Reflections on Academic Computing

I know I’m not even remotely qualified to do the topic of reflecting on academic computing justice. I am a newbie at all this with less than a dozen years of experience in this environment. Quite frankly I didn’t really understand my role in higher education until I came to ETS as the director a little over three years ago. I didn’t realize that my work was done to support and promote the scholarship of the academy. I had this strange idea that it was to do what I wanted to do. I guess one thing that has kept me around is that (without even knowing it) somewhere along the line my interests aligned with some of the needs of my environment. Lots of this thinking is coming from participation in Project Bamboo, an initiative designed to think about what research support looks like in the Arts and Humanities. Its made me rethink how we can really engage with non-traditional computing disciplines in important ways.

With that said, I have been thinking very intensely about what it means to return to the notion of academic computing. Not too long ago my parent organization, Information Technology Services, was called the Center for Academic Computing — the CAC. I still hear faculty ask me if I work in the CAC … I think the change was made when some folks recognized that we had taken on the overall responsibility for running a bulk of the centralized information technology services — not just supporting academic computing. Computing used to happen in a lab or in small verticals where faculty were doing new and interesting things with their research. Computing is now just technology and it is everywhere. The verticals are gone … we live in a flat horizontal world on University campuses just like everyone else out there. Everywhere you turn technology is a part of it — and our organization (for the most part) provides the infrastructure for that to happen. We do services, and we do them well (IMO). That’s not to say we aren’t supporting academic computing, but it isn’t the overt assumption for us as a whole like our name once implied.

Even in ETS where our mission is to support the appropriate use of technology for teaching and learning we find ourselves in the services business. In many ways I think I want that to stop. I want to explore how our infrastructure is empowering a new stack, one focused on the production of knowledge. I know that sounds a bit crazy when you look around and see a staff built to do design and development … but when I stand back I see that we are positioned perfectly to extend our reach through a greater investment in supporting intellectual activities. That doesn’t mean we stop making things — on the contrary we may make more things, we just work to expose them at a deeper level to help others connect dots in their practice.

Last summer we invited Dr. Carla Zembal-Saul to be a resident Faculty Fellow. She came here to work with us to explore the Blogs at Penn State as an ePortfolio platform. What we are now left with is an amazingly deeper appreciation for her work, our work, and what the notion of reflective practice is really all about. Her engagement here at ETS was so successful it has pushed me to create a systematic Faculty Fellow program where we will hopefully be able to attract the best minds from across our campus who want to work with smart people doing interesting things. What we hope to do is align faculty scholarship to our areas of interest and expertise. We already have one slot filled for this summer and I am am working on two additional Fellowships that would be hopefully as transformative as Dr. Zembal-Saul’s.

What I am imagining is an environment that is built around innovative thought, faculty participation, and a continuous cycle of investigation. If I return to Carla for a second I can share how this works with a real example. We do Hot Teams to investigate emerging technologies and identify ways they can be used to support teaching, learning, and research. We introduce these technologies via pilots and get interested faculty involved with using them in their classrooms. In some cases faculty participate in our Engagement Projects and start to really do interesting things by redesigning learning environments. Some of these faculty push us and ask us really hard questions that require us to work really closely over a period of time — this can lead to a Fellowship. During the Fellowship we stretch to understand their research and they stretch to understand the affordances of the technology … we build something new together, test it, and share what we learn locally and nationally. In the case of Carla, we just released the Pack it Up feature for ePortfolios that allow students to submit large quantities of digital evidence from their online ePortfolio in a simple package for program review and general assessment offline. It never would have happened without the collaboration.

From Idea to Implementation

From Idea to Implementation

So as I reflect on the notion of academic computing I realize we are still participating as we were designed to, but perhaps aren’t thinking that way. I may have simply lost sight of how hard it is to put it all together, but when we attack it as a strategic direction some really important things tend to emerge. I am going to be gathering more of the stories about how we are doing really interesting work in support of scholarship and they will be exposed more widely over at the ETS site. For now I’m interested in how you see all this playing out … are we crazy? Is this is worthy of a get together to discuss? I am also thinking about how to invite those from the outside to be Affiliates of ETS, but that is a post for another day. Thoughts?

14 thoughts on “Reflections on Academic Computing

  1. No deep thoughts today, just a public thank you for providing the venue for one of the most rewarding professional development experiences of my career to date. What has transpired from our work together during the summer has revitalized my teaching and research. Simply amazing!

  2. Really interesting to read about your Hot Teams and Engagement Projects, I think this is a great idea and I look forward to seeing more stories about the work you are doing at Penn State. The possibility of affiliates sounds quite exciting and I’ll keep my eyes out for this post.

  3. @Carla Zembal-Saul And that is why this is so important. I can honestly say that the feelings are mutual — you pushed our team to think about things in ways they’ve not had to before. That is an important step in expanding our collective work.

  4. @Cole I think your organizational model is impressive. You seem to have put into place a flow that gets people involved while not grabbing all their spare time. My problem with specific projects is that there are so many people who have no idea how to use any technology for teaching and learning, and don’t even know they should use it. I feel like my job is to level the playing field before I tackle far fetched innovative practices, because they don’t scale well. Any thoughts on this?

  5. I know you read Erin’s blog. She has been getting reactions similar to Carla when she shows students and faculty how to use the MovableType platform as part of her work in English and Communications. The “hey, I want to do that in my class too” reactions are priceless.

    I can’t imagine a compliment better than the one Carla left here: “What has transpired from our work together during the summer has revitalized my teaching and research.” That statement is a great vision of what faculty development should be.

  6. @Mathieu Plourde Hi Mathieu. I think the problem you describe is one that is real … honestly it is one of the reasons why we attempt to get out in front through our Hot Teams. Another thing I will add is that we make directed calls for participation in areas where we have a degree of comfort. Because we spend time investigating things we can expand the portfolio of what we get comfortable with … over the long haul it becomes a task of saying no to more things then yes — that is the hard part. I think by investing time in the right early adopters and asking them for real outcomes that are sharable you can find new ways to encourage others to follow them down a path. It takes time, but soon you can find ways to really leverage the success stories into new relationships. I hope that answered your question. Thanks for the comment!

  7. I think this makes a lot of sense and is similar to something that I blogged about after hearing your ETS talks podcast.

    I think you have hit on something with the faculty fellows that has been largely missing from this space. Conversation. What is powerful is getting faculty working with you and thinking together about solving mutual problems that both of you can bring expertise to bear on. What typically happens (with respect to Mathieu and Allan) is that folks on the technology end want to educate faculty about the tools so they can take advantage of them in their teaching. I think showing the faculty the blogging platform and having them say “I want to do that in my class” is not the reaction that you are looking for. The conversation that you want to have is around making the students educational experience better – something that both you and the faculty member have a vested interest in. From that conversation both of you can bring things to the table and you develop a wonderful synergy. That is what your work with Carla represents.

    The reason it is rare is that usually when representatives of the two groups come together they are in their camps and see the other group not as colleagues looking at the same problems from different perspectives, but as obstacles to solving the problem. The tech folks gnash their teeth about faculty that won’t innovate with the technology or won’t learn the affordances of the technology so they can use them. The faculty gnash their teeth about the technology folks not being willing to support them or complain that they don’t have time to learn to use the technologies. There is a lot of talking (just barely) past each other.

    The successes seem to come in two forms, both rare. First is what you have created in the fellows program. That is a space or project where people with differing expertise come together to solve a mutual problem that lies at the intersection of the partner’s areas of expertise. The other kind is also rare, and that is when the expertise about the technology and the pedagogy are both in one person and they can innovative pedagogically and technologically. One example of this type of rareness is Michael Wesch

    Looking back at this I should have just made a blog post on this whole thing. I guess I am saying that I admire what you are doing and I think the type of partnerships represented by the faculty fellows should be a central focus of the larger project of innovative pedagogy (or research) through technology. If that is what is possible with a new Center for Academic Computing, then I am all in.

  8. @Scott McDonald I can’t pretend to reinvent a CAC, but I can say that a portion of what we do in ETS can be focused on those efforts. The thinking I am laying out here is a mash up of many conversations with you, Carla, and lots of people in ETS … nearly all of this started with my visit to the Berkman Center last year. Coming home from that I was so impressed with how they took on Fellows and helped turn them into rock stars — they give them space and resources to explore important ideas. I loved it.

    One of the big tensions here is our need to continue to build and manage University wide projects … we do a big piece of iTunes U, Blogs at Penn State, Adobe Connect, ANGEL, Turn it In, TLA Program, the Symposium, and on and on. That stuff can’t go away, so making time to attack something like this has been difficult. I do think we’ve hit on something that can move our organization forward. I think at the end of the day we are looking for ways to connect and share new experiences … I think it is one of the things you mention — you have to talk to each other, not over or past one another. That is one skill I am looking to develop further within my part of the organization. Thanks for the thoughts and for the help thinking about this!

  9. I also enjoyed reading about your Hot Teams and Engagement Projects. It’s an excellent leadership model.

    As we continue to work at implementing the goals of CFF at the secondary level, I think we could increase our effectiveness by using a similar model. The legacy of isolated high school teachers, responsible primarily for only their own classroom has made CFF a true challenge for schools to implement. Innovative teachers are often limited in their ability to affect change because of this isolation.

  10. @Scott McDonald I don’t think I was clear enough when I made the comment about faculty reactions. Erin isn’t showing faculty a blogging platform. She’s showing what the blogging platform has enabled faculty in English and Communications to do with their students. It’s about changing teaching and learning, not about the technology itself.

  11. @ Allan Gyorke I think that is the point in all of this … and I think Scott hit it on the head — this is perceived as a new approach b/c we all hear so many stories of people just talking over each other. If we really want to make progress IMO we need to start at the relationship building level and really work to listen to each other. In reality I think we’ve all been coming at this from the same direction, but perhaps not in such an overt way. Now that we are working to build new opportunities to engage I think we’ll see more meaningful long term outcomes. I like that the thinking is moving towards the idea of continuous engagement and not just one off projects.

  12. Allan, I think actually that goes directly to my point. When someone presents a technology used to support a pedagogical practice (like Erin or like Wesch) the “showing” is not seen the same way by everyone. Technology folks can look past the technology and can focus on the pedagogy (look at the amazing thing that Wesch can do with a big class). The pedagogical folks look past the pedagogy and only see the technology (look at that cool blogging platform). The problem is that the technology and the pedagogy are working together in synergistic ways that only can be clearly articulated in two ways: (1) by a person who sees both clearly (as I said a rare breed); (2) by a group of people with diverse skill sets having an engaged conversation about how the two work together to solve real problems (as I said a rare conversation). This idea is directly connected to my research which is predicated on the notion that people with different cultural toolsets (professional vision is the way I think about it), literally see the same events in radically different ways. My complaint is not about Erin’s intent, but with the fact that her intended message is interpreted quite differently by the different constituencies. This leads to a great deal of the talking past one another. It is not intentional on either group’s part, it is simply the nature of expertise and how it impacts how we view the world.@ Allan Gyorke

  13. I’d be interested in talking to you further about this: how you’re approaching the issue and what you’ve been writing. I’ve lived in that in-between space for the past 12 years at least (possibly my whole career). I’ve seen my fair share of colossal communication failures and innovative partnerships.

  14. @Scott You hit the nail on the subjective perception here.This is probably the hardest part of our work: making people see both sides of the story. We live in technology and pedagogy every day, and our faculty do not necessarely live in either of them.

    Another potential issue is the fact that using technology to help students LEARN versus TEACHING a course online are two very different things, but they are mostly related to your view of what education is (Re. Sage on the stage vs. Guide on the side). Those are values and attitudes towards tech and education that I have built over years of looking at this. And now I’m trying to fast-forward this to my instructors… No matter it doesn’t work!

    They have to experience it iteratively, just like I did, to get it. They have to spend the time to engage in discussions, but since it’s not a part of their research field, it’s either like pulling teeth or feeling like they could make a better use of their limited time. Anyway, enough whinning.

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