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?