Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Virtual Napkins

What will the student computing environment be like a few years hence? That is the subject of this post.

Let me begin with the following. My campus currently does not have a computer ownership requirement. There are a couple of professional programs, Law and MBA, which do have a requirement and the MBA requires in addition that the students have laptops that they bring to class. Several other smaller schools or programs are in the talking stage of such a requirement. I assume they will get there in thme next year or two, though there are obstacles (some of which I talk about below). Computer ownership within the Freshmen class that started in fall 2004 was almost 95%, with about 60% of those being laptops.

But most students don’t bring their laptops to class. In the first two years, where the students are apt to take a lot of lecture classes, they will be sitting in fixed seating with fold out tablet arms to support a (paper) notebook. There is really not enough surface space to support a computer. And most of these rooms don’t have power to the seat, so even when we put wireless in, we’re in the process of doing that now, if students have several classes in a row they will likely run out of power unless they tote extra batteries. Further, we are a big campus geographically and if one has to tote a laptop around campus, along with textbooks and other course materials, it is just too much.

So an interesting question is where do students do the online part of their course work? Do they go back to their residence and work on their own computer? Or do they go to a lab? Or do they go back to their residence and then take their laptop to someplace they can work (perhaps with wireless access)? I believe the answer is all of the above, but I don’t have a good sense of the relative importance of those alternatives. I will also note that the presence of cell phones and iPods among the students is huge, but for the time being the use is mostly unrelated to instruction.

What about preferred platform? We have a pilot project on campus called Writing with Video that many people are excited about. It has been approved for our general education, composition II requirement. The expectation is for this course to start ramping up in fall 2006. Students will be expected to have access to a modern Mac, as that is the best platform both for getting started with video editing and for embedding video and text in a common view to display both in conjunction. (Though I like my tablet PC, I’m buying myself a Mac desktop so I can test out for myself this assertion about applications and also just to have a new toy for the holidays.)

This leads to its own issue. I don’t know what the penetration of Macs is with the incoming students, but for the last several years Mac ownership has dipped well below 10%. So to get Macs to these students, those directly involved with the IT support for this course are going to start a leasing program, wherein during the semester the students take the writing with video course they will have a Mac laptop. It will be extremely interesting to see the student behavior after that course is over. Will they become hooked on the Mac and make it their platform for all their courses? Will they view the Mac as a curiosity only for Video production, which remains a sidebar activity for them? If the latter, will they expect that that campus (or the colleges) provide Mac computer labs so they work on their video project there? Nobody knows the answer to this. It is an interesting experiment.

For some of the units that are toying with a laptop requirement, the issue is the price of the specialized software licenses and whether they can come up with a bundle of applications that is sufficient for the core instruction in the program but is affordable for the students. This turns out to be a vexing problem and in some cases the software vendors won’t allow key served applications that might reduce the aggregate licensing cost. Again it seems possible that students under such a requirement will start demanding labs instead. To me that makes sense if the students also benefit in going to the lab either by working on projects with classmates or by being able to access expert advice that can’t be delivered well online. But absent that, a lab solution instead of any anyplace solution seems archaic.

In my own discipline, economics, and in math and quite a few other disciplines where students have to do a lot of equations and diagrams, a Tablet PC would be wunderbar. Economists, in particular, are known for going to restaurants and coffee shops and debating their favorite issue with diagrams drawn on napkins. (Remember the Laffer curve?) With a Tablet PC, students could do this online and then share their diagrams. (Ergo the title of this post.) So if all econ students or all math students had tablets, I’m quite sure they would be used intensively in instruction for the homework part, if not for the live class part. But, unfortunately, penetration of Tablet PCs among the students is quite low and in the absence of the tablets one has to teach the class quite differently.

In days of yore, I had the students use Draw, or Paint, or some other similar program to make Econ graphs and submit those as part of their homework. But the reality is that using the mouse, as distinct from a pen input, is quite clunky for making the diagrams. So students who are diligent will make the diagrams first on paper, practice there, and only then translate those to the computer. And students who are less diligent will not practice much at all and not get very proficient with the diagrams, which is a key skill in understanding the economics.

An instructor with a modest sized class who is serious about getting the students to learn the economics might very well opt for paper based homework, for the reasons I’ve outlined above, even if that instructor is otherwise disposed toward using technology.

I just checked the Gateway site and their new 14” tablet looks quite reasonably priced. But will students go for it? There is a huge coordination problem afoot here. If students have the Tablets we will teach one way. If they don’t we’ll teach a different way. If students expect us to teach one way, they might very well buy Tablet PCs. If they don’t have that expectation….

Predicting the future about the student computing environment is difficult because of the coordination problem. The only thing I feel safe in predicting is that there is too much diversity on a campus such as mine to imagine that we’ll converge on one computing environment for all. I’m jealous of those campuses that mandate a common platform for their students. But at the same time I recognize that depending on discipline we do quite different things with technology and we likely will not serve anyone well by aiming for a standard somewhere in the middle.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Where are we going with learning technology?

Over the next several days I plan to make a variety of posts on this general question. At the outset, I have to say I have no crystal ball. There are many folks out there on the bleeding edge who see what is coming next better than I see and who might be worth consulting. But I do have some thoughts in the matter and since my normal orientation is from the political economy perspective rather than from the technological side, perhaps some of what I say will be of use to others.

Let me begin by noting that when I got started thinking strategically about learning technology (this was at or around the time that our paper on the SCALE Efficiency Projects got published) I did a lot of background reading from the then Educom site and there were all these papers by Bill Massy and Carol Twigg and others on how society embraces new technology (the examples, I believe, are the railroad, electric power, and the telephone but to keep my writing effort short, I’m doing this by memory and not re-researching the project) and the main message was that it takes quite some time, perhaps 20 years or so, for society to figure out how to reengineer the social system to take advantage of the innovation. Much of the social return, which can be stupendous, comes indirectly from the social reengineering. That effect swamps any direct effect of applying the technology to earlier structures.

This seems common sense to me and on the teaching and learning side, in particular, we used the mantra in the SCALE days – it’s not the technology, it’s how you use it – just to hammer home that point. However, now that I’ve been involved with campus support of learning technology for a number of years, and that includes the smart classrooms as well as the online piece, I have to say the focus is quite different. Most of it is on use, and how the faculty implement with (or opt out of) the technology. Rarely is there a discussion of transformation of practice and where we’d like to be going in that respect.

Further, my university is now going through a strategic planning process where the sequencing is something like: 1) First the University provides a framework, then 2) Each campus provides a plan (filled with place holders) to accommodate the college plans, then 3) Each college submits a plan (which is indirectly an ask for additional funds), and only then will we do 4) Create a campus strategic plan for information technology. In this way of doing things, technology is viewed as an instrument to facilitate already articulated transformation that is desired by the colleges or the campus.

I’m not entirely opposed to the technology as instrument view, but I believe that if earlier stages in the process are not well disciplined by what the technology is capable of, it is quite possible to set goals in a direction that don’t match what is possible, i.e., the colleges don’t see what the technology can enable so they make some ignorant choices about where to set their objectives. In this way everyone acts in good faith, but we get a bad outcome, nonetheless.

The other issue, as I see it, is that many of the big picture concerns on the teaching and learning front don’t get well articulated by this process. The big picture concerns are cost (in most of what I’ve read on the strategic planning this is being “addressed” by looking for additional revenue sources) and on engagement on the part the students, the faculty, and the institution. I’m not sanguine on the engagement issue coming front and center through the strategic planning process. The colleges are very likely to put their research needs first, since that’s the primary determinant of their reputation and there is a fear (I believe the fear is legitimate, not paranoid) that addressing engagement would take resources from the research mission. And there is the further issue that the engagement issue does not line up well with our rhetoric – the University of Illinois is about excellence. That is its essence.

If there is truly an engagement problem (and the documentary Declining by Degrees is but one prominent source suggesting this is a national issue) but if at the end of our strategic planning process it turns out that we want to protect strengths in the main and not invest heavily in our weaknesses, which is how I would bet this will turn out, then it seems a sensible prediction that we will not tackle this issue squarely. (And on the recent demographics of our admissions, where our yields have been continuing to go up, it seems that we can simply raise requirements for admission and not otherwise make major programmatic change at the undergraduate level.)

My sense, further, is that other public research universities such as the University of Illinois are in a similar position vis-à-vis the balance between research and undergraduate instruction and the (lack of) desire to make waves at the undergraduate level. The University Presidents, Chancellors, and Provosts all talk publicly about these issues. But by the nature of the faculty governance process it is very unlikely that any of our sister campuses will make the case for radical transformation at the undergrad level.

So it is in this climate that I think we must consider where learning technology is going and we must anticipate substantial discord between early adopter faculty types, who much more readily will embrace a view that the university must transform to survive, from majority faculty types, who don’t see what the big deal is.

To this I want to add one more point. There may be an increasing number of disciplines where technology literally becomes part of the curriculum, e.g., in architecture the student absolutely has to know CAD, while in journalism the student has to know sophisticated page layout, and so there will have to be adaptation on how to bring the technology into the curriculum in a meaningful way where it is learned en passant and serves as a conduit for promoting critical thinking in the discipline. But not all disciplines have an intrinsic need to embrace technology; do econ students need to learn Excel? I’m not sure they do.

And so absent a push on using technology to solve the bigger picture issues, one might see only incrementalism with technology with the primary driver being the individual instructor’s wish to improve her own teaching or with students laying a guilt trip on their instructors either about not using the technology at all or about using the technology in a poor manner. In many cases, these have been the primary drivers to date.

My heart clearly is in tackling the big picture issues head on and considering the transformations that are necessary to do that. I’ve made many posts to this blog that can be cast in that light. But my head tells me that if you have a campus administrator role in learning technology, such as I do, that you have to recognize that advocating for transformation is unlikely to be successful for reasons I’ve sketched above. So I think it is useful to maintain a dual perspective and talk about where technology is headed from both of those vantages. That is what I will do in later posts on the topic.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Why I like to write blog posts

When I was an assistant professor it was boom or bust when it came to work. There would be intervals where I worked intensively trying to figure out the essence of the model to gain sufficient insight to write the paper. And there would be other times where I lolled around, not doing much of anything, goofing off, waiting for the inspiration to come or to have the energy to will myself to work through the argument. When I first started, it took me from four to six months to write a paper.

This was before word processors. (I’m talking about typing a paper with a lot of math in it. There was word processing for straight text.) So I hand wrote out the paper, double spacing on yellow ruled pads, with a lot of cross outs and rewrites in the process. We don’t appreciate the productivity gain  from word processing; we take it for granted. But that was one big reason why it took so long to get the paper done.

However, another big obstacle I frequently encountered is that I would get stuck with analysis and then things would slow down to a crawl. I had to stew for quite a while as to whether the line of thought I expected to work could be modified in some way or if I needed to change the model in a fundamental way to drive it home. I don’t really recall this with any specific memories, but I’m guessing that the lolling around happened during the times when I got stuck. And, to use a cooking metaphor that might not be entirely appropriate, I didn’t turn off the range entirely; I left what was cooking to simmer, so that I could turn the heat up again sometime later.

I believe I became quite conscious of the value of the simmering; sometimes proclaiming to my friends the half truth that while I was watching TV I was really working on my paper. This is a dangerous way to work, since the leisure activity can become a thing in itself and an excuse to procrastinate. I’m sure I did procrastinate quite a bit, in part because the working through the model was such an insular activity.

I changed my research program after about three years, from micro foundations of macroeconomics, where I wrote interesting but ponderous papers that I had a hard time getting published, to theoretical industrial organization (and later to theoretical labor economics) in large part because I had some colleagues to talk to about the latter but nobody about the former. Also, to the extent that I thought about what I was exposed to at seminars on campus or conferences around the Midwest influenced my research area, it was natural for me to make the switch that I did.

During the same time, I developed somewhat of a reputation for being very good at seminars (as a member of the audience) in being quick to analyze the model the presenter was delivering and in offering some penetrating insight. I have several distinct memory fragments of being at workshops and offering up important ideas that the researchers themselves hadn’t considered. So I became a valued colleague, as much for this collegial role I played at workshops as for the research of my own that I contributed.

I don’t believe that I reflected on this discord at all during when I was an assistant professor, being quick at the trigger with other people’s work, and yet somewhat slow in the process of cranking out my own research. It just was the way things were. I was too caught up in getting tenure and department politics to make that connection for myself. But from the here and now, having these two antitheses as part of my persona seems critical in understanding my persona and in what the writing of the blog does for me.

I like to explore, to be exposed to new things, if I can digest them in short order and make some headway. Listening to others present their economic paper was a means of exploration for me. My unique skill is to come up with the quick study – a framing of what I’m reading or hearing that allows some insight into the idea. In spite of the occasional senior moment, I’m still pretty good at that, particularly in domains where I’ve had some prior exposure so am not a complete novice.

Now, watching the Charlie Rose show, (this past week he’s had on Maureen Dowd of the NY Times and Judge Richard Posner, interviews you wouldn’t find elsewhere) or reading the times Op-Ed page, or surfing the Web for content, I feel part of an exploration where I’m positioned to make a synthesis. I’m consciously trying to bring in diverse elements that are simultaneously relevant. When I do this well, it provides me no small source of satisfaction. To a certain extent, this is my personal raison d’etre.

But there is the other part of me, the part which lingers on ideas that perhaps should be discarded, the part that stews and gets stuck on hard issues, and the part where my personal demons dwell. This is where my reflections sometimes do me more harm than good.

As it turns out, regular writing is for me a way to emphasize the explorations and reduce the lingering, ponderous times. There is a “pre-writing” phase that is common to both. The pre-writing gets me to a certain point – a topic, a vague notion about the topic, and perhaps some lines of text that I want to make sure that I included. The actual writing is a sharpening of the ideas, perhaps some modifications if when I’ve produced some text it is not what I thought I intended or if the implication seems to lead in some other direction.

Then a wonderful thing happens, though I’m not sure why. Once the post has been published to the Web site, I can forget the idea and move onto something else. The writing is a wonderful way for me to let go. Publishing brings with it a sense of closure. To be sure I’ve had more than once a series of posts on the same topic – variations on a theme so to speak. But even with those I’m not lingering on the same thought, but moving from one idea to another.

For those reasons and because the writing itself is a means of self-expression, though I wouldn’t have agreed to this as an assistant professor, how it is said matters and when that is done well it too is a source of satisfaction, mostly I look forward to writing and feel alive when I’m doing it.

But there is more to the blog posting than that. If it was just what I described above, I could have kept a diary all these years; yet I’ve never done that. There is the additional aspect, about communicating with an audience and the feedback that comes from that. I have the puppy like need to be patted on the back for a job well done. Especially when I first was writing the blog I sent out emails to a few friends and colleagues alerting them about the blog and hoping to get some reaction of the patting-on-the-back sort.

Now, about a half year later, things have changed for me in this regard. The blog is emblematic for me of a style of writing I associate with the New York Review of Books (which, unfortunately, I stopped subscribing to some years back because I couldn’t keep up with it) and particularly of the writing of Stephen Jay Gould, intelligent writing from an expert intended for the layman. Both in tone and in length I try to emulate this style. Increasingly, it represents how my own thought processes work, perhaps partly in how I would come up with the idea initially, but certainly in how I would go about presenting the idea to others.

I believe there is a hunger for this type of writing, in general. Certainly within the sub-population who read edu-blogs, I think there are many who want writing like this on their favorite subject matter. Recently, I’ve gotten some very kind emails from readers who have said they enjoy my posts and will continue to read my blog. Receiving these is gratifying in itself but also serves as a form of validation for the approach to the writing.

I don’t know if it is possible to teach the quick penetration into the model way of thinking that I find natural and is my own forte. But I do think it is possible to teach this type of writing and make it an important goal of college instruction. That serves as a latent motivation for writing the blog.

Let me make one more point before I close. We need highly visible champions of this approach to writing. After seeing Arthur Sulzberger on the Charlie Rose show a couple of weeks ago, where at the end of the interview (most of which was devoted to the severance of Judy Miller and the Iraq-gate mess) he talked about the transitions the newspaper business was going through, the pressures from the other media including the blogosphere, the launching of their Times Select for fee online business, and the costs of running news bureaus like the Times Washington office, it occurred to me that the Times should become the champion for this type of writing. Their comparative advantage is in depth of coverage and analysis, not in speed of getting that content out to market.

As the readership is increasingly online, the Times will be less and less tied to column length as a delimiter of output and more and more will be valued for the quality of writing that is produced in those columns. There is an abundance of sources of quick hitter type of information. We are being deluged by that. Quality writing that is readily available to everyone is increasingly scarce. The Times would do well by making that its modus operandi.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The reading habit

My older son, who is 13, will with some regularity eschew video games and computer games in favor of going to his room and reading books. He doesn’t always opt for reading, but it is certainly now part of his regular free time activity. I can’t say I had much to do with achieving that, but I’m certainly happy to see it. I believe that having the reading habit is a necessary component for an individual to be able to control his own learning. I also suspect that fewer kids nowadays develop the reading habit, so it is more of an accomplishment for those that do. Now there is greater competition from games and television, and I think that since the Reagan Presidency young kids get a confused message from their parents about indulging in hedonic pleasure versus engaging in other activities that promote personal growth, give the kid a sense of accomplishment, and are engaging in their own right.

Obviously, my characterization above is a generalization. Overachieving kids nowadays will have a slew of extracurricular activities, from playing a musical instrument, to participating in organized sports, to doing a Science Olympiad project. These kids are extremely busy with very tight schedules outside the classroom. Nonetheless, I’m guessing that it is these kids who are most likely to read regularly for recreation.

Other kids, perhaps not pushed quite so hard by their parents or not quite as able in the classroom, may have a lot of social activity with peers outside school. So in that sense they are busy, but it is not obvious they have developed a self-expressed need for personal growth. Reading is anti-social. And to these kids it is not a reward in itself. So they don’t read more than they have to. An alternative view, one I don’t subscribe to but one I must recognize is there, is that these kids have quite active imaginations and do demand to have their imaginations satisfied, but those are fueled by visual information and these kids are more comfortable decoding multimedia content than text. Under this alternative view, the kids are not ignoring their own needs for growth, they just have a different way to ingest information.

I’d like to understand causality but I don’t. So I don’ know whether reading causes a demand for personal growth or if the flow is in the other direction. I only know I can’t imagine a good student not spending some recreation time reading. So let me push on and ask the next question. Does it matter what the kids are reading? And does it matter whether what they are reading is on paper? What about reading online? What about reading blogs? If you could suggest things to for a thirteen year old to read, what would you suggest?

I don’t have an answer here now. Twenty years ago, I almost certainly would have said that the kids should learn to read a newspaper, with the NY Times a good first choice. Now I’m much less certain about that. Maybe it would be better to encourage reading Brad Delong’s blog. He has sharp opinions and really is an excellent aggregator of political economy information. Maybe, instead, the kids should be read periodicals like Scientific American, Wired Magazine, or the Atlantic Monthly. The writing is more likely to penetrate deeper into the subject. Or perhaps the kids should read a few of these so they can be doing reading that spans different fields of interest.

When I was a kid, something spurred interest in a particular area and then I read all sorts of books in that same area, either until the supply of materials ran out or some other spur would direct my reading elsewhere. I’m guessing that the underlying psychology hasn’t changed much over the past thirty or forty years. So perhaps the right question to be asking is how to pique the kid’s interest and then be ready with a set of things to read that match it.

After a fashion, I think t the kid will want to turn to something that is considered high quality writing. Somewhere around 7th grade, I read The Grapes of Wrath. It’s my recollection of the first “real fiction” I read, and yet it is of interest in part because of the historical commentary in the novel. But I think I was driven to it because I had heard the name Steinbeck and we had a copy on our bookshelf.

What about kids who haven’t found the reading habit, say by their middle teens? Should we keep trying to get them there? A lot in what we are talking about in terms of pedagogic method and the use of technology really reduces to that question. My sense is that we should push, that we need to encourage these kids both to read and to then communicate about what they’ve read, talking about it and writing about it. It’s a simple way to frame the teaching approach we need. It’s not, however, a fun way for the instructor to view the goals of the pedagogy, in part because there will be a high degree of failure and in part because the students will demand a lot of attention to make any progress.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Learning to learn versus learning to get a good grade

A week or so ago while I was channel surfing for some TV programming to get me to relax, I spent a few minutes watching Tony Brown’s Journal, a show I have not watched at all in the last several years. He had on a high school senior with the highest GPA in his school district, along with the student’s father. The novel thing is that the student is a black male and before Brown brought the father and son on, Brown cited the grim statistics about percentage of black males who graduate from high school nationally with at least a B average and the percentage who don’t graduate at all. So Brown posed the question, what was it in this kid’s approach to school that let him outperform all of his peers, black or white. (It sure didn’t hurt that the kid’s father was a chaired Professor at Hampton University.)

The question is an interesting one. To the extent that it is behavioral strategies that determine these outcomes, not the student's genes, it really would be good to understand those strategies that very good students use and in a detailed way contrast them to the strategies that more ordinary students use. One would think that being a child of university faculty would be a good predictor of academic success, but that may confound the genetic and the disciplined behavior, and thus Tony Brown's star performer may not be the best person from whom to generalize. It turns out that many of our highest academic achievers are children of immigrants and so that offers some indicator of what type of behavioral strategy is needed. Indeed, others have mentioned the need to have multiple perspectives on what is possible regarding the learning environment, a natural for immigrants.

Having my curiosity piqued by this Tony Brown show, I went to my bookcase to see if I had anything on the subject; lo and behold, there was Howard Gardner’s book Extraordinary Minds: Portraits of 4 Exceptional Individuals and an Examination of our own Extraordinariness. I started to read this book over the weekend and because it is short am about half through it now. (I’ve finished the chapters on Mozart and on Freud that followed the chapters that introduced the issues and about normal human development.) This has helped me in putting many things into perspective.

Among Gardner’s points is that many people can accomplish a great deal in a particular domain if they put in the requisite time to achieve mastery. Proclivity for the subject may assist in getting that time on task, but we who have not put in the time are often confused between expertise that comes from extensive practice versus expertise that truly is exceptional. Furthermore, in certain highly rule-based domains – music, math, and chess are quintessential examples – rather young, bright but not necessarily really extraordinary children can make substantial progress with the appropriate coaching and intervention. The Suzuki method for violin is probably the most well-known example. Thus, in many children of overt academic accomplishment, one is likely to find a strong parental influence that acts as a driver for the child.

Another lesson from the Gardner book, and this is confirmed by the Ann Hulbert featured piece in this week’s New York Times Magazine, The Prodigy Puzzle, is about the rather low correlation between very high performance on IQ tests at an early age and lifetime achievement in advance of humanity as the exceptionally bright individuals come of age. Both works consider the Terman study from 80 years ago, which though it was not intended to prove this result showed that IQ tests are fairly good at predicting performance in a school environment or a school-like environment, but don’t do well at predicting performance outside of that environment. There is the further issue of mastery of an existing domain of knowledge versus creation of new knowledge and that being very adept at the former may not be an indicator at being skillful at the latter. Indeed, there may be reasons that I’ll get to in a bit where for the latter one might actually want to discourage the former and encourage a different type of behavior early on.

Let me linger on this point. Mastery for more typical students, particularly at a young age, often is associated with rote learning and drill. How does a kid learn the state capitols? Memorize them. How does a kid learn basic arithmetic facts? Again, memorize them. Some very high performers in grade school do so because they are prolific at memorization.

To the extent that the memorization comes from kindling some inner fire, that is certainly wonderful and something to be cultivated. I know that my mother, who grew up in Germany, could recite lots of poetry in German, because she thought it was beautiful and represented the essence of culture. My younger kid today learns much of his history from the computer game Age of Empires III and because there is so much repetition in the game playing, he has committed much of what he has learned to memory.

But it certainly is not true that all memorization in school lights a fire under the students, even among the high achievers. Indeed, I expect that for many of them, the memorization which was a challenge in the early grades starts to become tedious in the latter grades and if it is not replaced by something more satisfying as the student matures then it becomes a symbol of alienation, even for the best students. Memorization will still be a part of the learning but it should be happening en passant, as part of something else.

With that, let me turn back to Gardner’s book and focus on his description of Freud, who is the exemplar of an extraordinary person who has created a new domain of inquiry. There are many lessons to be learned from Freud about how to learn that are relevant for all bright individuals, in my opinion, even if none of them will be in a position to create a new knowledge domain. (This is unlike Mozart, who is Gardner’s exemplar of an utter master in his field. Mozart is likely the first person we think of when using the word prodigy and his genius is unquestionable, but there doesn’t seem to be much in the way he lived that we can appropriate for our own learning.)

It is notable that Freud changed the domain of his work at the time he was 40. (Coincidentally, I moved from Economics to Learning Technology also around the time I was 40.) This capacity for change is something learned much earlier. Freud also spent considerable time in reflection on his work and then would engage in open discussion on those reflections. Somewhere fairly early in life Freud learned to direct his own inquiry. He was very broadly read and fluent in several languages. Information acquisition for him required both a large library and the free time to do the reading. Moreover, Freud was allowed to “test” his ideas on his own, and then to observe the consequences of his own conjectures. I note that the curriculum for both of my kids today in Middle School has much more of an “inquiry based approach” than I can recall from when I was growing up. But the questions are being driven from outside, by adults. Freud learned early on to ask his own questions and thus he became much more of an independent thinker.

This is somewhat at odds with how school works, where there is a degree of conformity necessary to keep the class “on track.” So, there is much to suggest for an individually driven curriculum, at least for obviously bright students, so they can pursue their interests and ask their questions and learn to answer them. But, of course, how to supervise this is certainly a nightmare and how to assure that the time is productive and not simply some grand goof off is another serious problem.

Consequently, one might look for extra curricular outlets for these kids. Science Olympiad is one such outlet that seems well conceived. The Hulbert piece actually goes on to say that “science prodigies” seem more well adjusted and overall good students than “humanities prodigies” who don’t have such extra curricular projects. We may have to content ourselves with encouraging the kids to develop the reading habit, certainly by the time they reach adolescence, and then by providing these kids with areas to explore and alternative means to express their own learning.

I’m guessing that the critical years for the kids are in the 10 – 14 range and depends on achieving some physical maturity. Earlier on students can’t associate their learning with their own identity. Later on their prior habits may be so imbued that they can’t move to a more mature approach to learn. During this critical period, we really should be focusing on these kids achieving learning to learn. But I’m not so sure how helpful school can be in this regard and especially if there are a number of other students not ready to “make the leap” whether school is the right place for this to happen.

Let me make one more point before I close. Gardner points out that Freud had many failures and he was able to recover from those and indeed use them to re-channel his efforts in a new, more productive direction. I’m sure all kids go through challenges when they are young. The issue is whether the learn to overcome challenges through persistence and their own ingenuity or if they instead learn to shy away from things that are difficult. Bright kids, especially, may learn the latter because the ego rewards from their own performance, which may initially be a spur, can easily turn into a burden that they don’t know how to jettison. So, there may be some good reasons for these kids to learn on the sly so they can explore, including things that are tough, without an adult watching their every move. The fear of failure may be a much greater inhibitor to learning than any lack of intelligence and having personal coping mechanisms to deal with failure may be the greatest lesson we can teach youngsters.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Issues with Podcasting

Today I tried yet another podcast client. This one is a freebie called Doppler. It seems to work reasonably well. I pointed at the feedburner feed for my test blog at http://feeds.feedburner.com/LannysDemo and it brought in all the posts and the files too. So that was nice. But it still is not as good as iPodderX, though it does have a "link to enclosure" in the message. In Doppler it is a generic link, and doesn't say anything about file type or size. But it is manageable. One can use the blog posts as metadata for the enclosure. That I think is important. When I tried jPodder, it only brought in the files, not the messages from the blog.

This leads me to my first issue. Is the Doppler client idiot proof? My answer, no it isn't. It is simple to use, but not idiot proof. No software is and if this sort of thing is used only for instruction and the students use something else for their entertainment content (iTunes would seem to be the number one candidate) then they won't be very familiar with the application and might encounter issues that I can't anticipate here.

So why not use iTunes? That is an application many if not most students already know. My answer to that one is --- if it is only audio content to be distributed, iTunes is fine. But in any technical course, in my opinion, one wants to distribute some visual content - a PowerPoint presentation, a pdf file with images embedded, etc., along with the audio content and so one would like the podcast client to handle any file type as an enclosure. My understanding is that iTunes doesn't do that. Further, and here I'm only guessing, my sense is that this type of higher ed use of Podcasting to have arbitrary formats in in the podcasting may not have a parallel on the reactional side. Apple's business model has to first and foremost address the recreational market. So it seems to me that Apple doesn't have a good business reason at this point to move to supporting general formats for podcasting. I would love it if they did, but I'm guessing it won't happen any time soon.

So if one used iTunes as the podcast feed, then the students would get the other content some other way (most likely as they currently get it from the course management system). That puts us in a world where the students are using two different clients (the second one is a Web browser) to get to the course content. It would be much nicer to have one client for everything. One might argue that for other functions - checking out within course grades, participating in an online discussion, etc. the students are going to have to use the course management system anyway, so what is the big deal. My response to that is many instructors really only want the file distribution function. For that population having the student use two clients is nuts. Further, I'm guessing we're going to see more and more large multimedia files to distribute and for that podcasting is great because it can happen in advance of use. But if that occurs, then one wants the ancillary docs to come in along with the multimedia and that is true even if the instructor used the CMS for other purposes.

Now let me switch to the other side of the coin, the creation side. My campus is creating a tool like Feedburner, primarily intended for department or college Web masters to manage RSS on thier own sites. This tool, almost certainly more powerful than the Feedburner tool, is also more complex to use. I don't expect much uptake of it by instructors. The complexity may be a virtue for the Web masters, but I don't think it is a detriment for instructors. Having made the Feedburner feed, which is a one time thing, managing the podcast is fairly easy. The sole recurrent pain with adding enclosures to my blog is that I have to find and paste in the url for the file. So first I upload the file to a server, then lanch the file in a browser if possible, copy the url from there, and then paste into the blog. If the file doesn't open in a browser, I open the directory in which the file resides, copy the url for that, and then complete the url by typing the file name with the file extension after the dot.

There is nothing particularly hard about doing this, but it is clunky. With our course management system now, you can upload the file to the server and then select the file name and it will be inserted in the appropriate place in the organizer or learning module. Having to bother with urls for the file is dark ages stuff in my view. What I'd really like is to have the file sitting on my desktop, then drag it onto my particular blog post, and from doing that simple dragging, the file should be uploaded to the appropriate server and the url should be placed into the right box in the blog --- automatically. And did I say I'd like to do that for a file in arbitrary format?

We've been a little slower than some campuses going doing down the podcast route. The reward from that, I would hope, is that we do things a little more sensibly when we do role out a such a service. But I'm not yet convinced there is a sensible path to take that will fit the needs I've articulate. Maybe this is a glass half full problem. And maybe I'm just greedy.

Monday, November 14, 2005

My course next semester

Next semester I’m teaching economic principles to 15 campus honors students (these are our best students) and beginning to get set up for the course. The course is aimed at freshmen, but the last time most of them had sophomore standing (and one had junior standing) because they had so much AP credit. I was given some very good advice the last time to conduct the course as a seminar but remember these are undergrads. The last time what I came up with fit that and it was a good course.

So one of the big questions for me is how much I tweak and how much I keep as is. The other big question for me is in my own thinking how much of this is about the style to learn the economics and how much of it is to exploit the technology to improve learning. Some of the bigger innovations I had the last time that I plan to keep are no textbook but rather other readings, an expectation that they will learn about core economic ideas via large projects that focus on particular issues rather than a lot of smaller assignments, and having each project team do in class presentations – book reports on the readings. None of these are fundamentally ideas driven by the technology, but they are all enabled by it.

I’m finding in my own thinking I’m more concerned about being clever on the economics than with the technology, and that is where I’d like to innovate where I can. Part of this is on the assignments and choice of readings. Another part is on numerical simulations. I think I can show students some pretty sophisticated economics in this freshman course, something one wouldn’t do otherwise, by using numerical simulation in Excel, so the students don’t have to “solve the model” which would be over their head but simply see the consequences of their choices in the simulation.

The other part of my thinking is on how the course can make a lasting impression on the students. Two years ago when I taught the course for the first time, I know it had this effect on some of them. But I also know I took advantage of Hawthorne effects big time. Now some of the novelty has been lost and the question is whether the sense of inventiveness can be maintained. One big metric of success, then, is what they read after my course as a consequence of taking the course. Another is whether they think fondly about it in retrospect.

Still another question I’m asking myself - this course will have a lot of in class discussion; I will not lecture much if at all – what online technology works here. Last time the first project had them make content surveys using Respondus. The beauty of that is that those surveys were administered to other students in the class after they were submitted and then based on the responses of the others we’d have discussion about the topic in the survey. I found those interesting as a good way to get some “layering” on the thinking as I would use the surveys and the student responses as a launch point to talk about something a little deeper in the subject.

This worked for me teaching-wise, but I’m not sure the approach will transfer to other instructors. Small class instructors might not otherwise do content surveys at all. They might prefer using a Wiki to get similar interaction (though I don’t understand how they’d achieve the layering effect). Alternatively, large class instructors might find my approach too daunting as administering student created surveys to other students might be unwieldy. So I’m scratching my head on whether I should be going for practices that likely transfer to others or focus on what I think will work best in this setting.

Periodically, I will comment on my teaching in this blog. If you want to take a look see at what I’ve got so far, that is the syllabus and a course blog.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Multimedia editing, writing, and literacy

I should offer up a mea culpa at the outset. While I have done a fair amount of multimedia production, in some definition of the term – voice over in PowerPoint, screencasts, talking head videos, that sort of thing, I’ve never done any substantial editing of multimedia content nor have I ever acquired multimedia media content by doing several takes of the same presentation as one would do in making a movie. Sometimes that limitation in my experience makes me feel under qualified to do my job, because the issue is coming up big time now about developing that sort of skill set in our students as the 21st Century equivalent of teaching students how to write, and truthfully I’m not sure how I feel about it other than that I know it makes me somewhat uncomfortable to voice my opinion on this topic in the absence of experiential knowledge.

Yesterday I had a coffee with my colleague Burks Oakley, he is really into podcasting now, and he told me that using Audacity he does the type of post recording editing that I’ve never done and indeed he does multiple takes on the audio recording in the sense that if he stumbles on something he will do it again to get it right. I was impressed with his diligence. Obviously, Burks feels that the production value will translate into listener satisfaction with the podcasts and he is willing to put in the effort to achieve that end.

Today, at a meeting about our fledgling Learning Commons, the discussion turned to our new course called Writing with Video. Joe Squier, a faculty member in Art and Design and one of the pioneers behind this course, has said we want students to develop a multimedia communication capability and that is what we should aspire to in producing the next generation of our graduates. At one level this sounds right to me and it clearly is an inspirational vision. Many people have gotten quite excited about the Writing with Video project.

But on another level I’m afraid of this. Last night we had parent-teacher conferences at my kids’ middle school, the first one with my older son’s language arts teacher, who is also his home room teacher. We spent a little bit of time talking about the writing of other students in the class. The teacher reported many of them don’t write well at all because their knowledge of things is fuzzy and with fuzzy ideas it is hard to command the language that represents the ideas. On one level, this report is not surprising. My kids go to a public school in Champaign and while that school does well when compared to other schools around the state, all the hullabaloo about our schools not keeping up with the schools in the high performing countries of East Asia and Europe certainly should have prepared me for it. But at a different level, I think of most kids at that age (13 – 14) as bright and enthusiastic and hearing a teacher say that their ideas in the main are fuzzy is quite disturbing.

I have no clue with whether the kids this teacher is referring to, the peers of my son, are the type of kids who will attend the U of I or not. But, of course, not that long ago we were all discussing the Declining by Degrees documentary and if the thesis in that documentary is even approximately right, then it is not too much of a stretch to presume that many of the kids taking eighth grade language arts around the nation have fuzzy ideas and weak knowledge in many areas. One might surmise further that it is this weakness which is the source of the student disengagement in college (and likely disengagement earlier in their schooling).

I have no idea about how to rectify this problem with young adolescents. I can’t help but wonder, however, that if the problem is not addressed early on then we will be unable to teach communication in multimedia when these same students are in college. And if we insist on trying nonetheless, we’ll be seen as masking the lack of literacy rather than perceived as giving students the right education for the 21st century.

To this I want to add another dismal dimension to the issue. No Child Left Behind, in a school such as the one my kid attends, almost certainly is having the effect of dumbing down the curriculum and providing less enrichment than there was previously. (Tight school budgets are also a contributor.) So if the retort is that general literacy has always been an issue and that the kids who start attending the U of I in 5 years, when my kid should be a college freshmen, will be part of an elite that has bypassed the literacy issues, my response would be that if these kids are the products of public school education then in many cases we need to question their literacy, no matter how much innate smarts they have.

Is it fair of me to lay all this at the feet of Writing with Video? Surely not. But to make me feel comfortable about the notion of getting students able to communicate well with multimedia I’d like that to be built on top of a more traditional notion of how to communicate well in writing and speaking rather than as a substitute for it.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


It is not uncommon in teaching for the instructor to deliver a lecture for the bulk of the period and then ask at the end, “are there any questions?” Frequently the response is an awkward silence and then after a bit the instructor dismisses the class and laments, “they just don’t talk up.” Ten years ago when I was getting started with learning technology, getting them to talk up was the prime reason for going to asynchronous conferencing, and the mantra for some was “students who are quiet in class will express themselves online.” There may be some truth to that. But I don’t want to overplay the case.

Instead I want to ask whether the instructor, perhaps unwittingly, is really communicating with body language and teaching approach that she doesn’t want to have students ask questions at all. I believe that the method of inquiry the instructor adopts matters in who speaks up. Giving clear and repeated affirmations that an open dialog is desired is necessary to get students to talk in class.

The last time I taught, without much planning at all but armed with the advice to conduct the class as a seminar, I tried to hold the class session much as we do committee meetings within the IT organization. There were only 15 students and me but we were in a room that accommodated 90, with the seats arranged in columns and rows. I made a point of rearranging the seating so we sat in a semi-circle near the front of the room. The idea was first that everyone in the class should be able to see everyone else’s face, no heads behind other heads, and second that if we needed to see the blackboard or the projector screen, that was in front of everyone so nobody had to turn around. Setting this up at the beginning of the semester was a little uncomfortable at first, but soon the kids figured it out and helped with the seating configuration themselves. There is no doubt in my mind that making a thing about the seating is one dimension of conveying to the students that the instructor wants them to speak up.

Another important concern is the tone in which the class is conducted. Truthfully, I’ve spent more time in meetings over the last few years than I have in the classroom and so I led the class in a manner that I was used to from the meetings. I tried to treat the students as colleagues and then give them opportunities to speak up throughout the session. Directed questions during the session were helpful. Showing the instructor has weaknesses (I’m not talking about demonstrating incompetence, I mean the instructor showing a human side) also mattered.

In the case of this class it didn’t really happen the first day, or even the first couple of weeks. They had to find their comfort zone. I had hostile looks from some of them, because it wasn’t a style they were used to. So there has to be persistence in a good natured way and, I think this part is critical, when they do talk up there has to be a way to react that shows the instructor is listening to them. Too often in other class settings the student questions and comments are dismissed too early – they are not framed right or the questions seem trivial to the instructor. That may be true, but the ultimate goal is not to answer the particular question. It is to get the students to feel comfortable and open up. And that requires both listening and reacting in a way that the students want to say more.

In a small class setting this is possible. I believe not enough instructors when given the chance to teach in that setting make the effort to encourage the students to speak up, mostly out of fear of losing control of the agenda, also out of ignorance in knowing how to proceed. That is a shame, especially with experienced instructors. But for junior faculty this is not a surprising outcome at all. Teaching can be frightening because the instructor’s weaknesses are readily exposed. Listening, really listening, requires overcoming that fear. It isn’t easy.

In a large class setting, it may be possible, but I’m less sure about it. Technology, particularly “clickers,” may be helpful in allowing the instructor to be more responsive to the students. Active learning exercises give students the opportunity to speak up with peers and to engage in problem solving activity. But those activities must be meaningful in the context of the class and from my point of view the approach too often encourages “quick hitter” solutions rather than more penetrating investigation because of the time constraints. In settings where the quick hitter is appropriate, I do believe the instructor can demonstrate she wants real dialog in the large class setting. Otherwise, practical necessity will dictate a mostly presentation approach in the classroom with perhaps some dialog online.

I want to take these observations and apply them to another setting. My university is in the midst of a major strategic planning process initiated by our still in his honeymoon phase new president, B. Joseph White. We started with a structure that he provided and some overview documents from that. There are now draft plans from each of the campuses. These are available at the President’s site. Still to come, there will be plans at the college and department levels.

There has been a lot of work within the administration to gather information for the current drafts and put the contributions into a passable form. But because we’re not used to strategic planning this way, the process seems hurried and clunky. The plans at the various levels are supposed to be pictures taken at various elevations with the same fundamental view, the President’s documents at the 100,000 foot level, and the department plans near to the ground. But our process has been to start from outer space and move to the ground, not vice versa. I hope before the process comes to a conclusion there is some of the reverse. But there have been discussions on the sidelines that have said if somehow the campus level plan doesn’t have a place holder for some department’s item, then that item won’t be included when the department plans emerge.

This puts many of the faculty who have yet to participate in the process in the same position as the students who having sat through the bulk of the class period listening to the instructor lecture are then asked for questions at the last moment. Certainly, there has been faculty cynicism about the process. That is not news. The issue is whether well after the fact the process continues to be perceived as too top down and hence too removed from the concerns of the faculty.

In spite of these concerns, I want to applaud President White for taking this approach and for encouraging others to put in the energy to make us think hard about where we are and where we want to be going. It is critical that we do this. And, certainly, there is no perfect process to encourage a serious discussion on these issues. Further, I do believe that President White, because of who he is and that the strategic planning is his first big activity, still has a substantial amount of goodwill that can readily overcome the current issues with the strategic planning process.

But this will require some change. Though I'm sure there is the urge to get these plans out to the Board of Trustees and to potential donors, I hope President White is wise enough to see that a wooden approach to the planning process will bring about the enmity of the entire university community and ultimately will cause the outcome none of us want to see – the University of Illinois as a mediocre institution, one that didn’t adjust to the changes and pressures that all of public higher education is now facing.

The lesson to learn is simple to describe but hard to deliver………. Écoutez.

Monday, November 07, 2005


This week’s Magazine in the Sunday New York Times has some interesting pieces. The featured article, A Doctor for the Future, is excellent as a read, though I couldn’t make a connection from it to learning technology. It is the story, primarily, of genetic diseases among children of the Amish (and Mennonites) of Pennsylvania who are more prone to these problems because of inbreeding, how modern medicine – post the mapping of the human genome – can and cannot help them, and about a particular doctor, Holmes Morton, who has been tending to these people and in this practice building a case for tying diagnosis of genetic deficiency to the treatment of patients, though struggling to disseminate these ideas because treating patients competes for Morton’s time with publishing journal articles about the approach. It is truly a moving story and fascinating because of the various juxtapositions as well as the power and determination of Morton to provide decent medical care to these deserving but uneasy to serve people.

There is another piece in that same Magazine, this one called The Literary Darwinists, that I am going to try to tie to learning technology, even if that is a stretch. The article is about an emerging school of literary criticism, school may be too strong a term but I’m not sure what else to call it, that as a tonic to the more standard deconstructionist approach (that is standard from within English departments, not for the rest of us who read the occasional fiction for fun and personal expansion), which looks at literature from the point of view of a species preserving activity, more or less in the same way that school socials might be considered species promoting, in that they encourage dating and hence mating.

While most of us who are not English professors (myself included) may shy away from current literary criticism because we don’t have enough background to participate in the discussion, we nonetheless do have some feeling for Darwin’s precepts, especially as they are practiced through the lens of evolutionary psychology. Within the scope of their work the literary Darwinists get to opine about what species preserving function reading has, especially reading of what would be considered great literature. Clearly, the direct effect is to take the reader away from more obviously productive and consequently species preserving activities – providing food or shelter, making the environment otherwise safer, or engaging in or encouraging procreation. But such reading, when it is effective, tends to reach us deeply touching our inner being. This may provide hope, inspiration, and a spirit of accomplishment that may help us in deeds that more obviously fit into the Darwinian mold.

Having recently completed Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat, I’m struck by how his entire vision can readily be cast in Darwinian terms and his concluding chapter focused on the need for imagination, not the imagination of Osama Bin Laden, but rather the imagination of those who brought down the Berlin Wall. If this sort of creativity is critical for species survival and literature and the reading of such acts as a spur for such creativity, perhaps the evolutionary interpretation is not such a stretch.

Then, to bring this back down to learning technology, the question/concern is whether there is something unique about language in its written form as a means of communication to spur the imagination or if other forms, those that are more graphical and otherwise engage the visual and auditory senses, can also promote the imagination and thereby supplant this role that literature has played for the last several hundred years.

Let me get back to that. Although the discussion was about evolutionary psychology, I could not help but think of Abraham Maslow and his notion of self-actualization. Maslow may have been too descriptive in his methods for studying self-actualization and his theory may itself be self contradictory as a prediction of behavior to get him mentioned in the Times article (the theory asserts that if more basic needs are not satisfied the individual can’t go on to satisfy higher needs, although perhaps Maslow’s most impressive self-actualizer, Lincoln, endured all sorts of hardships while simultaneously self-actualizing) yet Maslow’s view of self actualization is uplifting and should be considered by educators in its own right.

With a very simple Google search I found this delightful Web site on Maslow that gives a brief biography and some of basics of his theory. The bulleted list of needs that the self-actualizer feels seems to me a good set of aspirations that we should want for our students when they graduate. It seems to me a fair question to ask whether our curricula help the students become self-actualizers and if so to be explicit on how that is accomplished. According to the article, Maslow himself thought only a limited elite comprising no more than 2% of the population engaged in self-actualization on a regular basis. The piece does not say whether in Maslow’s view this represents inherited differences among the population, or if it was because most of the others are somehow engaged in more basic life struggle. If the latter, one might imagine that as real income rises that fraction of the population that self-actualizes would also rise. And one might think that education, particularly higher education, would be uniquely suited to encourage this behavior.

I want to bring in one more observation that is relevant and then wrap this up. Over the weekend I saw an interview with Ron Howard the director (and former star of Happy Days and Andy of Mayberry). He was talking about lessons he learned from John Ford, the great director as, in particular, applied to The Missing, where the characters lived a very hard life and had to go through some excruciating circumstances. Ford’s advice was to show only part of what the characters were going through on film and to let the audience’s imagination fill in the other parts for themselves. This seems to me to be correct and explains why Hitchcock films, while dated in their sets and other environs, nonetheless still come off as interesting stories to watch, and why more modern “special effects movies” lack the ability to offer other than mindless entertainment.

So I for one don’t think it is the medium, written text on the one hand versus highly visual content on the other, that is fundamental to inspiring creativity in others. It is that the artistry with which these works are created that matters and that artistry can happen across media. But with writing or painting or photography, there is the self-actualization of the artist at play and that is primary in determining the work which is produced. With motion pictures and video games, there clearly is team production and managing that would seem to me possibly in conflict with artistic creation – certainly the management of the team is itself a complex activity and therefore could be a distraction.

It does seem to me that emerging technologies have this potential to inspire potentially self-actualizing students if coupled with the creative use of the instructor and that early adopter faculty, in particular, have an intuitive sense of that possibility. Perhaps we need to shift the framework of the conversation from good instruction to inspirational teaching. I for one would like to see Maslow discussed more frequently in learning technology circles.

Friday, November 04, 2005

On killing off apps to be supported and doing something new

Sorry about not posting for a week. I started to write a longer essay last weekend and it didn't turn out to my liking, so I got a case of writer's block. I might get back to that piece in a while, but for now will stick with somewhat more modest themes.


I want to do a little stroll down memory lane with the hope of providing a lesson for here and now.

I started to run the organization called SCALE (Sloan Center for Asynchronous Learning Environments) in September 1996. Within the next 6 months or so, not recalling this all too well, we killed off support of an application called PacerForum. This was a very popular Mac-based conferencing system. But it relied on AppleTalk protocol rather than TCP-IP and it was unable to make the transition. The company that made PacerForum went belly up. We continued to support it for a while after they went bankrupt (a bad idea) but that was untenable so we dropped it. Our users knew nothing of this. They just knew they liked the software and we stopped supporting it. So we were the bad guys.

That same year we started to support a Web based conferencing program called WebNotes from the company Sypglass (which got the Mosaic license from the University). At the time our mainstay conferencing system was FirstClass, but that required a dedicated client at the time. FirstClass was pretty popular, but some people wanted a Web system, even in 1996 when I believe the browser was Netscape 2.0. There was some uptake of WebNotes (I used FirstClass in my own teaching) but the product was a dog and after a year we dropped it for an alternative, WebBoard.

We continue to support WebBoard to this day. And we continue to support Mallard. Those were the mainstay apps I used in teaching my intermediate microeconomics course. I switched from FirstClass to WebBoard perhaps in 1998, primarily because there were some support issues with the students installing the FirstClass client. Many other of our users did likewise.

FirstClass did come out with a Web client but it was not sufficiently differentiated to justify supporting it. So we did end the FirstClass service in December 1999. There were only a few dedicated users at the end, but I think we lost those people permanently to other environments. I don't believe they came over to WebBoard or the CMS products we had started to support.

What is the lesson? It is that if we start to support something we really can't stop supporting it unless the product is a dog or unless the provider no longer supports the product. There is an implied commitment to ongoing service. One might think that we can go to something else that is "better" but beauty is in the eye of the beholder and loyal constituencies form for any environment that has been useful to the instructors.

We are now in a situation where new apps are appearing in abundance and there are many alternatives from which to choose. Moreover, it is apparent that things are changing at a rapid pace. Is this the time to "lock in" to a particular path, say to hosting Drupal or Movable Type?

Now let me do a tiny bit more history. In fall of 2003, Educause Review published a review/critique of a piece that appeared earlier that year in Harvard Business Review called "IT Doesn't Matter," which is reprinted in that same volume of Educause Review. That article depressed me quite a bit, because I bought much of the argument. The essence is that if the IT organization is providing utility services that are really "commoditized" then IT doesn't matter. So a second question is whether the new collaboration technologies are commodities, which the market should provide, or value added applications, which campus IT should provide. Personally, I lean toward the commodity side in answering that question.

When talking with college level administrators who support IT, they might very well conclude likewise. When talking with early adopter faculty, these lessons are extremely frustrating. They are immersed in the new collaboration technologies and want to see the campus right along with them. My final question, one I don't know the answer to, is whether that is the nature of the beast or if there is some other way to frame the issue so the early adopter folks feel more comfortable with what the campus is doing.