Faculty Academy, for those who did not take the time to go, was really exceptional this year. It’s grown so much more open and interesting in its development over the past decade, and the DTLT crew deserve so much credit. For two days, i was immersed in a group of people who are undaunted by doing things in a new way. There were no claims of “but you can’t do that in higher education.” The feeling is that everything is on the table, up for grabs, and everyone has a creative voice in the process. They even let me lead a couple of discussions, which shows how fast and loose they are playing it
The relative dearth of technology resources at UMW, compared with larger research institutions, is a double-edged sword. At a larger research institution with decentralized technology budgets and infrastructures, UMW would not have had to come up with UMW Blogs on a “sandbox” outsourced host. We would not have to develop an interactive map and mobile web presence using low-cost and free open source tools — we could have simply bought all of that, along with the vendor lockin that comes along with it.
This never-say-die attitude about the democratic nature of technology, the web, and now the physical world and “maker” culture, is at the heart of what it means to be at UMW. I left those two days reeling with ideas about how to do more with less, and how to help others do the same.
But the ultimate clash of cultures for me was my subsequent attendance at UVa’s final exercises on Sunday. It was not actual attendance because the crowd was so big I could not get a seat, and I saw it live streaming from a ballroom (when my kids were not dragging me to some open space to play lacrosse). Their speaker was Katie Couric, a UVa graduate. Her speech was not only sophomoric (talking about getting drunk as an undergrad and forgetting the tailgating parties, yuk, yuk), it was self-referential to the point of embarrassment. Katie, apparently, was a Delta Delta Delta, which I thought was Revenge of the Nerds, until I remembered that it was Lambda Lambda Lambda. The Deltas were in Animal House. UVa can afford a visit by a national TV celebrity reliving her sorority days with her fellow Delta Delta Delta sisters!
UMW, on the other hand, is not so fortunate. Not only does it eschew the “greek life,” but has to settle for speeches by non-tv-celebrity-visionaries like Guilia Forsythe, Grant Potter, and David Darts. I give you the following comparison, and leave you to parse the qualitative difference between the great minds and the great budgets:
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One of my favorite things about infomercials is the way they define the problem that their particular product or service is designed to solve. Using some of the most hilarious bad-acting pantomimes, we see people ineptly struggling to do the most simple tasks. It’s like they occupy a parallel universe where no one can negotiate the perils of their own living room.
These people don’t exist in real life. If anyone WERE that inept, let alone that prone to overblown emoting while no one is watching, they’d need medical attention. It’s the people themselves in these ads that are the problem. They are largely not mindful, and turn their troubles with life outward on the circumstances surrounding them.
If they are tripping on things, why didn’t they pick them up in the first place? If their couch smells bad from the dog, why do they let the dog sit on the couch? If they can’t find their keys, why don’t they put them in the same place every day when they get home? You get the picture. The PRODUCT comes along to solve problems of their own making. Money is spent on some THING that, inevitably, will be as misused as all the other unmanageable things that surround them.
No product can solve a lack of mindfulness, responsibility, and acceptance. It has not been invented yet. There is no widget, lotion, toy, consultant, or app that will make up for the work we need to do ourselves.
I have come across this issue time and time again in over a decade of work in web design. We think the next web authoring tool, or content management tool, will instantly make us all communicators. But, it doesn’t. Even in our current WordPress environment, which is as scalable, extensible, and user-friendly as it gets, you can’t get anything out of it if you’re simply transferring old habits into a shiny new system. Sites that had their slide show set up in October, with a set of static links, that have not been changed or updated are the norm — even with the system we have set up which is “so easy a child can do it.”
We continue to ignore the fundamental problem: we need a sense of ownership and responsibility for managing and sharing content in the online world. It is no longer okay to laugh off managing your website with an “I’m no good with computers!” infomercial-before-ineptitude. There is no computer, and no application, that will turn such a mindset into a creative, engaged, communications machine. It isn’t ABOUT computers or technology or “the web” at all. It’s about valuing clear communications with the people you care about — when that’s a priority, it’s amazing how only a few simple tools can support that mindset.
But, still, we maintain this belief that some new app will take care of the lack of actual creative thoughtfulness, coordination, energy, and — dare I say it — CONTENT that is the issue.
I was at UMW for the Luminis (“EagleLink”) implementation. Then, the Sharepoint (“EagleNet”) implementation. Indeed, I was deeply involved in the development of the interface and content organization within both of these platforms. I’ve presided over the implementation of Dreamweaver, Contribute, and WordPress. So, I know a few things about the impact (or lack of it) made by “systems” on the way people actually communicate in the digital space.
After the Luminis implementation, where this supposedly “dynamic” platform became just an encumbrance on the way to Banner Self-Service, I learned that you can’t BUILD a network, build user input, from a central point. If you build it, they won’t necessarily come. And they didn’t — except to get to Banner (which you could get to on the web already).
Sharepoint became Luminis on steroids. It was a hard sell, most of all to me. This is not to say that Sharepoint has no value — on the contrary, it can be a very useful collaboration tool. But, it’s only as good as the collaborators. If you are not invested in sharing information and collaborating in a digital space, applications like Sharepoint, or Luminis, or, dare I say, WordPress are USELESS.
I implore the decision-makers at higher education institutions to think before acquiring more expensive technologies before we solve the problem of our spotty engagement in communicating via the web and new media to our constituent groups. (NB: some notable exceptions in our WordPress community DO exist). University-wide communications is not a technology acquisition problem. It is not a technology training exercise. It’s not a “rally around the brand” initiative. It’s simply an ingrained understanding that we live, largely, online in terms of institutional communications. That simple understanding would have us all tweeting, facebooking, blogging, vlogging, texting, and using all sorts of freely available tools.
The shift has to be away from emulating how we did it in the flesh and in print to doing it altogether differently — not regarding the web as “technology,” but a palpably human space we all inhabit together with a new, engaging and challenging set of rules. I hate to tell you, but the prospective and current student are already there. People like Jim Groom, Alan Levine, Tim Owens, Martha Burtis, and Andy Rush are already there. I fear most of us are still are living in our file cabinets, tri-fold brochures, memos, portals, meetings, training sessions, enterprise systems, and emails — all with “matching” web pages inside a system that can provide so very much more with resources we already have. And that is very, very unfortunate indeed.
In closing, to lighten things up a bit, below is the granddaddy of all infomercials, with Ed Norton providing one of the BEST “before” pantomimes in television history: