Thursday, November 06, 2008

Competing Visions

I'm at Educause in Orlando now. It's the first full day of the conference, but it's my third full day down here having attended a full day Frye Returnees event on Monday and a pre-conference workshop on the Virtual Computing Lab on Tuesday. I normally don't spend even one full day in a conference sessions before needing a change in the scenery. And this is a particularly unusual trip for me since the Sloan-C conference is next week, also in Orlando, so it didn't make sense to fly back home in between. Instead, I'm going to stay down here and see family in South Florida once Educause concludes, then return to Orlando for Sloan-C. That's a long time to be on the road and I'm consciously trying to pace myself so as to be feel refreshed at the start of each day. I did go to the opening plenary session by V.S. Ramachandran that I thought quite good and from which I took some solace about what he said near the end of the talk regarding higher brain function being about making metaphor and abstract connections between different ideas. I believe I embrace that both in my teaching and in educating my children (I prize having them make puns). But afterwards I played hookie from the remaining Wednesday sessions, bumping into friends and former colleagues and spending much of the time in conversation with them.

Our President-Elect-to-be has a reputation for being able to entertain disparate and often contradictory points of view on issues, being able to make the case for each in a way that sounds credible to its adherents, and hence demonstrating in a contentious situation that he is listening to all sides of the argument. It's this ability that belies his claim of being able to move the nation beyond politics as usual and towards a different politics of consent and universal participation. This, in turn, fundamentally is the reason for hope in spite of the terrifying economic crisis and social malaise. I have no illusions of being as capable as Barack Obama in this regard, but in this post I will try, because as I reflect so far about what I've heard at Educause, overall there have been several issues where alternative views have been articulated and I want to try to work through some of those.

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It's now about a week later. I've been with my mom for a few days. She's in her own private world. She doesn't know me and she hardly speaks, and then only to ask for a cold drink or to complain about pain. Now I'm back in Orlando for Sloan-C. Obama won the election a couple of nights ago. I hope it is a turning point for us. In any event, I've been holding this post in abeyance the last several days. I'm returning to it now
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One of these fundamental issues is whether we should teach to the students where they are, as defined by their technology use. Tuesday night at Educause I attended a dinner where the theme was mobile computing. Students have a preferred device and it's not the computer, not even a laptop. It's the cell phone, but it's not voice communication we're talking about. Texting rules. The kids are all thumbs. If Colleges want to stay connected to their students, they have to find a way to insert themselves into these conversations. A first step is getting their messages in a format so they can be received on a mobile device of the student's choosing.

Thursday morning I attended a presentation by Intellagirl (Sarah Robins-Bell) that was even stronger on these themes by framing the argument as a warning – Higher Ed must either get with the program and embrace Web 2.0 or risk losing the students altogether as they pursue their own self-directed alternatives on their own. Apparently student-centric and technology-centric approaches are tied at the hip. And the technologies we're talking about here are not the ones the institutions have already adopted, but the next wave, Web x.y (I learned from Intellagirl's presentation that we have to put numbers after things to signal their importance) that the students are already playing with on their own.

The operative word here is "play" and learning that comes out of play, people networks that emerge from play in groups, and then the technology that enables that. Play teaches us many things, some of which we fail to remark on. Because play encourages persistence, play breeds a sense of competence. Reasonably intelligent people (the vast majority of us and our students) will get good at doing things if we practice. With play the practice is part of it – embedded practice if you will. Group play also exerts motivation, subtle and otherwise. There are intensely strong feedback loops from personal success at play to raising one's own level and with the success of others also stimulating the desire for additional practice. The conversations the kids have revolve around their play experiences. Those conversations are an additional prod.
The play itself is technology mediated - video games, computer games, games on portable devices, etc. So that some of the communication should also be technology mediated seems natural. There is an entire world created, a world outside of school, a world that is full of learning, and in essence this is a world of play. This is the world where the students are. The argument is that College must enter this world, in order to reach its students.

A counter argument was voiced, by Bob Herbert in a column talking about how our children avoid the tough subjects (science and math) and citing Bill Gates that China and India will clean our clock because they are doing a better job of educating their youth, especially in the STEM areas. (This notion that we're behind also is present with the first argument, particularly with respect to mobile technology, where South Korea is the acknowledged leader.) Henry Schaffer of North Carolina State raised essentially the same point in the Q&A part of Intellagirl's talk. He talked about his genetics course, how students have to slug through many quite arduous problems to gain an understanding of the subject, and more generally how learning of this material is work, not play. And the work is arduous, which means both that it is time consuming and that it is intellectually difficult.

During Educause I read and commented on a recent blog post by Barbara Ganley where she talked about "slow blogging," linking to a related post by Chris Lott who suggests slow blogging is making a comeback. My original reaction was that slow blogging is of the same cloth as the critique by Herbert and Schaffer, since it requires patience in the writing and aims at depth of understanding of the topic. But since I am a slow blogger (I prefer to call the act "weaving" or "layering" because that is my conscious thought in expressing my ideas in these posts) and I think of it neither as work nor as play but still something else, I now want to offer it up as a middle ground, perhaps a synthesis for making some progress since my sense at the end of Intellagirl's session is that we're talking at each other and don't yet have a path we can all agree on traversing.

I so believe in Maslow's notion of self-actualization and that learning, the deep kind we want for our students, is captured well by Maslow's ideal. The notion of work, in contrast, is fundamentally instrumental. We do work to achieve an end. With the end accomplished there is nothing more for the process to add. Writing these posts is not work in this sense. It is a way to explore the ideas. Much of the time is spent before sitting at the keyboard, trying to produce a coherent story in my head, making a narrative that makes sense and, I hope, makes progress beyond what others are saying, or gives them a different way to see what they are already engaged in. The process is for me. I'd be doing it even if there were no post. The actual writing does provide encouragement to push the ideas a little further. And the occasional acknowledgement by readers offers a greater push.

Barbara is very strong on having a sense of place, to kindle within us a feeling of community and a sense of obligation for others that emerges from that. Let me give a different vantage for why this is important. The argument that China and India will overtake the U.S. as the main economic power may put fear in my generation, but lead to quite a different reaction from current College students. In essence, the argument is that we're still in the rat race that my parents were in, theirs a rat race begat by the Great Depression. They had to run it to survive. Survival is not the prime imperative for our children; even now with the current economic malaise; they're sufficiently secure to be able to voice other concerns. Their world of play is a world not threatened by survival. Quality of life is the main concern. If competition with China and India is a rat race, it's a fair question to ask: why run it? Why not opt out, instead, if the opt out path offers a better quality of life.

Last night on CNN, some of the pundits talking about what an Obama Presidency would do, discussed the massive participation the Campaign encouraged and that this notion of service would carry over to when Obama takes office. This ethos is likely to spread. Community realization may serve as serious alternative to self-actualization as both motivation and as a way to shape what students should engage in. When caught up in the larger purpose the effort individuals put in seems less instrumental and more simply being part of the whole. A way toward fulfilling the JFK ideal.

Does this get us all the way home? Will students take the hard courses and put in the requisite intellectual energy if the courses themselves are part of the path toward community realization? I don't know. The students I talk with seem bi-modal, strongly career oriented and viewing their education as means toward that end, but also idealistic and looking for a larger sense of purpose. At this point school seems to separate these two and also to separate itself from the world of play. Perhaps that sense of separation should be diminished and the new technologies viewed as devices for encouraging that blurring.

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I want to switch gears and talk about another arena entirely where I've heard about competing views. On Tuesday I attended a pre-conference workshop on the Virtual Computer Lab, a very interesting project that has been getting some good press lately. The VCL is an effort in "Cloud Computing" to deliver both high performance computing applications and applications typically delivered in student computer labs. The argument for VCL is to better leverage the existing Campus computing resources since the VCL enables multiple profiles and hence allows the users based on their needs to determine which profiles get employed via the VCL and when that should happen. In particular, while traditional labs typically close at night, the VCL can remain open online and students can access applications they need in the wee hours of the morning. Indeed, regular lab machines can add to the VCL capacity when they are not in use by students sitting at the computer.

During the early afternoon of the VCL session Sarah Stein, one of the presenters and a strong advocate for VCL, made the point that all of us on our respective campuses should embrace cloud computing and not cede the space to Google, for surely if we let them lock us in they will ultimately hold us up and we will end up paying much more for services in the future and that will far outstrip the savings we can get now by outsourcing the currently "free" service offerings from Google.

The lock-in argument is certainly not new to us in Higher Ed, but to date I'm aware of the argument applying mostly to license, service contract, and custom development supported software. I have not heard the argument being made for ad-supported software, such as the Google offerings.

Indeed much of the talk at Educause was centered around the general economic malaise, how travel budgets have already been cut and how IT budgets are going to follow in that. In this climate, especially, the outsourcing of IT services, especially "free" IT services, seems attractive, with email services leading the way.

The view that IT services should be shed follows logically from the prior argument by Nicholas Carr that IT services are no longer strategic definers. If the services are commodity like, let the market provide them. The market is good for commodity-like services. But there are network externalities. They are the source of natural monopoly. It's better for users that all the Office applications can talk with each other. The natural monopoly begats market power and it's the market power that gets exploited in the holdup of locked in users. So perhaps Sarah Stein's point of view is the more sophisticated, the one we should embrace if we're thinking long term.

But let me keep pushing the metaphor because I'm not sure the argument holds. Higher Ed is just one vertical that consumes cloud computing services. The corporate world is a different vertical, one that's much larger, one that will be a larger consumer of cloud computing. They understand market power in the corporate world. If some in the corporate world were to underwrite a cloud competitor to Google so to avoid lock in of their own, would they do so by investing in cloud computing efforts on the campuses? The VCL effort is being undertaken with the help of IBM. Is that a sufficient counterforce? Will it begat other like efforts? How will the network externalities be exploted in this case?

There is the further issue – the free rider problem. If there is a suitable counterforce to Google, those of us who want to capture current cost savings with outsource can do so feeling less guilty about it. Let the good citizens fight the good fight and worry about the long term. The rest of us are just trying to keep our heads above water – now. How can we invest in cloud computing when we have to shed IT costs? And so the debate rages.

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The next issue is about the relationship between the IT organization and the Library and how they might interact better. The argument goes that increasingly the domains of the two organizations overlap and hence it would be better for them collaborate and perhaps integrate rather than to pursue their own separate agendas.

In a session at Frye@Educause 2008 a panel of attendees, each of whom had overseen a merger of the two organizations on their respective campuses, discussed the benefits and issues from an after the fact perspective. In general, the merger concept got a thumbs up from the panelists.

My friend Lisa Hinchliffe, who attended Frye with me back in 2003 when she represented the Library and I the Academic Computing organization at Illinois, questions whether a merger could work on our campus, because of scaling issues. It would be difficult, no doubt. But Lisa also wondered whether even on the smaller campuses if these mergers engendered an embrace of a common culture for the new merged organization or if the consequence was more like two separate divisions within a larger corporate hierarchy, in which case the merger perhaps economizes on upper level management staff but otherwise does very little to change from the path prior to the merger. This was Lisa's first Educause and I believe the cultural issues were pressing on her as she understands well the Library view but the IT perspective on issues she cares about is still somewhat alien to her. (Lisa has a new blog that is interesting because there she is trying to work through these issues.)

I come at these questions of organization structure now from a somewhat different perspective given my job in the College of Business where I negotiate with Campus IT, the Library, the Center for Teaching Excellence, elsewhere on Campus, as well as local provision of services within my own College. There is a set of ongoing issues where each has some unique aspect but all are similar in the sense that there is a collective "underlap" of service. The questions then are: how should the issue be addressed, where does responsibility lie, and what credit is received for filling in the gaps? There is the further issue whether older services should be cannibalized and if so what are the criteria for determining which services should get the axe? The "customers" can point fingers at existing services that they view are underutilized. But they typically don't monitor the entire use and may observe only the valleys and not see the peaks.

Since from my perspective, the org structure question gets filtered through the managing underlap/defending turf lens, I'm not sure of the better answer to it. But I do know from having served on Library committees that I approach things unlike Librarians. The culture question is a big one and I'm less sure it can be overcome so readily.

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I like to hear competing views. I'm happier watching the tension play out and seeing the competing arguments sharpen than to see one side win out quickly, before the weaknesses in that perspective have come out. The profession needs to be big enough to welcome the diversity of perspective. There were sessions at the conference designed for attendees to witness competing perspectives, but those sessions were pitched as helping us to make the case, where we need to be aware of counter arguments to make a convincing presentation ourselves. We have to go even further than that. We need to debate these issues among ourselves. We need to understand the weaknesses in the positions we advocate. It's a big part of our profession maturing. We should welcome it.


Lisa said...

Thanks for the link to my blog but even more so for putting much more coherence to the issues I was trying to think through in our conversations during EDUCAUSE than I had been able to do! :)

Lanny Arvan said...

Lot's of time to think about these things driving up and down the Florida Turnpike. You have reason to go a lot further on this so I hope you keep at the blogging.

There was a plenary session at Sloan-C yesterday by Terry Anderson where he differentiated groups, networks, and crowds (mobs). The first are formal and have rigid rules, the second are formal with looser and only voluntary association, and the third I don't think he define except by talking about how amazon recommends books for you based on the choices of like individuals. So maybe we shouldn't worry so much about the first and think more about the second and third. I know that as long as I can go for a coffee with the person, the rest doesn't matter as much to me.

I'm back in CU tomorrow and looking forward to that.