Musings, Rants, and Random Thoughts


A superhero touched down at the Educause Annual Conference last week in Anaheim.  Experiences were changed, Twitter was twisted, and everyone was asking…

“Who is Educause_Hulk????’

At this year’s Educause Annual Conference, held last week in Anaheim, I got to witness something that, realistically, doesn’t happen all that often anymore.  I got to see an existing social networking tool get twisted and used in a new way.  I got to witness the impact of Twitter, twisted.

It is true that a great many tools – social networking and media ones in particular – are used in new, creative ways every day.  Discovering new ways to use a tool such as Twitter is so common that calling it “reinvention” is almost inappropriate.  It’s almost commonplace.  So this isn’t new in the big sense, but within the particular context of the conference and how Twitter has been used therein, something quite remarkable happened.

Twitter has been used at conferences for quite some time, as both a great way to set up social activities (“hey!  I’m here, who wants to get some food?” or “Let’s have a tweet-up!”) and to share information (“in a great session about topic X where such and such is said”).  Of course, the use of a hash tag is required to organize all of this data, and an easy-to-read interface like that of Tweetdeck makes for a very powerful tool for communication.  If you take a look at the Educause 2010 stream, you see it is littered with all kinds of posts.  I think the first time Twitter was used so heavily at an Educause event was about 3 years ago at ELI, and it has just blossomed (exploded?) since then.

This past conference, however, saw a new twist.  An attendee created an “alter ego” – EDUCAUSE_HULK – and posted on a semi-regular basis as that persona throughout the conference.  This had a huge impact, at least for me, on the overall experience, and it raised a number of questions for the person behind the Hulk, too.


edupunking law school, part 1

After a long hiatus from this blog, during which I was basically swamped at work, I return to the idea of how to redefine or perhaps restructure law school to make better use of its faculty, give more to the student, and get away from the traditional models of revenue and federal aid reliance.  I seek to “edupunk” law school.

I don’t have all of the “tenets” of the edupunk and edupreneur movement in front of me, but some really stick.  One key aspect is that, since salaries make up a huge portion of a school’s costs, it is critical to make the most of every dollar.  Especially with faculty that one must lure away from other schools, the amount of time each professor spends actually imparting wisdom unto students is the major metric.  Especially for law schools, where salary (rather than tenure and job security) is often the number one reason that a lawyer would leave a lucrative position at a firm in order to teach, maximizing the contact between student and professor is important.

One means of achieving this is to bring in more adjunct faculty to do the “dirty work” for the professor.  Creating exams, grading, even evaluating written assignments could conceivably all be done by lecturers or other faculty that are not on the track to tenure.  Of course, this requires that the adjuncts work very closely with the professor so that the grading and exam methodology be in sync with the course materials and the professor’s style of teaching.  Now the tenured faculty can spend their time in front of and with students and, hopefully, engaging others about how to change the way law is taught in an environment of continual creativity and improvement.

However, the Edupunk model falls shortl because even the adjunct faculty are often a significant financial load on a law school, much more so than that of the lecturer that runs between jobs in different fields at four separate colleges in an attempt to bring in one decent salary.  Also, many adjunct are practicing lawyers and even sitting judges.  These are not secondary members of the faculty that do supporting educational work for the school.  These adjunct often teach courses that are popular electives with student, and they need to be in front of students just as much as the tenure-track faculty.

The question therefore, is whether there is a role for non-tenure-track faculty at a law school that are valuable both in teaching their own courses as well as being part of supporting the overall work of a tenured faculty that is presumably one of “the” reasons for attending that school.

So…this trend doesn’t work for law schools.  This method of saving costs wouldn’t work for a law school.

Hopefully more success in the next attempt.

a funny thing

Something a bit odd happened earlier today.   An e-mail had gone out to various senior members of the law school that came from one of the school staff but looked a bit fishy.  Had some elements of unsolicited spam in it – “Have you heard the latest on..” and “the biggest scam you’ll find is…”  Stuff like that.

I immediately informed several people that this person was indeed someone from the school, and that I’d look into whether there was anything wrong with her computer or perhaps if someone else had been infected with a virus and was spoofing her e-mail address.  I was going to get to the bottom of this, I was going to set things right, and I was going to prevent bad things from happening to my colleagues.  I was going to be the Assistant Dean of Awesomeness.

When I called up the person and asked if she had sent the e-mail on purpose, she explained that she did indeed send it, and that it was on behalf of one of the faculty she supports.

Me (somewhat deflated but still wanting to be helpful):  “Oh, okay, well just wanted to check because some folks thought it might have been spam or you had a virus.”

Her (non-chalantly):  “Okay, my computer is fine.”

That’s it.  Simple.  Seemed like a done deal.  I summarized my findings to the senior staff who had first inquired and thought things were done.  Wasn’t exactly the most exciting thing but at least I figured things out.

Then…the person sent the message again, with the little added “sent on behalf of Professor X,” which is how it usually is handled.  I’m not on the list myself, so I didn’t know she had resent it.  I also don’t see until later, when I am once again included in the conversation, that she has been mildly lauded for having corrected herself and that it was good of her to clarify her intent in sending the original e-mail.

So, because I had chosen to call her, because I had let her know that she had committed a bit of a faux pas, she corrected herself, and avoided a bad impression on the school, and in fact possibly made a good impression on some.  Yet no word to me, and maybe even not much acknowledgement.

I don’t know where I’m going with this but sometimes this kind of stuff rubs me the wrong way.  Is it too much to ask for a “thanks” or to acknowledge that someone helped you out of a situation?

i can’t be the only smart one here…

quite an ostentatious title, I know.  But if you will humor me…

Twice in the last 5 business days, I have discovered problems of which Central IT was not aware.

Last week, I passed along information that several law school staff and faculty received almost no e-mail over the weekend and that most had almost everything getting caught in the university’s spam filter.  I was asked to test this, try that, change this setting…all along reminding IT that this was affecting multiple users and that changing one setting for one user was not a high-probability trouble-shooting path.  Turns out that it was indeed a university-wide problem, and the notice went up on the IT web page about an hour later.

Today, one of our network printers was not working for some of our staff.  We use a central printing system where everything goes from our computers to a print spooler then back out the network to the actual printer.  So I start checking things, crawling around on the floor.  Network connection – good.  IP address – good.  Power – good.  Let’s go check the server online…whoops.  Page won’t load.  Call up IT.  Am told that “sometimes the page just loads slowly but that doesn’t really mean anything” and that they’ll “look into it.”

Turns out that one of the two print managers/spoolers had crashed.  Reboot of server, no problem.

The people here at SCU are good, and many are great.  Everyone seems to want to find solutions.  But sometimes it’s like the dots just don’t connect.  Or, when they do, it’s like point A can ONLY go to point B.  And when standing at point A, there is no point C.  Point C does not exist.  It is like Area 51 or something.

I can tell you this – I want to work with IT at SCU.  I want my department to collaborate with them, to take advantage of rather than ignore the intersections that we have.  But if we have to go to this much trouble even for things this minor, if we have to deal with these inefficiencies despite the good intentions of our colleagues, how much hope do we really have for taking our operations and programs to the next level?

outsourcing ourselves

here’s a thought:  why not outsource IT strategy?

I’m not talking about IT infrastructure or tools.  I don’t mean using Amazon EC2 for computing power or S3 for storage, much less Google Apps for Education.  I’m not talking about outsourcing specific services.

I mean outsourcing the actual decision-making process that drives our services and overall strategy.  I am talking about outsourcing IT and Academic Computing leadership.  In my case, I am talking about outsourcing myself.

What’s to stop a university from hiring a consulting firm to watch for technology trends, identify threats and opportunities (SWOT, anyone?), and make recommendations on what should be done.  The university then picks things that it can afford and that fit together (again, by recommendation from the consultants), and just does them using the appropriate resources.

Perhaps the IT department still has system administrators, and perhaps outsourcing leadership has nothing to do with outsourcing services.  Maybe the consultants recommend keeping e-mail in house due to an analysis of how the school’s General Counsel likes to interpret “exposure” (trying not to use FERPA as a shield here – it’s about exposure due to regulations such as FERPA.  Not FERPA unto itself).  So using consultants to identify trends and basically make strategic decisions doesn’t mean outsourcing everything.

But it could mean the elimination of the very type of job I have.  My next post, which I hope to have together in the next day or so, will follow through on how this might look to a university president.  Then we have to ask ourselves about how we can add enough value that no one ever actually does what I suggest in this post…

dear university…

Dear University General Counsel,*

I write to ask you to help foster an environment of creativity, innovation, and to engage us in how to push the envelope, rather than present to us the dimensions of said container and the strength of the glue that keeps contents within.

I ask that you consider how important innovation is to the process of learning and teaching.  That it is a powerful skill and force within an organization that benefits all.

I ask you to see the thread that ties innovation and experimentation with effective execution and meaningful results.  Thinking outside of the box doesn’t have to mean that we’re just coming up with crazy ideas.  We can think outside of the box and come up with solutions that will immediately impact everything that faculty, students and staff touch and use.

I ask that you help create an environment where we seek not to copy someone else’s RFP on “some-technology-someone-else-is-already-doing-exactly-the-way-we-are-thinking-of-doing” but instead to be the ones that write the very first such request for proposal.  Let us live in a place where we set the trend

I challenge you to fling wide the gates labeled FERPA and PRIVACY.  I urge you to knock – nay, tear – down those gates and turn them into paths.  Wide paths upon which we can walk and find our way to new solutions while staying within the right boundaries.

I challenge you to always ask us what we want to do next, rather than to tell us what we cannot do today.

I challenge you to stand with us as we forge into new territory, rather than be in the shadows, waiting to be called upon.

I ask that you let us – upper management, CTOs and CIOs – surround ourselves with the best and brightest.  I challenge you to let us let them run wild.

I challenge you to let us run wild with them.


*this is not directed at any specific university, much less my own.  This is a general comment on the need to unshackle many of those that are trying to innovate in technology & higher ed but are held back by legal concerns.  I think that should be obvious by the time you’ve read

deeply misunderstood…or stuck in a professional rut

I read through a post by a friend who has been struck by the changes between working at a start-up and now in academia.  I, in turn, have been thinking a lot about whether I’ve been painting myself into a professional corner.  Making myself irrelevant to the rest of the working world…

About 4 or 5 years ago, I applied for a job “in corporate” – aka a for-profit company.  Here in Silicon Valley, and quite a prominent company.  The job requirements were pretty straightforward.  It was for product management, and they had both an entry-level and a lead position open.  I needed to have 5 years experience managing projects from start to finish for the entry-level position, but at least 5 for the team lead job.  To be honest, I was pushing it a bit on the lead job, but as far as my resume sounded, I met the requirements.  When I finished my interview, I inquired about whether I could put my name in for the team lead job.

“Well, you don’t meet the job requirements for that position.  You need to have at least 5 years experience.”

“I have been managing teams and projects for the last 5 years, as you can see from my resume.”

“Yes, but that’s in higher education.  That would be more like 2-3 years if you were in corporate.”

This struck me as a bit odd, since I was not aware of some kind of fractional multiplier when converting from “higher education experience” and “corporate experience.”  But at least at this company, there seemed to be something of the kind.

Ever since then, I have been wondering if, as I move along on my career path in academia, I’m boxing myself in, professionally.  That I’ll reduce my chances of ever working in corporate with each passing year in some weird way.

It’s not that I’m trying to change careers.  And it’s not that there aren’t any jobs out there for higher education professionals.  Many companies (admittedly larger ones) have higher education vertical units, where entire groups focus on products being used in academia and/or strategic planning for the market.  But it still lingers in the back of my mind that as I make progress one way, I may be making myself less and less relevant other ways.

the limits of outsourcing

In my last post, about approaching outsourcing in higher education from a strategic view that goes beyond simple cost savings or privacy concerns, I talked about how outsourcing should either lower costs, increase value, or do both in order to help an organization develop and maintain a competitive advantage.

Defining competitive advantage in higher education or specifically IT therein is not easy.  It’s more than simply how a university or college does in rankings or how well it attracts students.  It might be measurable in terms of how it does compared to its direct competitors – how many times a student that applies to both schools chooses a particular one is somewhat indicative of a competitive advantage.

But let’s just presume that there are a great many factors that lead to something akin to an advantage that is useful when in competition for the best and brightest students with other schools.  The quantity of factors makes it all the harder to quantify the benefit of specific strategic planning decisions, but overall there is at least room for reasonable conjecture.

So the question remains – what should be outsourced?  What activities do technology departments in higher education engage in that are not directly beneficial in terms of competitive advantage?  What activities could be best outsourced such that cost goes down, value goes up, or both, leading to more students choosing one school over another?


next in higher ed: outsourcing as strategy

A hot topic for some time now in Higher Education is outsourcing.  Generally, this has taken the form of using Google for e-mail.  In fact, other than a handful that use Microsoft’s live@edu for e-mail…I can’t think of anyone else doing anything through outsourcing.  No storage, no running of Exchange in the cloud, etc.

Having said that, this is a really heated and controversial topic for a number of reasons.  There is the legal one – FERPA states, essentially, that an educational institution cannot provide student information to an outside organization.  Whether having Google host your e-mail, which is relatively secure behind encryption, etc, is violating FERPA has often been based on interpretation by General Counsel.  Second, I am convinced that there is a strong belief that university data should stay on university servers.  Even more than what most companies feel at an emotional, possessive and perhaps maternalistic level, universities have this suspicion about letting data go.  Academia is free and intellectually unbound and independent – to host data at Google is like selling one’s soul.

Personally, I’m interested in taking this a step further.  Let’s talk about outsourcing as a strategy.  Right now, universities that have gone to Google have done so out of cost savings.  No storage servers, fewer admins, etc, and you save money in providing e-mail to faculty, staff, and students.  This is often the end of the discussion.

But if one were to take the emotional aspect out of things, and presume (fiat power!) that the school’s interpretation of FERPA allows for off-campus storage of student data, then one can start applying more strategy-based approaches to outsourcing. (more…)

managing by exceptions == anarchy

Recently, it seems like all I ever hear is how, because there is such great certainty that students or other customers will just break the rules anyway, we should plan for the exceptions, rather than modify and/or enforce actual policy.

For instance, since we know that students routinely share account information with each other, we should not trust our academic integrity policies that specifically forbid such behavior.

Or, even though “covered” data – a document or set of documents that would jeopardize one’s electronic identity, such as Social Security Numbers, addresses, etc – is not allowed to be kept anywhere for an extended period of time, since we know that some will violate this anyway, we should limit resources rather than pursue new initiatives.  We should essentially box everyone in through limitations on functionality in order to prevent those that break the rules from doing so.

Managing for exceptions rather than believing in and enforcing rules is simply a recipe for anarchy.  If we cannot believe in the sanctity of our regulations and policies, then why do we bother having them at all?  Yes, we need to make sure that penalties are levied when people violate those policies.  But when I bring that up, people often just say “but they don’t mind the penalties anyway.”  Then increase the fine!  Put people on probation!  Revoke access to needed resources!  Make the penalty hurt.  Don’t just stop innovating, stop improving others’ jobs, and lose faith in the policies themselves.

Let’s put this simply:  if we did not believe that people would follow our system’s laws, then why bother having laws?  And how do we make sure that people obey laws?  By penalizing the heck out of violators such that only a very small subset would dare take on such punishment.  Major crime?  Years and years in prison.  Park in a handicap spot?  Really big monetary fine.  Whether it’s time in jail or money out of pocket, make it so that people follow the law.  Only then will we have faith in the law, and only then do we avoid anarchy.

When it comes to provision of services, if we operate under the presumption that people will just ignore policy, then we are just making excuses not to provide new solutions.  And in some cases, to purposely limit options so that people will have fewer opportunities to violate protocol.

And the last thing we should do, in academia and in academic technology, is to focus on how to prevent people from improving their ability to get work done.