple of days.