Work-related

the disappearance of the life of IT folks..or not

One of the most common “issues” and topics of discussion among IT professionals in higher ed is our potential obsolescence in the face of the changing student population, the infusion of uncontrolled media, and non-university solutions for connection – IM, Facebook, etc.

There are various articulations of this fear, but the gist is that because of all of these changes, the way we have always done IT will no longer be relevant, and we will lose our jobs.  Or, at the least, that we need to watch for and perhaps even fear these changes.

I am, as I begin this post, attending a keynote regarding the paradigm shift that social media, desktop servers, cloud computing, and other technologies present to (university) IT departments.

Let me rephrase that to work better for me:  the SUPPOSED paradigm shift…

As I often do, I must preface the rest of this post with a bit of a disclaimer.  The keynote is by Sheri Stahler,the Associate Vice President for Computer Services at Temple University.  She is clearly an intelligent person and I’m sure she’s a great VP and manager.  She certainly is a very affable and friendly person – at least she was when we ran into each other in the elevator at the hotel at which this conference is held.  This is not a criticism much less an attack on her in any way.  This is about the points being made.  These perceptions are not uncommon in higher ed (certainly evidenced by some of my fellow attendees that raise their hands to certain queries posed by Ms. Stahler) and that truly and deeply worries me.

Ms. Stahler’s points surrounded a supposed paradigm shift caused by web 2.0, 3.0 (2.0 + federated ID via Facebook Connect, etc), social media, and the changing perspectives of today’s students.  This shift jeopardizes the very jobs of IT staff in higher education.  Our methods are no longer effective, and our jobs are in danger.  This is a gross oversimplification, admittedly.

I had the pleasure of convening and attending a presentation by Dr. John Hoh, the Director of Information Technology Services at the Harrisburg campus of the Pennsylvania State University later this same day.  While it’s awfully difficult to describe the entire session, the gist is that one must look strategically and quite critically at one’s service portfolio, identify what are commodity services that can be outsourced, what are high-maintenance, low-value services that should be handled by only a small set of staff, and what is the “meat” of your overall services.  The stuff that you want to be good at, and that you want others to know about it.  Determining this requires a very forward-looking perspective on matters. As Dr. Hoh said, the goal is to become solution-providers, not break-fixers.

Being a solution provider means that one can identify issues, see trends as they emerge, and move to take advantage of those trends as appropriate.  If one is a solutions provider, then one’s job cannot be, by definition, in danger.  It is the very nature of one that needs to see emerging technologies not just for the dangers they pose to our existing duties but also for the opportunities they present that future-proofs such staff from becoming obsolete.

Even without taking Dr. Hoh’s aggressive, progressive stance, I would argue that we are all in the business of analyzing the eco-system that includes technology and higher education.  In the same way that we must now consider how to deal with the emergence (eruption?) of the tablet device or the commoditization of Help Desk services, IT departments had to previously examine the commoditization of personal computers and the emergence of computers as a part of everyday academic life and develop those very same Help Desk services.

In conclusion, we must look at ourselves as solutions providers, and ones that determine those solutions based on our ability to analyze changing scenarios.  We have never just been IT folks, and we certainly should never be people that focus on how the “way we’ve always done things” is or is not threatened by change.  Our jobs should be to analyze and change with new trends.  While our duties might change, our job does not.

false advertising and hiding the tracks

Usual disclaimer:  IT groups at any university are faced with a tough challenge.  Limited resources, usually not quite enough staff to manage too many enterprise-level type services, and a strong, legitimate desire to do things the right way that gets misread as slow response, lack of concern, and or a number of other negative opinions from constituents.  I don’t like saying this is a “thankless job” because it’s an overused term, but it really can be like that.  I’m sure that the various folks indicated and implicated in this post are doing their best – I know that they are.  And I know that they could probably write posts about me that are similar, too.

Having said that…there have now been 2 instances of what I consider to be false advertising followed by an attempt to hide the tracks leading to those inaccuracies that truly, deeply frustrate me. At the very least, there is a lot of spin going on.  Yes, I know these are strong words. (more…)

management and innovation

A while ago, I posted about how hard it is to be a manager.  It was a kind of introspective, philosophical post rather than an in-depth analysis of management.  I was doing an off-the-cuff look at the conflict between being a manager and a leader.  The two are different, but unless you happen to have an administrative manager and a…leader manager, you often have to be both.  Someone took it rather personally, though.  The specific comment was:

“Since when did managers “lead”? Their job appears to be to punish creativity.”

This was an incredibly harsh reaction to my post, though I think more indicative of the contributor’s experiences than the content of my post, to be honest.  But it does get at a very key thing – if the key responsibility of a manager is to control resources, doesn’t that stifle creativity to some extent?  How much freedom can a manager provide when that person is looking at whether we can afford this, or whether this falls within a certain policy, etc?  Managers tend to look at boundaries – it’s an inherent part of the job.

However, it need not be the ruling philosophy, and I am actually quite opposed to an approach that looks at limits rather than opportunities.  I think that if one looks only at the boundaries and thinks first about policy then there is less rather than more organization, and certainly less creativity.  So I do not at all agree with the comment quoted above – I do think it’s possible to be a manager, and encourage creativity.

I don’t quite formalize things like Google does, where employees are asked to spend a certain amount of time each week thinking of “new ideas,” but I do put the responsibility of thinking of new concepts or new ways of doing things on the staff in my department.  I want to be able to trust them not only to do their jobs, but to approach those jobs with an eye towards thoughtfulness, thoroughness, and creativeness.  So I want everyone to think about what is being done, whether all the bases have been covered (documentation, informing people, etc – yes, this can create more structure than allow creativity), but then to ask “is this the best way?”

Even if it seems to be the only clear method, I encourage staff to then posit “there is another way.  What is it, and is it better?”  I hope that they will come to me with those ideas.  Yes, I will have to think about costs, because we don’t have an unlimited budget.  But I also budget each year for “random things we’ll try because they are cool,” and I hope that staff will take advantage of that.

Management need not stifle creativity.  Management should, in fact, encourage it.  Maybe crossing the line to leadership is another whole ball of beans (messier than just a can of beans, no?), but at the very least a good manager should leave room for creativity.

My biggest fear, by the way, as I write this is that someone that knows me and my management style will read this and immediately think “Allan doesn’t manage like that at all.  He’s a dictator and control-freak, not one that encourages creative thinking.”  I try not to think about that.

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?

edupunking law school

I have been reading a book called DIY U:  Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education on my kindle.  I’m fairly familiar with the overall Edupunk movement, which has primarily focused on moving away from commercial, enterprise level (and therefore expensive) solutions and towards a more DIY, open-source kind of environment.  But this is the first formal book on the topic and quite an interesting read, too.

Several themes are addressed in the book (and they lead to a somewhat scattered approach, IMO, where the book just seems to jump from different educational model to the next, rather than a large scale, overview-type look at the higher education arena).  A key one is that one needs to lower costs.  Edupunk approaches can help do this by “debundling” the various services that are provided by faculty (teaching, testing, and grading) and increasing efficiency per dollar spent.  There are other ideas, too, such as blended learning with a social side, etc.

One of the questions I’ve been posing to myself is how to “edupunk” the law school environment.

Part of me is of the very mindset that the book argues against – that there is something “special” about the expensive, private higher education environment that makes it different and better.  That students that get into such programs – whether undergraduate or graduate – are in a better situation than those that go to less selective, public institutions.  It’s pretty hard for me to admit that, but part of my brain has been sufficiently scrubbed that I do think that.

That part also wonders if law school just needs to be taught a certain way, and that edupunking the system doesn’t get one very far.  The socratic method is connected at the hip to big lecture halls, rather low-tech environments, and just a lot of talking.  It’s not interactive, it’s not blended, and it’s not particularly practical.  It’s all theoretical, at least during the first year.

I’m going to spend the next few posts thinking about how one might change the instruction of law.  I don’t want to go so far that I’d being ABA-accreditation into question.  The book talks about how these is a shackle on the process of innovation, but it’s also a reality.  I don’t think it would be productive to go all the way to “accreditation be damned, as long as the student learns what he or she needs.”  I think there is a middle ground.  And I intend to explore that over the next few days.

if I were president…

For a university, that is, looking to cut costs in a world where we spend more and more each year to meet basic expectations.

Far too long ago, I hypothesized a scenario where a university might choose to outsource strategic decision-making on technology.  Let me clarify exactly what it is to which I am referring – right now, just about every university has a person or group that looks at different trends out there, considers what current needs exist, and try to balance all of that within a general framework of “being innovative.”  I challenge anyone to point to a university that doesn’t want to be innovative and therefore consider my last stipulation a reasonable one.

Provided that there is some semblance of logic to this process, what we’re talking about is strategic decision-making, not just outsourcing in general.  A method through which an over-arching theme emerges that guides when to say yes and when to say no.  When to invest in that $250,000 ERP system that must replace the aging system in place and therefore sacrifice the time-saving management system for staff.  Or how high student productivity ranks on the list of priorities.

Rather than having people in charge of this, why not just outsource it all?  That is the question that I put forth.

If I were a university president, this would be a tantalizing option for cost-savings.  Everything about running a university involves rising costs, but some things just cannot be sacrificed.  If you need top-notch faculty and they collectively lead to a cost of $X, then you must spend $X.  If you decide that a new Welcome Center will help put a pretty face for visitors and you must invest $Y over the next 3 years, then you allocate and spend $Y.  Plain and simple.

Right now, staff salaries are rising faster than most other operations (insert appropriate citation here – I’m pretty sure it’s in DIY EDU somewhere).  And a lot of staff are needed to manage, maintain, install, learn, use, train, and just be around technology.  And deciding how much to spend on what and then implementing those decisions involves a lot of people, too.  Overall, the number of staff that surround the need to be “innovative” technologically is increasing.  So what do we do?

Get rid of all of them, right?

(more…)

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.

sincerely,
allan

*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

the Groupwise to Google experiment (part 3)

As I’ve described in two previous posts on my efforts to use Google rather than Groupwise for work e-mail and calendaring (1 & 2), as a connection point for my Android phone, I have run into a lot of interesting behaviors.  I’ve had challenges and successes.

Right now, I have Groupwise set up to straight forward all incoming e-mail to Google.  I set up a separate google account just for work, and use the web interface to work with my calendar, etc.  I keep things separate from my personal Google account simply by running the work stuff in one browser and my personal stuff in another one.  Different browser apps, different cookies, no conflicts.

Even this basic forwarding has had problems.  I’m still not 100% confident that when an e-mail comes into Groupwise, it is forwarded right away to Google.  Most of my uncertainty can be tied to a power outage about a week ago, which caused a whole lot of problems.  But there was at least one other instance when I just stopped getting e-mail for a few hours.  Then suddenly everything from a 1.5 hour period came at once.  As a result, I set up an IMAP connection to my Groupwise account so that I can double check there.  Kind of defeats the purpose.

As for Companionlink for synchronization, I am now dead set against it as a recommended solution because it is not an enterprise-level product.  I knew that going in, of course, but if someone at the school were to ask what smartphone to get, I’d say “Blackberry” in a second (we have an Enterprise Server on campus).  Also, it has some quirks.  For instance, if I set up a repeating event in Google, only the first one shows up in Groupwise (this happened with another Groupwise calendar-only synchronization software package, too, so it might be a GW thing).  Also, while invitations to meetings do show up in Google, I only get an option to add it to my calendar.  Not to actually respond to it.  I know I tested this before and I had “yes,” “no,” and “maybe” as options, which was nice (maybe allowed me to have it show up as declined but still visible on my calendar).  I can’t figure out why it’s not working.

So I do a all of my meeting proposals in GW.  I often accept meetings there, too.

In the end…it’s a tough call.  I miss a lot of the functionality of the blackberry and might even go back to it as new versions come out.  But right now the benefits of the Android phone (the HTC EVO 4G in this case, but it could be any one) outweigh things overall.  Many of my core apps exist on the Blackberry OS, but are not nearly as easy to use.  For instance, I can view an excel sheet on my large 4.3″ screen and actually see the important information without losing view of every other cell.  Things scale well when I zoom in.  I can’t do that on the smaller Blackberry screens.

Ah.  Technology…

I have instructed my staff to recommend Blackberry units without hesitation.  We have the Android units only so that we can play with alternative smartphones.  We already know how to set up a Blackberry account in about 10 minutes, but this is the first extensive testing with something else.