New Day, New Domain

Dear followers,

I have moved my site out of UMW Blogs and into my new domain. You can follow me now at:

See you there!

Academic Research Publishing: People Get Ready

I’ve been thinkin’ about it, readin’ about it, and talkin’ about it for a while, as has Rosemary Arnesen, our esteemed and visionary Director of UMW Libraries. In the wake of launching our faculty aggregation interface, we are looking to expand faculty metadata to include their research publications. This is a technical challenge within the current paradigm of commercial journal publishing, but not insurmountable.

There is no one “feed” or aggregation of the multiplicity of journals to which one could type a faculty member’s name and get all of their publications. Current library subscriptions, and their online feeds, are all independent. Proprietary systems and faculty names, spellings, are not predictable across these  systems. This necessitates what is referred to as a mediated or curated data layer: Faculty self-reporting of publications with links to their online versions.

As our librarian posited, some type of feed from our FAAR reports may serve nicely to begin to capture publications as they are reported on by faculty without adding yet ANOTHER interface that faculty need to enter to aggregate their data. As long as a feed exists, we can capture it in the faculty aggregation layer, and I am very excited to work towards this during the coming year.

The current academic research publishing environment is shifting under our feet, and it’s all to the better. I say this while being married to a neuroscientist who was published earlier this year in the Journal Nature, with all the prestige that comes with it. I am painfully (read PAINfully) aware of what it means to his career to have such a feather in his cap, and what he needed to do to get this done.

But I despair at a model where the blood, sweat, and tears of a person as earnest as my husband, and as our UMW faculty, is bought and sold in order to be legitimized by a commercial brand’s imprimatur. This is not the same conversation as “Wikipedia will solve everything” and I’m not talking about doing away with peer review — I’m talking about academics and their peers really owning the content and the conversation, not giving it all away to large publishing houses.

Conversations about open journals are happening more and more, and places like UMW are well-positioned for this conversation. On the library front, SUNY just cancelled its exorbitantly expensive subscription to the ACS journal archive in favor of aggregating from other less expensive sources. The costliness of access to commercial journals to resource-strapped libraries cannot be overstated. Open access journals are growing in number, and, should the quality of research therein meet consistent standards and rigor, these journals will pick up steam in terms of legitimacy, just as the commercial journals have.

I would love to see UMW, with its forward-thinking approach to online publishing, consider our own in-house peer-reviewed, open, online journal. We have the Aubade literary magazine and we should begin to consider aggregation and tagging there. “Metamorphosis” is a COPLAC journal of outstanding student research work, but why doesn’t UMW create its own flagship student research online journal as a virtual (and longer-term, cumulative) partner to the Student Research Creativity Day? As part of our digital initiatives, we have talked about an online repository. I believe this notion of a journal needs to be part and parcel of this conversation. Let’s not just deposit our work, let’s bring it to life with peer review, online commentary, student citations, the works.

I guess, all this is to say, isn’t the university itself, writ large, not a legitimizer of scholarly research in its own right?

(Still, it was WAY cool that my husband was the first neuroscientist at UVa to get published in the Journal Nature — part of me may always be old school). Notwithstanding, Curtiss Mayfield has something to say to you:


What’s Wrong with our Home Page

I am going to go out on a limb and speak to something that gnaws at me regularly. You know, that kind of staying up at night wondering about the conversation you COULD have had if you had the presence of mind, or the courage, to have had it. Believe it or not (for those who have worked with me and know how obnoxiously outspoken I can be), I do hold back my opinions a lot for many reasons, mostly related to job security 🙂 But things gnaw at me sometimes nonetheless, and I’ve reached a point of feeling like I’m doing a disservice to UMW without raising an issue. So, consider this issue raised.

Steve Greenlaw (one of our more outstanding faculty members, in case you didn’t know) sent me a link yesterday to a story about the new home page for Ozarks Technical Community College (screenshot below):

This hearkened back to a conversation I had with DTLT years ago. Jerry Slezak (another UMW hero/genius now leading Information Technology Services) suggested at the time, as we went round and round with discussions of home page designs for the new Teaching Center, simply suggested that a search box would be the most effective tool to get people to what they want. We joked about simply redirecting our url to Google — that it would be more efficent.

This is a seductive idea which places efficiency above all, and gives the driver’s seat over to the site visitor completely. Indeed, designing home page navigation is a crap shoot at best, frequently driven by internal politics and assumptions about “what students are looking for.” And, believe me, at UMW, I have learned that students are looking for whatever the content is that a particular stakeholder comes to me to complain about not being sufficiently visible on the home page 🙂 Okay, I’m being harsh, but there is more appeasement than design, more compromise than art, more smoke/mirrors than science, involved in this notion of a “splash page” to introduce the University to the wider world. It’s just a fact.

Knowing this, I can see where the Ozarks folks may have arrived at this solution. They used actual science — the stats on how folks navigated their site using primarily the search box — to inform their bold choice. But, although clever and efficient, I am not so sure about its utility at a more complex institution with multiple colleges, where programs may have similar names, and  where content creators are highly decentralized, as they are at most larger institutions (and at UMW). That’s putting an awful lot of faith in your search algorithm, Google search or otherwise, as well as in the ability of the content creators to get the right stuff in the right places, and then have the metrics bear out so that the most relevant stuff in the more obscure categories of information come out on top. I think this could have been effective at Mary Washington College prior to 1999, when the Stafford campus opened and introduced a set of redundant content owners, more than one campus, degree program and prospective student audience. Search for “registering for classes” and you could have been sent anywhere because there were dual functions on both campuses.

When I came along in 2001, sorting through the redundant content on the James Monroe Center site, and having endless arguments about who owned what function (read: web content) became a staple argument that kept on going until CGPS became a campus, and organization of student service functions was better defined. If there had been only a search box for a home page during those days, I honestly don’t know if the phones ever would have stopped ringing with complaints and confusion.

Assuming my above argument addresses why the home-page-as-search-box model may not work for UMW from an efficiency/customer service standpoint, what exactly is the beef I have with the more conventional home page we now have? In a word: SEO relevance. Ask any SEO (search engine optimization) expert (and the world is LOUSY with them these days) what is the number one way to move your rankings up and keep them up and they will tell you: CONSTANTLY CHANGING CONTENT THAT IS CONSIDERED RELEVANT BY RECOGNIZED AUTHORITATIVE WEB SITES. Period.

Here’s where I lose my job: For all of our redesigning, we have bowed to the pressure of the print-design mentality of a nice “cover” to our university that will succinctly capture the essence of UMW. We argue about the brand platform elements, and how the images and their captions convey a message about the Great Minds brand. We are not serving the needs of our SEO, but of a good print marketing campaign: consistent messages. SEO does not care about consistent marketing messages — it cares about interesting, dynamic content competing for daily air-time with larger institutions. Google doesn’t care that we are a liberal arts institution and we are awesome. It cares about what we are doing NOW, TODAY, and whether it’s any different from last week. Because if it’s not, our rank drops.

Google does not rank our home page based on whether the picture of that student and a pithy caption capture our essence. It cares if the picture of that student is essentially a headline about NEW story, posted as a newspaper would post a story, dated and attributed to an author. It cares that we regularly have new stories featured in the main content area which, for all intents and purposes, is our big photo rotation area.

Do we have news releases? Yes, but they are at the bottom of the page. Would they make great splash photos? Well, mostly not, because what it takes to get a great splash photo is a photo journalist on staff 24/7 who can capture incidents as they happen in high-quality images. High-quality images mean waiting for our once-a-month photographer to take photos of features that are scheduled ahead of time. The images that come out of breaking news are frequently stock photos of faculty, or of campus, because it’s what we have.

So, what am I saying? Well, perhaps it’s that where I don’t think a single search box would work, I’m not convinced that coming to a home page with a big-honkin’ image and caption is really useful from a user, or SEO, perspective. And I wish I had the nerve to say it when we were doing our re-design. But, the beauty of the web is that it’s fungible. If we have courage, we can tear this thing up and do it again.

In essence, I would like to see less print-think both in design AND in maintenance of our site. Constant changing home page content is not constantly updated canned photos and captions — it’s actual stuff going on day-to-day. Which gets to UMW Blogs and our new faculty content aggregator — who knows what up-to-the-minute content we’ll have access to in a few months? Our home page could actually look less like a book cover, and more like an open book. Ain’t that higher ed anyway?

Fear and Higher Ed Web

Alan Levine inspires as always when he blogged yesterday about the default attitude about privacy on the web in higher education. It’s easy to point to FERPA, copyright, and intellectual property concerns and their role in the development of the traditional authenticated LMS environment. But, there are other concerns that universities have with opening things up, and we have faced them quite boldly at UMW on multiple fronts.

Since before 2001, our web policy has had a few interesting passages in it, mostly related to clarifying the bright line between “official” and “non-official” websites:

“The University of Mary Washington assumes editorial responsibility for official University Web sites and official UMW on-line resources, which are defined as the official Web pages or on-line materials of UMW departments, divisions and other units. For these sites and resources, UMW is the content provider and not a content-neutral “Internet Service Provider,” or ISP. You may also find within the UMW domain — signified by the address “” or within the range of Internet protocol addresses assigned to the University — Web sites or on-line materials over which the University has no editorial responsibility or control. Such sites include but are not limited to the Web pages or other on-line materials of individual faculty members or students, individual class sites and materials, and the Web pages or on-line materials of student organizations and other organizations not formally a part of the University. For these sites and materials, UMW is a content-neutral ISP.”

This is a perfectly normal and accepted type of policy on any higher ed website. The University is both protecting what is considered official messages AND protecting the first amendment rights of students and faculty. Like may policies, this does not exist to explain so much as to prevent legal action against the University.

The above is much easier to enforce when there is an LMS involved. Once UMW Blogs came online, and the website began to openly link to it, the game changed. Although the letter of the policy is still being followed, the spirit of it — to draw a bright line between official and non-official communications — becomes harder to enforce. How can a university celebrate and share what can be controversial academic debate in the context of its public communications and still maintain control of the message?

I was part of a presentation to the UMW Cabinet with Jim Groom addressing the fear of potential disaster should a student post something untoward. Jim made the argument that, for every possible “f-bomb” that is posted, there are thousands of great ideas that are shared every day online, and showcase the depth of the academic conversation at UMW. He was asking them to take a gamble, and they have.

I do believe that this fear of exposure of possible offending language — or (gasp!) bad grammar — on the part of those managing the public message is a contributing factor to institutional desire to hide academic conversation within authenticated environments. Once the classroom is exposed to the web, it’s in the ether and the bright line between official and non-official seems parochial at best. At worst, it’s a technique to avoid conversation about more complicated issues regarding free speech and what makes a university different from a corporation. If we are peddling the development of free thought and critical thinking, why are we so afraid of exposing just what it is we hope to foster in our students?

I leave you with a video clip that I’ve used in presentations in the last couple of years. It’s a favorite metaphor of mine: the university public website as the ridiculous freestanding tollbooth that anyone can circumvent if they just open their eyes.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Net

We are a proud bunch, we grownups, with our internets and web sites and social networking tools. We’ve bifurcated our generation into the luddites and the tech savvys and turned the whole thing into some sort of religious war over whether technology is frying our minds or determining our future.

My immediate family spans a few generations. I have a 72-year old brother in New Jersey (19 years my senior) who offered to have my 8-year old daughter stay with him for a few weeks this summer. I saw close up how the issue of technology-or-no-technology can polarize people. He did not get a single email of mine, although I told him I had sent a long email with instructions about everything from hair conditioner to websites. He commented to my sister, “I don’t know why she didn’t just hand it to me.” He would not let my daughter use the computer for a video chat with us because that’s the computer on which he does his taxes. He sat dumbfounded as she tried to show him how she uses the web to play with her best friend online in Animal Jam. “I don’t get the point of it.”

When she was leaving for home, she asked me on the phone if she could chat with her friend that she made in New Jersey online, “Not write papers and notes and it takes so long.” Since returning, she has met her on Moshi Monsters, another inane game that provides kids with a pleasing visual narrative around which to build connection. For my daughter, for whom English is a second language, these kinds of environments have helped her, both socially and in terms of language, a lot more than stilted interaction with many of the the close-minded, hyper-protected kids she meets in our immediate neighborhood.

Meanwhile, back home, my 10-year old son learned about geocaching at camp. Now hooked, he, his father, and I have gone geocaching in Charlottesville, apps in hand. It got us outdoors with something interesting to do that connected you to a stranger in the most benign and serendipitous kinds of ways. He hid his own geocaches on Grounds at UVa, and watched online as someone found it and commented. Now there is no spice jar, or piece of pipe, that escapes his voracious search for geocaches to create and plant around town. My son suffers from severe anxiety and a profound mood disorder so debilitating that he must attend a special school. This type of technology connection to the world is a saving grace for him, a source of confidence and mastery that he can pursue at his own pace. Not to mention, it gets him to read and write, learn about geo-coordinates, collaborate with and trust a grownup, and visit places he normally would be too anxious to visit. (We did have one scary incident on the way to a geocache location in the woods, but, I think we were hearing things 🙂

Sometimes it feels as though we grownups in the tech fields are so busy being fascinated by the technology that we can never imagine just how organic it can feel to our kids. And not in the “online learning” hamhanded way that many other grownups talk about computer-aided instruction, with the school-based labs and computer carts and standardized tests that have replaced bubble sheets. For my kids, the kind of connection they have from these technologies is nothing less than a presumption that they simply need to reach up and touch this networked world whenever they want. They don’t view things as devices, or interfaces. It’s more than a cool iPhone, it’s a window to a world they know is there, a biosphere of ideas woven throughout the visual biosphere, connecting our disconnected minds the way the earth connects its waterways, organically, but through the power of language and action.

While parenting magazines fret over “too much technology” and whether our kids brains are being re-wired, our kids are beyond that. Where some see alienation and danger, our kids feel a presumptive connection. Whatever jigamabobs and thingoes they have when they grow up will not matter. What will matter are the open ideas that flow this way and that, no longer encumbered by time and space, no longer hindered by geography. This world they enter is not a scary one at all, and those among us who are frightened, like my older brother, need not be so.

Are their brains being rewired? Yea, probably. But, if it means that at the age of 72 my son won’t fear the unknown and will have tasted the world in all its glory, and my daughter assumes a multiplicity of valid viewpoints and cultures outside of her geographic region, I’d say the rewiring may not be a bad thing.

Hard-core 12-step types have a snappy comeback when people accuse them of being brainwashed by recovery: “Who says my brain didn’t need washing?”


Drop the Mouse. Put Your Hands in the Air. Back Away From the UI.

Our intrepid CIO, Justin Webb, has far too much common sense for his own good. He’ll never make it in this town.

Seriously, Justin and I were here together in 2008 for the coming of Sharepoint (before he was CIO). He and I slogged through the implementation of that baby over an 18-month period that felt like it would never end. It gave birth to a bouncing baby EagleNet.

Since November of 2009, EagleNet has been our University’s portal. “Portal” is one of those words that sounded SO sexy in 2003, but by the time we got to Sharepoint, we had seen the communications, training, and maintenance headaches that portals can bring. The dream of aggregating communications based on ERP data about a person’s role is a good one. The problem is, the companies that deal with data should be told to, “Drop the mouse. Put your hands in the air. Back away from the UI.” (and no one will get hurt).

Sharepoint is one of those nifty all-in-one tools that aggregates, collaborates, authenticates, productivity-ates, and gets-us-cute-prom-dates. It’s another of those motherships that promises all things wonderful.

The best thing about motherships is that they are, out of the box, pretty robust and sturdy. The trouble with motherships is that they are very, very hard to steer. That makes them GREAT for corporate environments with few differentiating factors within internal audiences. A single, sturdy, homely UI works okay in that mediocre kinda way when you stick with a vanilla installation and provision using the delivered tools.

But higher ed audiences are nothing if not idiosyncratic — not just within a University, but between universities. Student populations can be undergraduate, residential, international, non-traditional, in any number of major programs. And that is just one audience group. Throughout the year, each of these many audiences requires a clear way to get to information.

So the object was to use Sharepoint as a layer of targeted communications over the portal, essentially mimicking what we had with Luminis, providing single sign-on to our Banner SSB for students in the bargain. This involved a LOT of customization, including some pretty complicated code for maintaining a Banner session within the Sharepoint authentication scheme. The developer who did this (no longer with UMW) was truly a genius in getting this to work. But, not everyone has a genius on staff.

Bottom line: We twisted Sharepoint into a pretzel to make it do what it’s doing. And here’s what it’s doing:

  • Complicating getting directly to Banner SSB,
  • Delivering 3 widgets of targeted/authenticated information for the new incoming student, useful for 3 months out of the year, and too complicated to manage to allow for distributed content authorship, so content management stays within IT.
  • Delivering about 9 widgets of personalized information from Banner SSB to all audiences.
  • Hosting unused personal pages, called “MySites,” for all students, faculty, and staff.
  • Delivering a collection of about 80 or so collaboration sites, of which a handful are being used actively.
  • Serving as a pretty spiffy scalable reporting tools platform.

Other than the last two bullet points (in bold above), EagleNet doing very little for all the development and maintenance costs, not to mention the development and testing work involved every time Banner or Sharepoint is upgraded. Well, Banner SSB has an all new interface called Cascade, and Sharepoint is moving from 2007 to 2010. Time to commit to hiring more .NET programming skill for more customization and retooling of this enormously complicated environment for little UI benefit, or cut bait.

Then there is mobile. Delivering itty-bitty widgets of information just doesn’t cut it in a mobile UI. On mobile, you want to get the info, and get out, because, let’s face it, you’re driving.

Snide remarks aside, I would argue that this notion of having a web-based UI that provides pertinent GROUP and PERSONAL messages and data is a viable one. So, how to extricate that essentially sound idea from a UI that was developed in service to the infrastructure, rather than the user? I thought you’d NEVER ask.

Enter the work Curtiss and I have been doing on Banner and Active Directory data in WordPress, using Banner Web services. It is a lightweight infrastructure, without all the vendor lockin nonsense of a “systems-based” delivered UI. It is the notion of small pieces, loosely joined, coming to fruition in a very big and profound way. Here’s what we are going to begin developing (implementation quite a ways down the road, so don’t panic!):

  • Use WordPress for the UI.
  • Aggregate targeted web content from posts throughout the university Multi-network environment using RSS feeds, FeedWordPress, and our own Cross-Site Featured Posts plugin.
  • Deliver Banner Web Services (already doing that) to WordPress based on AD authentication (already doing that, too). That allows the viewing of targeted (WordPress aggregated) and personal (Banner Web Services) content upon login.
  • Implement a Central Authentication Service (CAS) server to maintain a session between authenticated WordPress and Banner SSB.

Here is what you get at the end:

  • A flexible, accessible, responsive, mobile-friendly UI that leverages skills on staff AND within a broad WordPress community
  • No more Rube Goldberg authentication code in .NET that needs to be retooled every time Microsoft or Ellucian decides to improve on their products, dragging their clunky, afterthought UI’s along for the ride.
  • Banner screens break out from frames and use standard form layout, minimizing re-styling and customization.
  • IT concentrates on security, authentication, hosting and data delivery.
  • The Web team concentrates on aggregation and UI.
  • University Relations and the rest of the University continue to deliver content to their stakeholders through WordPress, as they are already.
  • Open standards, application-agnostic methods for authentication and session maintenance that could potentially apply to any number of apps and aggregation layers in the future.
  • Complex, compulsory, EagleNet portal layer is replaced by an opt-in Sharepoint installation that continues to support its core functionality: internal collaboration and reporting tools.
  • No more supporting thousands of abandoned, hard to manage “MySites”. UMW Blogs and a Domain of One’s Own are, after all, the most useful personal web publishing platforms we have in-house, and the internet is lousy with cheap or free personal web publishing environments that people can share with the WORLD, not just internally, as MySites do.
I know this is a lot to swallow in words. I have a way to illustrate these changes in simple pictures but, for now, I’ll leave it at the above. I’m pretty jazzed — it’s so nice to be around so long that you can break the stuff you helped to build, and build it better. Also nice to have Justin Webb as a CIO who is interested in solving problems, minimizing costs, being willing to kill a darling or two in  support of the UMW mission in the bargain. Justin Webb (IT champion of the Domain of One’s Own) is an unsung hero — oh, and a Mary Washington alum, by the way.

Teenage Idol

The currrent frenzy over MOOCs has reached such genuinely hysterical proportions reminiscent of the overnight transcendence of a pop star. Last night, Alan Levine tweeted an article  that stuns with its hyperbole and doe-eyed, lamestream media enthusiasm for Sebasian Thrun, Kahn Academy, and all things MOOC.

Alan's Tweet

I read the article and had the following, thoughtfully-crafted response:

Last night's tweet

If you are a DS106 enthusiast (and you SHOULD be), you know what happens next. Alan took the reins and made it a full-blown assignment. Here is my contribution — ironically, I did not put Sebestian Thrun next to Justin Beiber, I replaced Justin Beiber with Sebastian Thrun, taking Justin’s place next to Selena Gomez:

Sebastian Thrun on the cover of J-14.

I am officially infected with the DS106 virus. I think in DS106 now. I leave you with these words from my glam rock idol, Elton John, and his non-hit “I’m Going to Be a Teenage Idol”:

And root-toot-shoot myself to fame
Every kid alive gonna know my name
An overnight phenomenon like there’s never been
A motivated supersonic king of the scene

All of which is to say, the prevailing MOOC discussion just may have officially jumped the shark. But don’t despair! DO THE ASSIGNMENT!

Academics Front and Center on a Public University Site

The joy of being at UMW for so long is that knowledge of the institution becomes so granular, layered, and subtle, that you can begin to delve below the surface and pick apart how to make it all work. The UMW website has been an iterative laboratory of ideas for me, barring a 3 1/2-year period where a re-org moved the website to a different office. Each redesign I’ve embarked on– 2003, 2004, 2006, and 2010–has been done with more than the goal of a design facelift. At each stage, I’ve tried to join together messages about the University in a coherent whole, doing the best I can with the resources and tools available.

Barring 2004, which was largely a cosmetic and URL update for the purposes of our name change from “Mary Washington College” to “University of Mary Washington”, each re-design has included upgrades to authoring and site management tools to expand content management of the public site to areas deep within the institution. By 2007, when I handed the site over for maintenance to the new Webmaster, we had 210 web administrators on the academic and administrative sides with nearly ALL using a single look and feel in a single system. Not to brag, but, I don’t see a lot of Universities achieving that.

What seemed impressive to my contemporaries at other institutions was the consistent look and feel at all levels. But, in all honesty, although that was the agenda from the powers that be, it was not MY agenda. I wanted to build a culture of awareness for each user to feel like a responsible steward of public information given our role as a public institution. I evolved into this way of thinking after having the privilege of participating in interminable Thursday-morning DoIT meetings with the likes of Chip German, Gardner Campbell, Martha Burtis, and Jim Groom.

Enter UMW Blogs and WordPress, and a new way of web authoring at UMW, moved the “node” of information from the department to the person. What resulted was amazing open conversation on all the remarkable disciplines at this rich jewel of a liberal arts and science university. By 2008, the institution had the courage to link to UMW Blogs from its home page. But this was just dipping our toes in the water of truly exposing what was happening on our campus.

When I returned to my role as Webmaster, and later Director of Web Communications, in July 2010, the institution was once again poised for a redesign. But, redesign with all this rich groundwork already laid would have to reach to an even higher purpose: to turn an exposition of an IDEALIZED UMW to a public conversation with the REAL UMW.

The fact is, UMW Blogs is the most effective web tool for telling the world about what is really happening with teaching and learning here — our core mission. It’s more powerful than any beautiful and easy-to-navigate website can deliver. Through WordPress, FeedPress, and Banner web services, we are finally building a public web presence that is flexible and PERMEABLE. The goal: to expose real-time academic activity as THE driver to make anyone interested in coming to a place that graduates 21st century critical thinkers who can compete in the global information economy. Martha Burtis characterized this as (paraphrasing): “Not online learning, but learning online.”

Over the next few months, please look for the rollout of the following features on UMW public site to enable just that to begin earnest:

  1. Banner Web Services Plugin: Through a core plugin, we are developing a way to consume real-time public data from our Banner systems. Banner data standards for departments, faculty, courses, and disciplines are essentially built into the taxonomy of the WordPress networks, enabling aggregation of information from many points to many different locations. Thanks to Enterprise Application Services for creating all of those nifty web services for us!
  2. Faculty Professional Pages: Each faculty member will be able to write their own online bio (proofreading still available), publish and aggregate all of their blogs and social media to a single web page on the PUBLIC WEBSITE, and have their current courses and department affiliations, including any UMW Blogs related to current courses, automagically appear on the same page. A sample faculty member will look like this:New Faculty Aggregation Point
  3. Majors, Minors, Courses of Study: Banner data enables aggregation of catalogue data, blogs, videos, news releases, faculty, and social bookmarks for each discipline. Each discipline’s feed is controlled by that department.  This gives a real-time snapshot of what’s happening at UMW in that discipline right now, as the department wants to showcase how it teaches within the discipline. It also gives an apples-to-apples, in-depth look at all disciplines in one place, looking something like this:
  4. FeedWordPress: With all of the above in place, DTLT will work in a standalone installation of FeedWordPress to curate, slice, dice and combine feeds for consumption anywhere on the UMW Multi-Network from UMW Blogs sites, and back.
  5. University Taxonomy: We’ve played with this a bit, and have a version of it in place on the Document repository, but we have not institutionalized or developed a final UMW Taxonomy tool that all sites and blogs can use to categorize their content so that it can be aggregated with other content on the site. How this plays out under the hood is unknown. We will need faculty and staff input on what those taxonomies should be.

If you are still reading, I thank you for hanging in with me. This thinking began in 2008, and this actual development has been going on in our office for months now. Jim Groom’s post last week gave me the kick in the pants I needed to start writing about it in more concrete terms. He’s useful that way 🙂

Oh, and yes, Curtiss and I would be happy to put together developer and user documentation once the lion’s share of this work is complete. Curtiss Grymala has released all of his UMW plugins to the WordPress codex, and we thoroughly support the culture of open source development.

Online Learning: The New Buzz Phrase Waiting for a Definition

Just read this article in the Atlantic Monthly regarding online education. And I read the comments afterwards — as usual, the comments lack a certain, shall we say, civility. But, there is something to be said regarding reading what’s between the lines in the aggregate of these knee-jerk, non-edited tidbits.

I come to this conversation while currently steeped in two online courses: DS106 and Udacity Intro to Statistics. It is a bizarrely schizophrenic experience. I feel when I am in one course, I am somehow “cheating” on the other one. Like, I’m having an illicit affair with an alternate learning environment.

My love of DS106 notwithstanding, there are some pragmatic advantages for my wandering mind in Udacity. Udacity frees me from the distraction of the whole teacher (“I wonder if he’s married — he really should shave more.”), the view from the windows, the students half my age, my innate anxiety over being in public groups. When I am doing the Udacity course, it’s a matter of listen, check off the box, listen, check off the box. This limited, focused activity with little distraction seems well-suited to my having to internalize very linear concepts like statistics. My sense of visual memory and tendency to be visually distracted respond well to the forced focus of the camera tightly framing the disembodied hand on the whiteboard.

But then the DS106 in me creeps into the picture. I imagine this lecturer as the whole person. I want to do a mashup of the Udacity course, mocking Sebastian Thrun’s accent, turning the statistics lecture into a comedy sketch complete with charts and graphs.  The possibilities for using video, audio, writing, and acting are endless. I break out of the checkboxes and lectures and have a chance to explore my alter ego’s needs.

If one person can experience such extreme differences in online learning environments, how can we even discuss “online learning” as though it’s a monolithic thing? The Atlantic article is doing what so many articles I read these days are doing: discussing online learning as a thing you do, and then it’s done. Apparently, we need more of it, so let’s get some already. Who makes it?

From where I sit, the rock star projects in online learning — EdX, Udacity, Coursera, Khan Academy stuff (let’s call it “EdUCKA”) — seem to concentrate on scale and technology. What they prove, to me, is that today’s web and networks can handle rich media over a wide scale. That’s great to know, but it’s not, by definition, “online learning.” It’s a proof of concept for how to scale an authenticated LMS beyond a single institution. Although this is touted as “open online education” it’s not really open to the web. If you’re NOT enrolled in a course, if you don’t have an account, you can’t see in. If you ARE enrolled in a course, you can’t discuss the course with the larger world, unless someone from that pool of experts chooses to enroll as well. So, really, it’s not open education. It’s more like open enrollment in the Blackboard mothership (albeit, with a slicker interface and no pesky admissions process).

Where I DON’T see the discussion heading in the popular media, and I am probably missing something, is with regard to the very real TEACHING that goes into the classroom-transcendent course. If UVa had succeeded in ousting Theresa Sullivan, if they had then developed or purchased a MOOC-sized system, what then? Would all of the professors simply attend a training session on how to “use” it, propelling UVa into the forefront of online learning? You see how ridiculous it all is.

This happens a lot. Large systems are purchased with the intention of solving all of our problems, and they don’t. On the website, this results in bland department content that simply migrates from the old system to the new system. Or publications move from paper to the web. In the world of online learning, I see a similar preconception that we simply replicate what we have done using newfangled tools in exponentially larger packages.

I say (and I am not the first to say it by a long shot), screw the investments in large expensive teaching and learning technologies. The web these days is relatively cheap, and according to “EdUCKA,” it scales quite nicely. What is LESS discussed in the popular media is how to teach online in engaging ways not to REPLACE the classroom, but to transform teaching and learning. The institution that can bottle that vision and scale it as a cultural movement, with the same vigor and budget most others put into launching enterprise systems, will be the institution to define what online learning is and can become.  That will be the institution to watch, and I have a feeling it won’t be Harvard, and it won’t be UVa.

Conflating MOOCs with Money

I posted last week about the UVa fiasco and asked a question: Faced with diminishing government support, what IS the answer for public institutions of higher education who want to exist in 10 years? I got no takers. I’ve searched online this week for possible answers from folks who are outraged at what happened (For what it’s worth, I’m among them). But all I’ve seen so far is a defense of why radical change to make more money is WRONG, and things should continue as they have been, progressing slowly, but no one seems to say where they should progress TO (pardon my ending preposition).

Let’s be grownups. Barring an all-out commitment by the government to revitalize its funding for higher education, alternate revenue streams need to be tapped to keep public institutions alive and relevant without slashing programs. Absent that happening, the UVa Board’s alarm about finances is not without merit. It is the panic-driven and naive philosophy, however, that MOOCs will somehow save them fiscally that is the problem. They are succumbing to a very seductive notion about online learning. They cite Sebastian Thrun’s talk at DLD, and a few NY Times and Chronicle articles, in the flurry of emails obtained per FOIA by the Cavalier Daily.

The inability to resist this seduction is a symptom of the fact that few educators reside on the BOV. If you are mostly business people, in today’s justifiably fear-based business environment, you are going to hang your hat on some articles in the Chronicle, some lectures on YouTube, and Frank Rich’s editorials more than on the input of the very competent digital educators you just might have on the payroll.

Conflating MOOCs with money for an institution is simply not borne out in fact. When you are Stanford, or MIT, or Harvard, MOOCs become a logical extension of the brand. They are not bringing revenue in. They are, for all intents and purposes, awareness-drivers, keeping those brands in the marketplace wrapped in a relevant “online learning” package.

I’m not qualified to comment on whether Udacity, or Coursera, or edX are effective learning environments. I’m not an educator. When I saw the students in West Africa who are engaged in DS106 setting up labs for Udacity, I saw the amazing potential of MOOCs on a global scale. There is true value in that. But their value is not, at least to date, to funnel revenues to their institutions (In the case of Coursera and Udacity, those brands have led to startups that sever ties to the University from which they were born, forming alliances, but not being run or directly accredited by the institution that spawned them).

That’s why UVa’s conflation of MOOCs with revenue is so puzzling to me. I guess Helen Dragas wants to attract a “star” faculty member to use the UVa name to begin a MOOC and then take the money with them in a startup?

The other elephant in the room is how little internal teaching and learning technologies departments in public higher education institutions seem to matter at the BOV level. Neither UMW nor UVa has a CIO or an educational technologist at the Cabinet level. If information technology and online learning is so darned important and transformational, who are the INTERNAL voices speaking to the University leadership about them? Why are the Boards getting more information from outside voices rather than from their own boots on the ground?

Our own Jim Groom, and DTLT, to my knowledge, have never spoken directly with the BOV. Yet, you’d be hard pressed to see a group getting more consistent national (and international) coverage on UMW’s activities than that group. I can only wonder if UVa’s Board is similarly deaf to the voices within their own institution. Why are our own teaching and learning technology folks invited to speak at TED, but not to the BOV?

But that speaks to acknowledging technology’s importance to the mission of teaching and learning, not to this issue of keeping the institution alive financially. I don’t know what the answer is for that. But, I think that if CIOs and educational technologists were given an unmediated voice at the table of leadership, we may tease that answer out a lot more quickly.

Until that day, it looks like the anxiety-provoking media coverage about “the latest web thing that the cool schools are doing” speaks louder to these business-types than the actual business of teaching and learning, and that’s pretty darned sad.