What to Do? Tensions in Selecting Services and Opportunities

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the decision points when deciding to partner and when it was right to roll your own solution. At the time I was referring to iTunes U … since then I have been thinking a lot about the growing set of opportunities being provided to higher education from unusal (or usual) sources. Along with these opportunities are a growing set of tensions that we may need to deal with … tension between the need for us to do things the way we’ve always done them and the desire to become agile in the delivery of opportunities to our audeinces.

Let’s take a look at a couple of the more recent happenings and start to think about what we do to play in this space. How do we integrate the best of the new web models into the higher education enterprise of a big Unvieristy? That is a question I am baiting all of you into thinking about and discussing. So what are we talking about:

iTunes U: This is such an interesting and dynamic opportunity that so many of us want to be a part of it, but are trying to find a place for it at our Institutions. I know it has the potntial to play well in our environment — let me say that at the moment it only touches a small percetage of our audiences, but it has this feeling that the potential is unlimited. I have honestly never been a part of anything that has grown so quickly and captued the imagintation of faculty as quickly as podcasting. iTunes U gives us (and all sorts of Universities) an opportunity to focus on the right things — the pedogogical aspects of the technology without having to build yet another service.

Google Video: This one stunned me the other day — Berkeley releasing a whole host of courses via Google Video. The fact that they are opening the doors to their classrooms is amazing in and of itself, but the fact that Google is hosting it all is interesting to say the least. Just like iTunes U, this approach gives a University the ability to think more critically about the educational value and approaches behind doing something like this instead if building streaming solutions, video services, and huge repositories. Berkeley, by the way, are doing so many things to open their doors to the world it is just stunning to watch. I am impressed.

Gmail for the University: One of the biggest challenges for large Universities is the need to provide and manage email for faculty, staff, and students. Here at PSU, email is called the “Mother of all Applications.” WebMail in particular is used at such an amazing level that you litterally walk away speechless when you see the numbers. We spend a lot of time trying to make this the cleanest experiecne on campus. It is important. It takes a ton of time and a lot of energy. Not too long ago Google decided that Gmail may be a better option to manage a University’s mail service. Jeez … that is big time.

This little list doesn’t include the LMS, CMS, or ERP space … I am amazed at how we allow vendors into the enterprise in so many ways, but frown on them in so many others. I am interested in how we as institutions can influence the appropriate design and development of these opportunities … How do we help them make the right moves for our reasons while helping them protect their own interests? How do we learn to trust companies’ motives — especially with “free” services … paying for stuff usually makes me feel better. I am really interested in how other Universities are managing the growing tension related to understanding how to integrate these services appropriately. How do we do it? Should we be doing it? Can we do without it? Can we live with the perceived and real handcuffs associated with doing it? We are living in very interesting times.

6 thoughts on “What to Do? Tensions in Selecting Services and Opportunities

  1. Cole, another great discussion. The Buy-Build-Partner conundrum is particularly vexxing at times for Edtech in particular. It’s an equation of business strategy. The pros of buying, of course, are for immediate solutions toward fulfilling your vision or requirements. The leery side are the hidden costs: customization, reliance on a 3rd-party, staff support for the system/service. My inclination is to build, or at least have a fall-back. Of course this is a major investment in resources and ongoing improvement. We face this with our homegrown webcast/podcast application, but are glad to have it as a foundation. Partnering is good if it enhances something you’re doing, or there’s a mutual benefit. It’s not good to do it just to be cool. Sometimes, though, it’s interesting to go down rabbit holes to see where they end up. Especially if the partners are innovative and share in your vision. I don’t know where iTunes U or Google Video will go. But it’s been an incredible learning experience and is definitely furthering our mission.

    I’d like to point out two influential pieces that I think should be required reading on the topic:

    1) Beyond Google: What Next for Publishing by Kate Wittenberg.

    2) Marketing Culture in the Digital Age” by Peter Kaufman of Intelligent Television. See PDF link at the bottom of the page.

  2. Thank you for the insight. I was particularly hopeful that I could lure you into the conversation. I was at an offsite strategic planning session just the other day and this notion kept jumping out at our group. We are faced with these seemlingly great opportunities every week and with each one comes a cost that at first seems very low but grows over time. I’ll read the articles you linked and will try to post some thoughts. I do want to say the work you are doing is inspiring and has me interested well beyond its inital coolness factors. I am eager to hear the real stories behind the innovation.

  3. I have been thinking the same thing…

    As we drag our feet with iTunes U here I have been thinking about why we actually need it. We have the server space, the networks, and the know how to build an application that appears to achieve the same features but what we would be missing is the integration… or would we? The fact a podcast is just XML makes it extremely flexible. Video streaming on the other hand… not as simple.

    I am not in a position to influence what happens in the learning technology circles, my place is marketting and communications. So what I am doing in my area is looking at how to integrate facebook with linkedin and Flickr, etc. Try to engage our audiences outside the classroom in the community and hopefully set a good example.

    Institutionally though and communications wise… solve the email problem, free up a lot of staff time 😉

  4. I was on a panel a few years ago called “Platform Wars”. I was the “Apple guy,” there was a Microsoft rep on the panel (as well as a Linux person, but we’ll leave him out of this story). MS man explained to me one of their big points is to encourage people to develop Windows software, hence the massive number of products (for pay/share/free) available. My response was something like, “But then you get 1100 versions of the same thing…it’d take forever to evaluate all of the apps.”

    That couldn’t have been more then three years ago. There isn’t nearly as much choice among Web apps (I don’t think), but we’re already getting to the point of having to make lots of hard decisions. Half of why I host my blog with Cole is that he did countless hours of evaluating weblog systems, and I trust his research. As more of these things keep creeping up, not sure who’s got time to figure ’em all out.

    As a faculty member, I have to be careful about early adoption. My tendency is to go for it, but that doesn’t always work with my students. For instance, I tried using Moodle as my CMS one semester. Students liked some of its functionality, but they couldn’t get over the lack of integration with the ANGEL LMS that’s become part of classroom life at Penn State. Down went Moodle.

    Computation moves fast and often in silly directions. Somehow we gotta figure out how to make sense of new opportunities while also understanding that schools and universities move at different (read: glacially slow) time scales. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying to introduce innovations into formal learning environments, but we do need to remember that teachers, faculty, and students may not immediately adopt the latest cool stuff. Podcasts are great examples. They’re spreading around my university these days, but it’s been years since they appeared, Cole had a bunch of us experiment with ’em.

    All that to say I got no good answers. It’s great that universities have “think tanks” to explore new technologies, and it must be a challenge to keep up with everything (I know it is for me…I haven’t slept in years). Meanwhile, most of my colleagues would be suspicious of anything “cutting edge” since their primary job is to get their students learning with or without computing. Easy for me to try stuff cause I teach interaction design courses…failures are welcomed cause they become part of our discussions. I might feel different if I was teaching calculus.

    Lots to think about…hope it slows down soon so I can go to sleep.

  5. Try sleeping with a second little one in the house as well as all this other stuff going on! I am lucky in that I have really smart and engaged people around me interested in pushing things along. I honestly am not too concerned about massive adoption of everything we look at — it is the one, two, three, or four faculty who get it and go that make me excited. That is the group who makes all the difference in the long term — Brian, why do you think I have asked you, Kyle, and David to be the first group in the Innovators Speaker Series? You guys push and you push people like me in central computing to do more, do it better, and make it work for your students. When it works, you guys take the time to talk to others about it and adoption happens.

    My struggles center on the tension between what feels right in my gut and what the enterprise will support. One of my goals is to create a culture of innovation that faculty and administrators trust in. The fact that you trusted my research in blog tools (which I appreciate) is a small indication that maybe, just maybe, we can find ways to make it easy for faculty to get on board with other more broad activities.

    The whole notion of trusting venders is a whole other thing. We rarely have an opportunity to get to know the people behind the products and when we do the relationships tend to be so one on one that others on both sides of the opportunity look at it with skeptical eyes. You know how hard we have worked at cultivating relationships — and they have paid real dividends. The problem is getting all the other decision makers to trust. At the end of the day, we will continue to discover new and interesting things as long as faculty continue to push them to their students. How we select the right opportunities is still the challenge … and I guess that is what you had to say as well.

  6. This isn’t an exhaustive list of questions I’ve asked as I’ve pondered the same (from, I believe, an instituaional perspective), but it does represent some catch points I’ve had. There is overlap between them and some could perhaps be caught by the umbrella of adherence to open standards.

    Can we legally and ethically have data outside the bounds of the “enterprise”?

    Who owns the data (content, logs, etc.) ?

    Is our flexibility/agility enhanced by partnering? how about 3 years from now?

    How difficult would it be to stop partnering or change partners?

    Can we nimbly support the local customer when problems arise?

    Can we nimbly support law enforcement when problems arise?

    Are there opportunities to add to the value chain in partnering, or is it “just” an outsourcing?

    How reliable is the partner: financially, culturally, technically?

    Will 120,000 people use it, or 1,200?

    Will the partnered service interoperate with how others are choosing to provide the same service to themselves via other delivery vehicles?

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