My Internet. One Course at a Time.

I sit in my spare time these days searching my mind for sites to visit. I hit The Verge, NYT, and maybe a couple of other places that are familiar to me regularly. I still spend more time every morning browsing my RSS feeds via Feedly then I do resolving any random URLs. I only go to facebook once, maybe twice, a day and when I do I am really only interested in my lookback so I can see what I was doing a handful of years ago or to see a forgotten picture of one of my children doing something cute. I could look at my Photos library or Flickr to get the same, but it is an excuse to hit what has become the new AOL of the web for me … facebook.

I recall sitting in the audience at the Berkman@10 event at Harvard many years ago listening to Jonathan Zittran say something really interesting at the time — “the web has no main menu.” That resonated deeply with me as I spent my early years navigating floppy disk and CD-ROM based applications with main menus that delivered a pre-designed collection of content. These fixed text applications then magically morphed into online services like Prodigy and AOL that still placed a main menu on the early Internet. It was pretty amazing though … a keyword could get you to encyclopedia entries, travel information, weather, and even soap opera summaries of the week. It was huge and it was really small. When the Internet really happened, I was struck by the open architecture of the Web and my ability to explore all that this new place had to offer. Discovering new websites that people were building and curating was pretty awe inspiring. It was huge … and it was really small.

Today I feel like I spend more time sitting and thinking about where to go online then I do enjoying the destination. I feel the web has devolved into a main menu driven experience for so many of us, only this time the content behind the choices is being delivered to enhance a revenue opportunity. Facebook is a main menu on the web. It is a filtered gateway that seems to have sucked the joy out of creating new and interesting open content online. We aimlessly share, like, and repost without a whole lot of insight of the origins of the content and certainly without the creative thought to make it interesting outside of a main menu driven space that is hand delivered to us all.

Tonight I was thinking about my days teaching various classes and why I always insist on using a course blog as the hub of the teaching and learning experience. I think I know why based on that reflection tonight — for the duration of the semester I get to create the Internet I love. I get to ask my students to write and reflect upon things that make for joyous online reading. Maybe the Internet hasn’t gotten worse and there is a chance that I have simply moved on from what it has to offer. Perhaps that has everything to do with the idea that when I am part of a learning community I fall in love with the collective intelligence produced by that community in an online space. An online space that we co-own, co-create, and co-engage in. I think I still like the Internet, I just think I have gotten spoiled by the Internet we create when we are part of a community. Facebook is no longer a community in that sense to me. We aren’t co-creators as much as we a co-consumers of their corporate interests. The Internet I love is the product of a community, not a corporation with a “designed in a lab” main menu that guides me to selections.

I like our Internet. We just need more of it.

Can We Return to Blogging?

I was early to the blogging revolution. I was inspired by the dawn of Web 2.0 in the early 2000’s that empowered people to write and create in their own spaces. I’ve done the rounds — blogger.com, typepad, wordpress, drupal. I’ve explored, mastered, and published in all of them. I’ve launched enterprise blogging platforms at three different Universities that allowed and encouraged the open publishing of content by all members of those communities. I see blogs as personal content management systems, portfolios, connecting points as nodes on a global network, and as personal time machines.

I was also a very early adopter and promoter of social media tools. I sat in a conference room in a San Fransisco start up office called Odeo while one of its founders told me, as I was trying to negotiate a deal with Penn State, that they were pivoting away from podcasting to focus on the side project that would become twitter. I invited the first class of students at Penn State to join Facebook. I was all in on social media … all the while I remained enamored by the power of blogs.

I loved that blogs were personal and that people were using them to build strong communities … I would routinely write a post in the morning only to be engaged in long comment threads with people I cared about (but didn’t actually know in real life) all day long. It was authentic and it was powerful. Then the community, along with me, moved. People moved to Facebook and the length of posts and the associated attention spans dwindled until it was difficult to measure with meaning. I still wrote posts, but with less frequency. My community of bloggers still existed, but I had less time for their long form writing and I backed away from the blogosphere. I think I made a big mistake. Some of my friends were right, “likes” don’t really matter.

It isn’t just me noticing this. Our adopted communities, contained in social networks, have been exposed as a breeding ground for bots, fake accounts, and pushers of false information. “Social” has succeeded in demolishing the original promise of Web 2.0. I always said, “communities self correct” when questioned about the read/write web. Well, here we are and we need to self correct. We need to find a new path forward and I am committed to returning to the open web as a way to do my part. I think it is time for something new. Something that isn’t “free” in the way we have come to expect from Facebook. I think we need to all reinvest in journalism. I think we all need to reinvest in creating content that is published in our domains. I think it is time RSS is the glue that binds the Internet. I think it is time to reclaim our identity. I’d like to think we can do that.

I read a great piece at the Washington Post today about the death of the Mommy blog community. It made me think back to the amazing days of when we were all writing under domains we decided upon. We were writing the content that helped each of our communities. My wife’s community was the Mommy blogosphere, mine was educational technology. Both of us created deep connections and very real friendships. I read it today via a link on Facebook that my wife shared and the comments on her post were filled with names I recall her talking about daily. It was pretty awesome, but I wanted to so badly to go and visit those blogs and comment there. We need to figure this out, or the Internet and its promise will be further diminished. This quote pretty much sums it up for me …

The death of the mom blog has something to do with shifts in how people consume and create on the Internet. Blogging on the whole has fizzled as audiences and writers have moved to other platforms.

Those “other platforms” are ready for their swan song. They’ve done enough damage and they have no real reason to fix it. Their shareholders aren’t interested in them doing so. The greatness of the social movements spanned by twitter years ago have been overwritten. It might be time to just write a couple of blog posts.

Over 90 percent of Gmail users still don’t use two-factor authentication

I came across this one from The Verge this morning …

A Google engineer revealed that more than 90 percent of active Gmail accounts don’t use two-factor authentication (2FA), reports The Register. Given the low uptake, The Register asked Google software engineer Grzegorz Milka why 2FA isn’t mandatory for all Gmail accounts. Milka chalks it up to usability, adding that, “It’s about how many people would we drive out if we force them to use additional security.” The statistic was shared during a presentation at Usenix’s Enigma 2018 security conference in California.

2FA will be a major push at the University for the rest of this calendar year. I would urge everyone at UChicago to enroll in 2FA. It is easy and is simply the best way to protect your institutional credentials.

I Really Wanted a HomePod for Christmas

The device I really was looking forward to getting for Christmas was a new Apple HomePod smart speaker. I wanted it even though we have already invested in the Amazon Echo line of smart speakers. When I say that we have invested in the Echo smart speakers, what I really mean is that we’ve spent money on few devices that let us do things like turn on lights, set timers, and play music out of an annoyingly poor sounding speaker. We really bought them to do stuff and they introduced us to the whole idea of just saying the name of a song or artist and getting instant gratification, even if the sound was inferior to what we have historically been accustomed to. I wanted the HomePod because it could do the smart home stuff, but is targeted as a “real” speaker and I have been missing real speakers since we moved to Chicago two and half years ago.

We’ve always had great speakers in our homes because we value listening to music. With the new place, there just hasn’t been a place, or frankly a desire, to put out real speakers connected to a real stereo. The Echo completely reinforced the idea for my wife and I that we did not want the complexity of a physical stereo system in the main part of our home. I also was not interested in spending tons of money on hiding systems in closets, getting in-wall speakers, and managing it all with multi-room gear. That just feels so last generation, especially now that I can simply say, “Alexa, play some Nora Jones” and it just happens. The problem is with the Echo it sounds less than satisfying when it magically starts playing.

Enter the HomePod. Apple promised it by Christmas and I had visions of pairing two to make a stereo front stage in the family room … yes, at $350 per speaker I wasn’t looking forward to the cost, but I’ve paid more for speakers in the past. I was ready to go and then they delayed it until sometime in early 2018.

I have been toying with the idea of entering into the world of Sonos for years. Ever since a great friend of ours showed it to me years ago in State College I was really intrigued, but I never pulled the trigger. It seemed limiting having to control it from your phone and the streaming services weren’t quite there, so I watched from the sideline. When Sonos and Amazon announced that there was a growing number of integrations between the Echo and what could be played via voice control I started to really do my research. At the end of the day, I dropped $300 on two Songs Play 1 speakers so they are paired as a stereo set and I couldn’t be happier. I have an Echo Dot in the family room that can voice control playback on the Sonos speakers and they sound very good. I compared them across the line and found the Play 1 to be better suited to what we needed (and was easier on the wallet) than getting the larger Play models.

The reality is that while Amazon is now one of the largest installed base of speaker manufacturers in the World, their speakers sort of stink at being speakers. Apple had a great opportunity to steal some thunder from Amazon this Holiday season and they let that opportunity slip by while Amazon sold tens of millions of Echos of all flavors (especially the Dot). Now that Sonos has integrated Echo into its new, One speaker, there is a very high quality smart speaker on the market from an audio company. Have I mentioned that Google has a couple of nice products as well? I am upset I couldn’t get what I really wanted for Christmas, but I am very happy with my Sonos setup. It leaves me wondering if there will be a chance for Apple to catch up in this space? I will be hard pressed to go back and buy a HomePod now, but I have learned over the last few years to not bet against Apple. Right now I am more likely to expand my Sonos collection than spend on the HomePod. Time will tell and your milage may vary when it comes to Sonos, Echo, Google, and eventually the HomePod … it is an interesting space to be watching at the moment and it sounds like it is just getting started.

ITS Strong

I’ve been at UChicgao for long enough now to really know about our organization. I often tell people one of the perks of being in the CIO chair is the opportunity to learn the organization in a very complete way. Having to help the leaders across ITS solve problems has made me learn the complete functioning of the team and it has given me a very good idea of who we are as an organization. I’m sure most of us can talk about what our make-up is — we know we are 265 or so people who work together. But I wonder if we actually know and understand that we are also much stronger together?

Yesterday I was at a session at the EDUCAUSE Connect Chicago event where the presenter was talking about how he had implemented a skill inventory for his organization. What was interesting to me is that he went further and added the idea of an “internet inventory” so people could indicate how interested they were in various skills. It produced some interesting results and lots of good follow up conversation. When I asked how big his group was he told me it was under 25, so naturally my next questions was how does it scale to something like ITS’s size?

I asked that not to make sure he knew our organization is bigger than his, it is because one of the things I see everyday in ITS is that we so often don’t take advantage of the intellectual strength we have as a collective. What I mean is that I see parts of our organization struggle deeply with solving a problem or delivering a creative solution because they think they are going it alone and they don’t know there are people in other parts of ITS who have the answers to their own questions. We have to stop that and learn about our collective strength, not just our individual skills. We need to lean on that.

Related to the skill and interest assessment question is that in an organization the size of ITS I do not believe members of our team really know about other parts of the org. For example, I could easily see someone rate themselves very highly as a developer, but have little interest in applying it in the context they are currently in and getting down and frustrated not knowing they can apply that same skill in a totally different part of the organization. You need to take the time to know what we do from one side of the house to the other and understand that there are novel contexts to do your work. If you don’t know what someone in ASTS does, take a minute and find out. One, you may realize you want to do work in an area that focuses on something different. And, two, you might find the person who will help solve that next problem you are going to encounter.

I feel like ITS is at its strongest when we learn enough about each other that we are willing to lean in together. And leaning in together often means leaning on someone to get to where we need to be.

Being a Customer Service Company

I drive. A lot. I commute in the wonderful Chicago traffic five days a week, twice a day, covering about 45 total miles. Depending on the time of day I can make it in to work in 40 minutes if I am lucky, but it is closer to an hour going home if I leave at a respectable time. That has proven to be the single biggest change for me personally in making the move to UChicago. What it really means is that I have to fill up that time with some degree of productive activity.

On many days I schedule phone calls that let me extend the day while in the car, but other times I listen to podcasts.I have a ton of subscriptions that I listen to using Overcast on my iPhone. Quite a few are by Gimlet Media. They exploded onto the scene with a very unique show called, “Startup” that originally chronicled the creation of the company itself. Since then they’ve released a ton of exceptional shows that get me through the week.

my podcasts

But, there is one podcast that I love to listen to as soon as a new episode is available, “How I Built This” from NPR. It is a radio-style show where it is a well produced interview with founders of companies about how they built their companies. There are excellent ones about Airbnb, Instagram, Samuel Adams, and more. But the best one I have listened to was this morning with the founder of Zappos, Tony Hsieh. I am not going to describe it as it is an absolute must listen, so please do that … I stopped short of sending out a mandate to listen as it is that good.

It resonated with me for so many reasons, but the thing I took from it that I want us to own is when Tony says something to the effect of, “Zappos isn’t a shoe company, it is a customer service company. We want to be known as not selling shoes, but selling great customer service.” Right there it is for what we’ve been talking about — us all owning great customer service. Yes, we are an operations organization, but we are also a customer service organization. I think if you put those two things next to each on a balanced score card, I believe being a customer service company comes first.

Customer Service Mentality

Just prior to the end of the year, I wrote an email to share some thoughts with you regarding customer service and its primary role in our work. I want to follow up with more on that message and also to provide information on an executive director search and additional changes and next steps.

I began the note sent at the end of November with the following:

Service to and for our customers—whether faculty, students, staff, alumni, or any guest of the University or member of the broader community—is paramount. It is, in my estimation, the single most important focus underlying all of our work.

It has been encouraging to receive replies and feedback indicating this message resonates with many of you. Emphasizing customer service and reinforcing a “customer first” organizational mindset isn’t something that is good simply to say, I believe it is the right thing to do and also something we must do.

We must make it easier, not harder, for our customers to connect with technology; leverage technology to advance their work and their research and academic pursuits; and feel especially positive — delighted — about their experiences using technology and in working with those of us in IT who support that technology.

To move us toward achieving this goal, a customer service review was conducted at the beginning of December. A small team of higher education colleagues came to campus to assess IT Services’ customer service organization and overall approach to customer service. The team provided recommendations regarding the ways in which we can better support and serve our customers.

Figuring out what is next.

Some of us have started to work through the recommendations from the customer service review. In the coming weeks we will begin discussing the recommendations more fully with the ITS Senior Leadership Group (SLG) and the staff in our Solutions and Service Management (SSM) organization, as well as with others throughout ITS.

To summarize just a couple of the recommendations broadly applicable across ITS:

  • All areas of ITS and all ITS staff need to own “great customer service,” not only the SSM organization.
  • Service owners throughout ITS need to have documented service level agreements and must strive to always meet those agreements.

One highlight of the customer service review focused on the TechBar, which was viewed as a center of excellent customer service within ITS. Because there is a natural connection between the work of TechBar and the SSM organization — and to better leverage the best aspects of TechBar throughout the SSM organization — TechBar will be moved out of Academic and Scholarly Technology Services and returned to SSM. While this realignment won’t immediately change the operations of the TechBar, it will provide more opportunities for future expansion and diffusion of the TechBar model.

Within the next two weeks, a national search will begin for a new executive director for Solutions and Service Management. This executive director will report to me and directly oversee the customer service organization within ITS, as well as lead efforts to transform the overall customer service approach across ITS.

Until the new executive director for SSM is hired, we will continue to work with our existing team to provide leadership for SSM. Staff are being asked to identify and, where appropriate, execute on any opportunities to immediately begin to improve our customer service approach.

A few other customer service-focused efforts currently in flight include:

  • A series of Lynda.com courses on customer service are being reviewed and will be added to playlists made available to all ITS staff. Once available, I will ask you to complete those courses as part of our collective professional development and consider how you can incorporate the lessons into your work.
  • By the end of January, a plan will be drafted to establish a roadmap that will evolve the service desk, housed within SSM, to be able to provide tier one support for the services offered by ITS.
  • In February, Apple has invited me to bring a small group of UChicago staff members to attend a special training opportunity at their Michigan Avenue store. There, representatives from Apple will walk us through their approach to customer service and discuss ways we can improve our approach.

As I reiterated in my November note and as I’ve said many times before, our aim is and should always be to delight our customers. We have a good start, a great team, and the beginnings of a plan to be even better.

Please do not to hesitate to reach out to me with any questions or feedback. As always, I appreciate your engagement on these important topics.

3 Things you can do with UChicago Voices today

What I really like about a blogging system is that it is truly a platform for digital expression. What I mean by “platform” in this context is that it allows you an easy to use environment to publish digital content. UChicago Voices is built on WordPress, a blogging system, but I like to think of it as a publishing engine. With that in mind, what are a few things you can use it for today? If I were a student getting set to wrap up the academic year, here are three things I would consider launching with Voices before it is time to head home for the Summer.


Start a Blog

This sounds like a no brainier, but giving yourself a place to write during the Summer months is a long term gift. Not only can you cultivate a habit of ongoing reflective writing, you will be building a living and searchable repository of your Summer experiences. A space that you can share in the moment that belongs to you, not trapped in FaceBook, Tumblr, Snapchat, or somebody else’s space is a really powerful thing. A blog space is personal to you and you control what you write, share, comment on, and everything in between. A blog is a great place to capture the things you are doing outside of the traditional academic experience. If you are reading a great book, have seen a great film, or taken a road trip try and put into pictures and words how that experience impacted you. The evidence you build of your experiences will provide an interesting backdrop to the months spent away from UChicago.

Build a Photo Journal

Many of the pictures we take end up in other places online — Flickr and Facebook for example — and never end up in a place that we ultimately control. Voices is a great place to take, share, and manage your collection of Summer experiences. Again, the gift of doing this in a platform like Voices is that these photos are in your space, not in the hands of a corporation. The other benefits are much like the notions inherent in starting a blog. You will be actively challenged to not only take great photos, but to share the ones that matter to you and the audience that you will ultimately create. Taking the time to care about which photos get shared is a different experience than simply shooting selfies and sharing into Snapchat.


Create a Digital Notebook

I’ve used blogging platforms for years as a “personal content management system,” especially to create and organize notes. To make it easy to use for keeping your course notes together, create a private blog and set up categories for each class you are taking. Each note gets a category related to the course you are taking. There are some really positive affordances in using a blog as a digital notebook — search is a breeze, all your notes are stored (and managed) in the cloud, you can easily mix media by adding photos and video to your otherwise text notes, and by using categories for your classes, you can quickly and easily filter course specific notes. I have seen this done across an entire academic career and having access to 4 years of notes in one digital place is quite impressive.

So there are three quick thoughts on things you can do with Voices this Summer. I hope some of that is helpful.