Thursday, January 27, 2005

We're not bad. We're just drawn that way.

Our current student ce-web-rity, Nelson Pavlosky, one half of the digital-manifesto-wielding, free-culture-seeking, freedom-fighting duo who jousted with (and defeated) Diebold in last year's famous case, says that my organization ain't so bad. In fact, we're an "ally in a quest for a freer society." Heavy. I think it was sometime in the Clinton administration that we last got a little credit in a public student forum.

It may surprise Nelson and some other students that our ITS department is more than just benignly tolerant of freedom of expression. We are a living, breathing, group of humans with similar core values to the community we are a part of. As such, we are quite partial to all kinds of personal and academic freedoms, just like our faculty and students. We value your safety just as much as the Dean's Office. We also need to protect other organizational interests, as would the P.R. office, the H.R. department, and our legal counsel—not to mention the Board of Managers. Some of these interests are in tension at times, but we all do our best to balance them in appropriate ways, while leaving the smallest possible dent when sacrifices must be made.

As a small, residential place, we're fond of calling ourselves a community. I think one of the first steps in having a true community is to stop making different parts of it into "the other," and start forging a shared identity. Our shared cultural values includes traits like rigorous intellectual inquiry, respect for diverse opinions, and commitment to broadly-defined personal liberties.

While I appreciate the recognition Nelson gives my colleagues, I'd like to point out that it's not so much that ITS has stood up to external pressures. The reality is that the whole College has stood up together against those pressures, and the people I work with have played their part thoughtfully and with great care.

We are you. (I feel like breaking out into a chorus of "We are the people in your neighborhood.") There are times when we must address our differences of opinion, but I'd hope that one outcome of spending four (or more) years at an undergraduate institution like Swarthmore is to appreciate the sense of shared mission that typifies such places.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Welcome to Swarthmore visitors

If you weren't in attendance at the talk that Tim Burke and I gave at the faculty luncheon today, please forgive me for cluttering your RSS feed.

If you were at the talk today, welcome. If you have any questions or comments about what you heard, I'll be glad to field them here. (I'm sure Tim will chime in if he feels he has anything to add.)

Our supercool librarians have rolled today's bib-blog-ography into a public feed page that you can use to check out a variety of aggregated resources you may be interested in. (Thanks, M.)

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Monday, January 24, 2005

When all-campus communications go bad

The Phoenix, 01.20.2005. Republished with permission from the artist.

For the longest time, the campus had a printed publication called the Weekly News, which was mostly announcements and classifieds. To cut back on expenses, the publication went online-only, which pretty much killed it. Everybody I talked to says that they no longer read the Weekly News ever since they stopped delivering the physical copy to our mailboxes. Me included.

This change put even more pressure on all-campus email, which now was the only way to slackvertise to the whole campus. Anybody drawing a paycheck at the College had the ability to spam the campus about their events or their sofas for sale. Some people really resented the volume of stuff, especially students, and much clamor arose for an email revolution.

Personally, I can't get worked up about a few excess, perhaps frivolous emails from colleagues when the global email infrastructure is collapsing under the weight of drugs-n-porn spam. But, it strikes me as really indicative of how unruly campus communications can be, and how hard it can be to change information consumption habits once they're formed.

Of course, a 15 minute investment in setting up an email filter in a proper client would solve this problem, but that hasn't gained anywhere near the traction that griping about junk mail has. Some students even want ITS or some other administrative entity to police for content on the mailing lists. (There's a bad idea whose time must never come.) Instead, we're sending out digests twice a day, which I consider patently worse than what we originally had. I suppose it's only better if you're measuring good and bad by how many emails you won't read are sitting in your inbox. It's really bad if you only read 10% of the traffic on the list, but if you use subject headings to alert yourself to things you care about.

Unless and until we're able to put forward a real campus announcements system on the web, preferably something that's delivered prominently on a campus portal and with an awesome GUI, I think we were better off just letting chaos reign on the lists and telling the people who have time to complain about junk mail to get over themselves.

I think I'm out of the mainstream on this one.

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Friday, January 21, 2005

Ed-Tech Toolbox Essential:
Database Solutions with FileMaker Pro 7

A recurring theme in my support of Humanities faculty over more than a decade is that few have a workable definition of what a database is. A database is something that one accesses in the library perhaps, but it certainly isn't something that you make. (This probably also stems from the fact that unlike most other disciplines, Humanists do not often perceive of the fruits of their research as data.) As a result, I've seen a number of cases over the years where somebody has spent countless hours generating reams of notes or drawers of slides before they ever realize that they have barely-usable pile of "stuff."

On the one hand, it's a little bit worrisome that there are generations of scholars floating around who continue to be trained, from what I can tell, to approach their research with rather medieval methods for information storage, processing, and retrieval. On the other hand, it makes my job both fun and rewarding.

This week I had a professor land at my door with a problem. She's doing close analysis of patterns of language in a classic work of literature. (Trust me, you've heard of it.) She'd gone through this tome and literally pulled out every instance of a particular part of speech. She then dutifully (and handsomely, I might add) recorded more than a dozen descriptive data elements about each instance on papers in a manila folder.

Alas, to search and sort? She'd figured that she'd try entering it all into Excel. It's good that she realized that she had structured information that belonged in tables, but thank goodness she found her way to me before she started entering her multi-lingual data into a giant spreadsheet.

The best part of my job is that in order for me to help instructors, they have to give me a crash course on their research. Our faculty are world-class scholars, so even if the technology use is early on the evolutionary scale, the questions are always fascinating. I consider it a fair barter to ask for my help in exchange for some intellectually stimulating conversation.

The professor in this case knew her data very intimately, so after an hour at the whiteboard, she had visual understanding of her data's structure, and I had a working specification for the database she needed. It took under four hours to crank out a database that met her needs. This afternoon she took it for a test spin, with only two minor change orders, requiring only a few minutes each.

The light has turned on for her, and I've already been informed that this consultation has helped her think about her larger book project. To me, that's great beyond my ability to express it.

So a word about tools here. We've always used FileMaker Pro in our shop for this type of work. It was never a perfect tool, but it was quick and simple, and with enough kludges, you could make it do what you wanted. At least it was cross-platform, which is essential for us.

Version 7 has come a long way, and it's now quite an elegant development package, especially if you get the Developer edition. There were so many powerful new features, but I especially appreciated being able to store all the tables and a (portable) script library in a single file. This not only makes relationships a snap to set up, but it's also really nice for the solutions developer. If you're using Developer edition to produce a stand-alone/runtime version of your application, there's just one file to give to the client.

Special thanks to colleague J.J., whom I know wishes not to be named on web sites, but who gave me the crash course on all the new features in FM Pro. It was impressive to watch a virtuoso fly through the application.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Not trying to pick a fight!

It seems I touched a minor nerve with James Farmer when I expressed (and Rick West seconded) my concern last week that blog-centered focus had been dominating my experience of educational technology sites.
Now it does happen that there are a number of people quite focused in the study and use of ‘blogging’, a fascinating new area of communication and community that’s only really developed in a big way over the last few years, many people say it’s changing the world, or has the potential too, haven’t you heard?
Yes, yes I have heard. A little too often, I'm afraid.

Blogs and other social software are an important phenomenon, and they deserve the attention of educational technologists. They fit into the ever-growing toolbox of communication and media solutions available to faculty and students. Will some courses use them to great effect? Absolutely, and Farmer is one of the people I expect to help bring good models to light for the rest of us.

Nevertheless, they're a niche application in the academy, at least for now. And rather than assuming that they're going to only grow and grow, I think it's actually quite likely that the explosive growth in blogging will soon see a contraction. We won't know for some months, but we might already be in it.

The big problem is that blogs have a voracious appetitte for one of an academic's most precious commodities--time. Writing and editing content, researching, and cultivating an audience takes a great deal of effort. Many well-written blogs will wither for lack of time, or the ability to reach a sustaining level of participation or readership.

Project-based blogging has been used to good effect by many educators. While these techniques may transform particular class experiences, they do not, nor are they likely to transform the academy or the teaching/learning process in general.

The media has hyped up the blogosphere in 2004, so getting out the word is no longer really needed from us. In fact, I think it's partly the responsibility of we who know the subject intimately to push back somewhat against the hype.

So, just to be clear about this, I'm pro-blog. How could I not be? I just don't think the topic should dominate so many column inches. All I suggest is that we strive for a greater sense of proportionality. I'm not dogging other writers for writing about whatever makes them happy; I'm only trying to inject my professional assessment into the discussion.

And with that, on to other things. There are so many.

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Thursday, January 13, 2005

The Dark Prince of Apple

It's stuff like this that sometimes makes me feel dirty when I use my Mac.

Steve Jobs knows how to make Apple innovate, and he knows how to market products to consumers. To a certain extent, that's like noting that Mussolini made the trains run on time. I am rather thankful that he's never been endowed with a monopoly, or his obsessive control issues would probably make Microsoft seem sweet and benevolent.

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At least it's not called iMini

After all the mayhem yesterday, I didn't have a chance to watch Steve Jobs' traditional dog-n-pony-show keynote at MacWorld S.F.

Aside from the preview of OS X/Tiger and iLife apps, the highlight of the show is new hardware. This time, the toys were (theoretically) pitched downstream of the typical Apple/Mac devotee. The Shuffle lives below the iPod on the food chain, and the Mac Mini sets a new lowest common denominator for Mac hardware.

Or does it? We're told that this cheapie is pitched at winning converts, appealing to 4.5 million new iPodders who are now predisposed to reconsider the Apple brand on their desktops. These users presumably need the low price point, so that the barrier to considering a switch is reduced. They usually also have cheap I/O devices and monitors, so that'll work. Or it won't, and it still might not matter.

If you need more memory, a display, a superdrive and keyboard/mouse, you'll probably be better off buying an iMac. This isn't so much a cheaper Mac as it is a bare bones Mac.

Lo, this is a machine that calls out just as well to long-time Apple geeks, because it just begs to be bought in multiples. Want a dedicated iTunes/Airport Express server or media server for your home? Slap VNC on this little buddy and you have a customizable, headless server appliance. (My brother is already on this.)

How about uses in education? With the monitor de-coupled, this might play to the parallel processing crowd for small clusters. (Big ones still want the rack-mountable Xserves.) Swarthmore colleague Doug Willen suggested that this might be useful for deployment on (or in)teaching podia, where space is at a premium. Just on form factor alone, this is worth considering anywhere you want to hide your hardware. I can also see this as a great standby/loaner machine to fill in for us to have for faculty who need to get work done immediately despite a system in crisis. At this price it might even make sense for lab deployment. For $1500 round-trip, you should be able to buy a Mini with a new monitor and keyboard/mouse, then upgrade the CPU in two years, keeping the other parts for four.

Me, I still hope my sweetheart someday blesses a laptop purchase, but given the right alignment of events, like already having a lot of the extras laying around, I could imagine one of these would do the trick.

For now, my buying advice is to wait to buy one if you're interested. In a few months, Tiger will be shipping, and the upgrade probably will not be free.

Gizmodo has a great rundown of the reactions to Mac Mini collected from a variety of press sources.

As for the Shuffle, this is going to cause a price-war with the other low-end players. Without an LCD display, that's going to keep the pressure on Apple to keep on comparing well with some established players. I'm not sure whether that's sustainable, but the whole iPod phenomenon isn't about price alone. My brother wants to get the meme started to nickname the Shuffle the gumPod. I think toyPod or blindPod might draw attention to the more salient features of the device. No, wait, I've got it...iPiddle?

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Wednesday, January 12, 2005

One way to lose a day heading into the semester

A picture of my flooded office.Around 10:00, colleague E. steps in to ask if anybody already knows about the water that's pouring out of the housekeeping closet in the hallway just outside our office suite.!

After poking my head out the door, wow, that really was a lot of water. Not overflowing sink kind of water. A-geyser-is-spouting-off-behind-this-door kind of water.

"We need to get Facilities up here fast," say I. E. disappears to find something. Colleague J. runs to call for help; can't find number.

I open said closet door to investigate.

It turns out that the door was the only thing holding back the sea. Knee high water gushes out, and I quickly slam door shut again. Now the water has really spread, and is headed for J.'s office. E. shows up with a roll of paper towels. I think I'm the first one to realize that we were well past that point.

Frantically, we run to J.'s office to get all computers and other possessions up off the floor. By the time we complete that, the water is taking over my office. We just get the surge protectors and the Dell up off the floor in my office, and it's seeping into E.'s office, and the (gasp!) video editing lab. In each room, we're just staying a few inches ahead of the advancing water line. Out in the hall I know the water is advancing down the hallway into other offices and the public computing lab. And also...

THE CAMPUS DATA CENTER. See also: machine room, server room, nerve center, life-giving source of our electronic lives.

In the few minutes that it took for the rescue team to arrive, most of the first floor of Beardsley Hall was covered by an inch or three of water. Rusty water.

A surprisingly young water heater in the closet suffered "catastrophic failure." How does a water heater do that when it's only a few years old?

Bigger question: what is a water heater doing in the closet adjacent to THE CAMPUS DATA CENTER? The newly remodeled data center.

Well amazingly, they had the water out in about 90 minutes, but the offices are being cooled and blown dry overnight. We moved our staff meeting to the coffee bar. Water in the video editing lab is not advised.The sub-60 temperature and noise in my office gave me a good excuse to make some rounds to faculty and library offices. Then hopped onto the wireless network to get some work done until another faculty member could find me for a late-afternoon meeting.

I know I have an interrupt-driven workplace, but this is really something on a different level.

As a humorous sidenote, the architect who designed our space remodel last year was in just the day before with a photographer to take shots for the portfolio. Could her timing have been any luckier?

My Dell needed a new power supply, which is the only computer casualty that we know of. Luckily, there's an authorized repair shop down the hall. (So spoiled!)

It has also been reported that my internal censors may have slipped for a few seconds at one point, so I apologize to anybody who was within earshot.

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Friday, January 07, 2005

Meta-blogging squared

Kudos to the people who kept up on their blogs over the holiday season. I needed the break.

Something's been on my mind about the whole academic technology blog thang. As a relative newcomer to the small community of educational technologists who blog, I have been discouraged by one recurring observation. It is this:

There's too much blogging about blogging.

I'm interested in social software, and I use it. I'm interested in others' use of these tools. If an instructor is interested in applications of wikis for teaching and learning, I'll be thrilled to have a cozy chat about the various models for doing so.

I've also been in this field for over a decade, and social software is still a tiny fraction of what educational technology is. It represents an overwhelmingly disproportionate share of the word count on the blogs that define themselves as being of the field. Some of that's to be expected. The surgeon suggests surgery, and the blogger qua blogger believes in the power of blogs. To a lesser extent, I think blogging is also a safe and easy topic to write about. ("You're reading my blog. Among other things, you may be interested in blogging.")

Bloggity bloggity blog blog blog.

Maybe this corner of the blogosphere is self-selecting for authors who are enthusiastic about the growth of the medium. Nevertheless, I've followed some of the blogs on the library side of the information services fence. Lo and behold, they're talking about the full range of professional topics. I have to imagine that there are some other pros out there who'd like to use the medium to discuss the vast sweep of technologies, applications, resources, and models in the field of academic computing.

As it is the new year, be it here resolved that this blog shall not be about blogging. Unless it's really important to the story. Even then, only in moderation.

And yes, I'm aware of the irony of the post. You don't need to point it out in the comments. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go work with Tim Burke on a faculty luncheon talk we're giving. You know...about blogging.

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