Clickity Clack

One of the things that keeps my energized is knowing that the work we do here in higher education almost always impacts students somewhere along the line. Even though we mostly work with faculty, the fact of the matter is that when we work with faculty to rethink their practice the resulting design ultimately happens to their students. Knowing that leads to a very positive sense as I do my work, but I do wish I had more time to talk directly to students … and I need to figure out how to do that.

Case in point — I had a really interesting morning where I got to spend about 90 minutes in a Communications class with 30 students who want to be journalists talking about the iPad. I was invited by Steven Sampsell to come and answer questions on a relevant technology issue in education while all 30 of the students role-played Collegian writers. Getting a chance like that is at the top of my list of things to do. I always leave feeling amazingly positive and the same thing happened today. One thing I will mention is the sound of 60 hands typing feverishly on keyboards is really disconcerting at first — imagine the silence as a student asks a question and then all 30 of them spring into action clickity-clacking on really loud PC style keyboards. I hadn’t heard that since I was in high school typing class.

One thing that was interesting was how much I had to think about what I’ve thought about the iPad as a tool to support my workflow the last two weeks and how that might relate to a college student. I was a little surprised that I struggled to answer questions like, “why would a college student want to buy this?” or, “would you buy one of these for your kids?” Those are tough questions that I had to really stop and think about. I was looking at skeptics and I didn’t have answers immediately to address them.

It wasn’t until after the 20 minute interview session was over and we just started talking did it start to become clear why one might want one … and the answers are a bit surprising to me even now. They are the simple things — a really long battery life, the size, and the ability to get on and off the device with a swipe of a finger seemed to really resonate. When the iPad was introduced so many people said this was the killer device and it was going to save newspapers, magezines, television, radio, movies, textbooks, music, and of course education. From where I sit much of those things don’t really need saving and the ones that do maybe they don’t deserve to be. Not a single student asked me about digital textbooks. What finally got the students’ attention were the conversations about those simple things — and the idea that you can actually use the iPad with an iPhone to flip Scrabble letters through the air.

In my own work the past two weeks I have found the iPad to be a smart and very serviceable device for doing much of my work. Is it as killer for my work as my MacBook Pro? No. Can I go for really long stretches without needing to use my MBP now that I have this device? Yes. Simply put, this thing is different from a laptop and it does support a similar set of work tasks well but it is doing it in way that has challenged my traditional patterns of interaction. I do the bulk of my work moving between apps, but they enter and leave so quickly it is a heck of a lot like expose on the MBP. I am struggling with some things because I am learning how to compute all over again — I am still unconvinced that rethinking all of it is a bad thing. Let’s revisit this after tomorrow morning when I give an hour keynote using nothing more than my iPad (I am terrified of that).

As an example, the students were honestly blown away that “documents” don’t go in a folder or on the desktop. They are instead embedded in the application that you would expect them to be accessible from. That made a heck of a lot of sense to them — they are used to just putting pictures “in” facebook and not worrying about where they end up. They don’t need to care where there stuff is “physically” located because it is part of the application that created it. I think this is a fundamental change that bothers a lot of us in the tech space, but thrills those outside it. I want to look at pictures, I open the Photo app. I want to work on a spreadsheet, I open Numbers. I want to work on a presentation, I open Keynote and all of my existing stacks are sitting there. I know lots of people who recreate content over and over again because they have no idea where it is. And let’s get real, more and more of the stuff we create is in the cloud and if that is your workflow an app like Good Reader gives you access to all of it.

I hope you aren’t reading this as a fanboy post, but one that is made after really struggling to find a place for this device over the last two weeks. Have I found a place for it yet? In a word, yes. I’m not sure if that place will be the same in another two weeks, but so far this fits not only my work workflow, but it is now part of my life workflow. It moves more elegantly from my early morning email and feed reading to full day work back to evening browsing and play with the family. When the students and I started to explore their workflow I saw them think about what a device like this could mean for them and when I passed it around I did notice the looks of wonder on many of their faces. They started to see it in a light that wasn’t a distorted reflection of a laptop or a phone — they started to talk about how they work and live and where this could support much of it. And when I showed them Scrabble it was all over.

NetFlix Values

Catching up on TechCrunch this morning I came across a post about Netflix and its attitudes towards its employees. Inspiring to say the least. They seem to value a culture that puts the company and the people on even footing — a place where you make decisions with the best interests of your life and the company. The slide presentation below is said to be a leaked internal presentation that was designed to shed light on the company’s policies. No matter what it is, it shows that Netflix has figured out that motivated and interested people make a huge difference. Kinda makes you want to work for them too … my favorite statement:

Imagine if every person at Netflix is someone you respect and learn from …


View more presentations from reed2001.

Could a set of policies like this work in Higher Education? I’m not sure, but I am betting it could. The idea that you are responsible enough to decide how much vacation you need is very similar to the arrangement I had with my faculty appointment while in the College of IST. I doubt we’d extend that kind of practice to everyone, but when taken within the framework of the Netflix environment it makes sense. They make it clear that they have intense expectations of each and every person in the company and if you aren’t pulling your weight it is time to find another place to work. I wonder how this makes people in education feel?

Why Run a Service?

The debate over when to build, buy, or use is one that rages in higher education information technology units all the time. I am constantly asked why we’d run that service versus just relying on someone else to host it for us. I sit in meetings where the debate over taking something off the shelf for our use is weighed against our desire to build it. It never ends and I don’t expect to ever really have a solid answer.

Not too long ago, I was sitting and talking to Brad Kozlek about our choice to run our own blogging platform. I go through these massive swings about the topic — usually settling somewhere around, “why not just lean on and focus on training and adoption.” That argument works on lots of levels. On this particular day we came to another conclusion about why it is so important that we are running our own service — the potential for community.

Several weeks ago I was lucky enough to spend time talking and presenting with Dr. Abdur Chowdhury, Chief Scientist at Twitter … I wrote about it then, but have been thinking about it nearly nonstop. What became incredibly clear to me was that Twitter is sitting on an Ocean of data. Data that they are working really hard to turn into meaningful content. If you go to the Twitter Search page you’ll see that they are making sense out of this data and showing us how clearly the social web is plugged into what is happening. They have their “Trending topics” displayed right below their search field and it shows you what we are all talking about 140 characters at a time. I’m sure many of you have heard the story about how reports in Mumbai were first broadcast via Twitter and the first picture of the plane landing in the Hudson River came through the same channel — its obvious that what is wrong with big media is the same thing that is so very right with the social web — connections building community that is, in the case of Abdur and Twitter, predicting the future as it happens.

Trending Topics

Trending Topics

So back to the Blogs at Penn State … as Brad and I sat there we realized we are sitting on a river of data that is built entirely on people right here at PSU. Now that we are reaching the 10,000 user milestone with the service we are seeing an explosion in the understanding and use of tags for filtering content. Courses are using them to aggregate student posts together, students are using them to mark portfolio entries, departments are using them to pull information/knowledge about initiatives into focus, and so on. Once we realized that we started to realize that we could begin to act a little bit like Twitter and use our data to see trends and ultimately predict the future as it unfolds. With this in mind we’re working on a few new and interesting ways to not only tap into the community but also ways to let them move the state of the University around a bit.

A simple example is something I’m loosely calling, “PSU Voices.” Essentially we would hand out a tag each month (or perhaps week) related to topic we’d like to see the community explore. Imagine during April (when Earth Day is) asking the student body to write, or post pictures, videos about “ideas to make PSU a more green campus?” We’d ask that question, provide a tag, and watch as the aggregate posts of that month’s conversation came into focus. If we took a simple advertisement out in the student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, to get people to participate I wonder if they would? If they did I think the results would be amazing.

We’ve already started to pull out some trending data based on the popular tags and we are seeing some really interesting things. It was clear last week that lots of students were working on their portfolios. One of the next steps is to build an interface between the tag and content search to see what people are talking about in mass … I can’t even imagine how interesting that could look when we have 20,000 or 30,000 people writing regularly around PSU. I’m not ready to share the pages yet, but I am hoping that in the next couple of weeks we’ll start to see the unintended results of running our own service — the ability to not create community, but to coalesce it. Anyone have thoughts related to these ideas and others?


Last week I went to beautiful Bedford Springs, PA to speak to Superintendents from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit … it was both intimidating and exciting. I am always a little nervous speaking to K-12 educators because I always make the mistake of thinking our worlds are so different. It was exciting because I always end up finding out how similar our problems and issues really are. This was no different. I went in thinking I was out of my element and left with a new found appreciation and confidence in my understanding of our shared issues.

I shared a mix of stories and statistics that described how social computing is being used (typically outside of formal learning environments) to create new and engaging online conversations. I was surprised that this group didn’t come at me with the typical doom and gloom questions — they instead were (for the most part) eager to embrace what was happening in the “real world” and engaged me in a pragmatic discussion over what to do. One of the things that was funny was that many of my answers seemed so basic, yet created so much more thinking. I was particularly struck by a question over how teachers should use social environments … as I answered I heard myself talking about how critical it is for teachers to understand how the environments work. If you are going to use youtube for teaching, understand how related movies are chosen, know when to embed a video instead of using the youtube page, and make sure you can navigate the environment. Talking about facebook felt similar … we stressed how important it is to know how the privacy features work, how to really use the environment, and again, just know how to move around. Not earth shattering ideas, but ones that surprised me how much they resonated.

This was a smart group of K-12 administrators who are striving to do great things for their teachers and the students in their districts. They, in general, were very open to new ways of thinking and wanted me to assure them that the teachers we are producing at PSU are prepared to deliver the kinds of educational experiences that will ultimately make students successful in higher education and beyond. We spent a lot of time talking about how important it is for new teachers to foster feelings of creativity — even in the face of strict state standards and the constraints of the no child left behind initiative. I was a little worried about the emphasis on new teachers and not just teachers, but in general I was heartened to hear it and felt like our schools were in good hands.

I contrast this with the experiences I am having with my daughter’s public school education. I hear very little mention of innovative practice and I am certainly not seeing the ability to be flexible in the delivery of curriculum. I am not pointing fingers at teachers I am just seeing a system that wants so badly to be agile and effective, yet is trapped by red tape and outmoded methods. I don’t see anyone openly discussing learning styles, embracing digital literacy, digital story telling, or portfolio thinking. I mentioned reflective practice to a teacher in my daughter’s school and got a very strange look, as if she were saying, “why do that?” I want so much for my daughter to love school — she is still only in first grade … and I want her curiosity and creativity to be promoted, not stunted. Unfortunately what I see is a path that has been walked on for decades being the only direction, that change in thinking isn’t going to be tolerated, and that a push to the middle is the only option. So, with all the hope and promise of administrative leadership comes the realities of the trenches and I once again realize just how different my environment is than theirs. I am disheartened.

The Intranet — Gee, That’s Exciting

That seems to be the general reaction I get from people when I start talking Intranets. Back in the day we didn’t really think about how we worked to use the web to influence what was going on inside an organization — we were so damn busy just trying to build and launch some sort of externally facing site. I recall our first Intranet at Cogence Media back in 1996 … it was an old Apple FileServer that we discovered we could deep link into via a browser. The funny thing was that we didn’t do this deep linking via web pages, we did it from a bunch of individual Word documents that we kept on the shared space of the file server. I embarrassed to say that I was part of the web team and it just didn’t dawn on us to use real web pages to manage the knowledge of the organization. But when I really step back and think about it, we were doing the best we could with the tools of the day — sort of.

The last couple of years that has all changed though — especially for me. I have become just as interested in the conversations that go on inside an organization as the ones that are directed at customers, readers, audiences, or whatever else you want to call the people you are speaking to on the outside. The emergence of web 2.0, especially in the last year or so has given rise to many new ideas I am banging around in my head related to increasing opportunities for internal dialog. I have started reading more and more about the notion of Enterprise 2.0 (mainly from Andrea McAfee from Harvard) and I have to say it seems to be a perfect blend of my interests in communication technologies, organizations, and people. One of Dr. MacAffe’s posts that I have gotten a ton of mileage out of is a simple profile of one organization’s use of MediaWiki as a very powerful Intranet tools et. In it, he profiles this organization and the way they are using this site as a hub to both changing internal and external communication. To me it is a fascinating, yet simple study in how to get organizations to pay attention to important internal conversations.

One of the things I discovered when coming to ETS 21 months ago is the importance of an online place for sharing organizational information. This stuff takes the form of posts, stories, wiki pages, travel reports, and all the things that make a medium to large sized work-group go. What I found is that without some sort of hub at the center, keeping up on it all is just too difficult. Once we jumped the hurdle of simply providing a platform and the encouragement for people to participate as a part of the organizational story, we have started to think about how to better organize it all.

I have been working with one of my colleague here at ETS to rethink our Intranet space … let me say that I feel our local Intranet (it supports about 100 people within Teaching and Learning with Technology) is successful at helping us all share information in a somewhat organized way. We still struggle with architecture, but we are getting better at it. We are also getting better at bringing content from outside sources in … currently there are dozens of staff who are blogging, tagging links in, and photos in Flickr that are relevant to what we do and we are working on. The goal is to make all that “meta-content” seamlessly integrate with our internal content. It has been fun and an interesting little project. Just today I did a wire frame to share my thoughts on how we could mix the internal with the external to provide access to dynamic and organizationally important content in one location. As it comes to life, I’ll share more of it. Now that people are writing as much as they are around here I am struck with the need to have greater access to it all.

At any rate, the real reason I am posting is a cry for help … I have recently been asked to help with creating a new Intranet strategy for my parent organization here at PSU — Information Technology Services (ITS). ITS at Penn State is a very large and diverse organization that takes residence in no less than a dozen buildings on campus. This creates all sorts of challenges as it relates to sharing information in an efficient and effect manner. We do a good job, but it is high-touch and requires a ton of work. With that said, we are just too big to get together as much as we should and now that many of us are blogging the discoverablility of content is very low. One thing I would love to learn more about from all of you is what type of Intranets are you using within your organizations? How are you leveraging your understanding of information technology, people, communities, and web 2.0 to create new opportunities for computer mediated communication? I’d like to know more and I’d like to find ways to talk with you and explore what you are thinking and how you feel it is impacting the organization. Any takers?

Google Presentations

We’ve all known it would happen sooner or later … well, it happened. This is certainly not new news, but it is a very good development — Google let the cat out of the bag for its forthcoming web-based version of PowerPoint, Google Presentations.

What is exciting is that this is collaboration on the creations side — unlike tools like SlideShare.

They got here by acquiring Tonic Systems and in the linked blog post they welcome to the Google team. I honestly have no idea if this can compete with PowerPoint — I know for a fact it can’t offer the slick look that Apple’s Keynote does. If it works as smoothly as Google Docs we could have a real winner on our hands. The reason to use Google Docs for me is all about collaboration … I know I’ve said it before, but when I have shown faculty, staff, and students Google Docs they instantly get it. It supports the way they work. Students are increasingly asked to work together to solve problems and the idea of pacing Word documents back in forth via email has become not only a pain, but completely outmoded given the state of collaborative technologies.

We’ve already freed those of you working in teams from the burdens of version control and email attachment overload when going back and forth on word processing and spreadsheets. It just made sense to add presentations to the mix; after all, when you create slides, you’re almost always going to share them. Now students, writers, teachers, organizers, and, well, just about everyone who uses a computer can look forward to having real-time, web-based collaboration across even more common business document formats.

If Google Presentations has the same level of collaborative capabilities then we’ve just found another tool that fits the workflow of so many of us — and our students. I spend a lot of time creating presentations … I also spend a lot of time emailing .zip files of these presentations to colleagues so they can reuse them. I also find myself collaborating with other staff a lot in the creation of presentations — and that is where this thing could be big. In addition to students writing together, we are asking them to create and present together more and more.

We aren’t ready to put away Office quite yet — the Google Docs and Spreadsheets tools aren’t at that level yet. I am very anxious to see how this one looks once it is released this Summer. I love tools that can support needs … now if I could just figure out how to feel 100% confident in letting my content sit on Google’s servers. That’s a post for another day.

The Beta Question

I am sure this isn’t news to anyone, but it appears as though much of the web is in a constant state of beta. Think Gmail and its constant little reminder that this isn’t a real service … heck it could go away at any moment. I use it, my wife lives in it, and lots of people at the University forward all of their mail to it. Does anyone care it could disappear? I use Flickr for all my online photo storage and sharing … I do this even though I have a .Mac account that is not a “gamma” product like Flickr. I notice lots and lots of people spending time in there … the list just rolls on — you know, services that we rely on that we just turn the other cheek to the reality of their potential lack of staying power.

In higher education we seem to have some very strict definitions of what a service means … in my higher education administrator’s mind a service is a fully supported tool that has close to five nines reliability. The five nines thing is questionable in reality, but plays well as a goal. I have to tell you that I am now seeing what it takes to support user populations that number in the 100s of thousands I am much more careful of the words I use to describe things. Take the Podcasts at Penn State project … do we have a podcasting service here at the University? Sorta … our iTunes U implementation is in pilot and so are all the supporting pieces to the podcasting stuff going on here. That means there really isn’t any true PSU HelpDesk support, no 24/7 server management, and there certainly aren’t any money back guarantees that it’ll be a five nines environment. But at the end of the day, should that all matter? At the moment, we plaster the word pilot all over the thing, but we have gone from about 35 faculty podcasting last semester to well over a 100 this semester … adoption is happening simply because we have taken the plunge and created an opportunity.

With the growth in the beta mentality of Internet users should we start a new classification of Internet Tools? Maybe instead of talking about our services, we should talk about our emerging opportunities. So as we look to release the first bit of the Blogs at Penn State project we could look at it as just an emerging opportunity for members of our community to engage in. Not a full service. Could we create a new classification of opportunities that aren’t judged by their total up time or a promise that they will always be available — even over the long haul?

Can we create more agility of we work to establish a set of experimental opportunities that our communities can simply engage in while they are available? The good ones with high adoption rates would then get the attention they need to become services … if it works for Google Labs, why can’t it work in an environment where technical resources are spread very thin? I’m not talking about creating environments that would compromise end user security, privacy, or data … the building blocks to manage and protect identity are well established in our enterprise. I am simply asking if we could take a step back from the idea that everything has to scale to our total user base out of the box.

This is me just thinking out loud here … anyone have any thoughts on it all? With a change in mentality could we all offer a greater experience to our users? Or would we be cheating them by not making it all bullet proof? Just a set of questions that have been banging around in my head for a while now … thoughts?

Engaging the Communities

One of the core concepts we have been working towards within ETS at PSU is the idea of creating more opportunities to engage our community. If you have spent any time here over the last year you know our community is huge. We throw around numbers like 100,000 when talking about our statewide faculty, staff, and student numbers. When you are dealing with massive scale and the geographic challenges our campus system creates you need to get creative about how you get people engaged.

Clearly with a staff of 35 or so folks you can reach a lot of people, but not the kinds of numbers we hope to. If you can find a way to move opportunities to the people and get champions working at each College/Department/Campus to spread the word you can radically change the ratio. I’ve written about all this before, but we have started to see some change. This past semester we put into place the Foreign Language Podcasting Studio here at the University Park Campus and we’ve now taken our next step in our quest to widen our network.

This semester ETS has started the Engagement Initiative. It is designed as an evolving set of opportunities to engage faculty, staff, and students in the use of emerging technologies for teaching, learning, and research. One of the first projects to emerge from the program is now going on. The McKeesport Podcasting Engagement Project with Kathleen Brown as the lead faculty has been initiated to help her redesign her journalism course to take advantage of web 2.0 concepts. You’ll be seeing more about her program over at the ETS site, but for now Chris Millet posted some pictures of his trip to McKeesport to setup the first Campus Podcasting Studio. We are all very excited about this and what is tocome.

I am curious how others work to engage their audiences at their campuses and beyond. We are using spaces like the ETS Blog, the Symposium Space, and now these remote Studios to help shift the opportunities we provide our core audiences. What do you all do?