Under Construction

The first day of classes is today, and a sense of change is definitely in the air as the campus comes to life. New students arrived over the weekend, returning students arrived over the last few days, faculty are here as well… and all are returning to the sight of the New Science Center almost fully framed and actively under construction. This morning they had the final beam out for everyone to sign; I along with many others could not resist.

To me, this construction serves as a good symbol for the upcoming year at Wheaton, especially for Library Information Services. We’re actively reconstructing how we get our work done as people change and/or take on new duties. We have a new leader adjusting to her new role and helping us set priorities for the coming year(s). Susan Wawrzaszek moved from her position as Deputy CIO and University Librarian at Brandeis University to Associate Vice President for Library Information Services at Wheaton on August 9.

We’ve “constructed” a few new things over the summer– making some significant adjustments to several of our core services for the new academic year, some of which we are still putting the finishing touches on! One change is the redesign of the Library website, which significantly improves how users access our resources and find information about Library happenings. It is a vast improvement over the old site in my opinion, but we also know that it isn’t perfect. We’ll definitely be using the feedback we get from our users to improve it and other websites within LIS over the course of this year.

We’ve also changed our Learning Management System’s architecture (we use Moodle) to allow for better navigation and archiving of online course materials. In addition, we upgraded to a new version of Moodle this summer, which brings new features to faculty and students. Over the course of this year, I hope to continue to look for ways to improve this service.

And LIS has implemented a new print management system on campus and introduced Multifunctional Printers/Scanner/Copiers. This new printing/copying system will continue to allow students to print for free, but will hopefully also reduce the amount of wasted paper on campus. With this change in particular, (but with the others as well) comes a whole set of needs and anxieties from our users as they adjust. And that’s where the real work starts for many of us. It is our role within LIS to construct a network of support that will ensure that our users can adjust to our changes as smoothly as possible.  We have documentation in place and will continue to make adjustments to it as we discover holes in it. We have already done some training, more will come. And as with most small liberal arts colleges, we will also provide a lot of one-on-one help.

I’m told that in a few minutes, they’ll be raising that beam up onto the Science Center. I plan to go out and watch. The framework is in place; now over the course of this year they’ll be filling in the rest of the building. I think the same can probably be said for several of the things we’re working on in LIS…

What are the top IT issues for small Liberal Arts colleges?

As one fiscal and academic year comes to an end and another is about to begin at Wheaton, I’m starting starting to prepare materials for our department’s year-end annual report. This not only provides me with a chance to reflect on the last year, but also to look forward to what the challenges and opportunities for the coming year will be. So, for that reason alone, the title of this post has been on my mind these days. But I’m interested in this topic for several other reasons as well.

First off, Wheaton is about to get a new Associate Vice President for Library and Information Services (and I’m about to get a new boss)! This is great news, because this position has been vacant for about a year now and while we have certainly been able to keep the trains running and even been able to make some good progress in certain areas, it will be nice to have some leadership within LIS again that will help us focus on addressing the top issues for both IT and Libraries.

This is also on my mind, because it’s been covered in a number of venues recently.The current issue of the Educause Review, for example, gives a “Top 10” (11 actually, because two of them tied for 6th place). Here they are:

    1. Funding IT
    2. Administrative/ERP/Information Systems
    3. Security
    4. Teaching and Learning with Technology
    5. Identity/Access Management
    6. (tie). Disaster Recovery / Business Continuity
    6. (tie). Governance, Organization, and Leadership
    7. Agility, Adaptability, and Responsiveness
    8. Learning Management Systems
    9. Strategic Planning
    10. Infrastructure/Cyberinfrastructure

This list is pretty good, though not entirely surprising, and I must admit I find some of the categories a little too broad. The article does a decent job of outlining the major questions under each topic, though. I for one am happy to see “Teaching and Learning with Technology” and “Learning Management Systems” featured so prominently in this list, as they are near and dear to my professional heart. And I would agree with what I think Issue #6b and Issue # 7 imply:  IT organizations (and merged organizations like those at Wheaton) need to develop better ways of prioritizing their projects and services in a time of fiscal austerity and in an environment of technological advances which require our organizations to remain “agile, adaptable, and responsive.” As the article puts it:

Keeping one foot in the present and the other in the future is the charge to which IT organizations and leadership must answer. Cloud-based applications and services, such as Gmail, as well as sophisticated consumer technologies, such as smartphones that rival the features of laptop computers, are entering campus technological environments at unprecedented rates. As more stakeholders seek the flexibility, functionality, and convenience of these new devices and systems, IT organizations must strive to meet their evolving needs and expectations. Such changes in behavior not only impact traditional IT support models but also challenge deeply rooted institutional policies, business processes, and operational practices.

Finally, I started this blog post a while ago (and let it sit in draft form for far too long), as a way to digest a recent conference I attended in June: the annual conference of the Consortium for Liberal Arts Colleges. Bryan Alexander addressed this question by looking to the future. In his a keynote entitled Liberal Arts Campuses in 2015: five visions, he lays out five potential scenarios for IT in the liberal arts in 2015 based on current trends:

  • Digital Balkanization.  Silos are the norm, as an increasing amount of content and software  are located in separate platforms.  Academic life reflects this in many ways, directly and otherwise. (opposite of Open World, below)
  • The Long Great Recession.  The American economy remains flat, never recovering fully from the crash of 2008.  Campus budgets have flattened in response, and academic life has changed in other ways.
  • The Open World. Open content, open access, and open source are the norm.  (opposite of Digital Balkanization, above)
  • A World of Points.  Gaming is the world’s leading culture industry.  At the same time, our normative behaviors and interactions are shaped by gaming practices and role-playing.  Academia has started changing in response.
  • Imbrication Nation.  In a world where networked mobile devices are the norm, augmented reality is now mainstream.

Take a look at his blog post about it on the NITLE site, which also links to his Prezi presentation, for more. It’s a great way to think about how these trends and perhaps even how our actions as IT leaders could affect how we interact with information in the future at our institutions.

In addition to this and other great presentations and conversations that occurred at the conference, there was a really interesting thread on the CLAC listserv right before the conference started, subject line “What’s on my mind.” This conversation gave me a good view into what CIO’s at small liberal arts colleges from around the country are thinking about. I probably should not directly quote the content from that listserv, because I’m not sure if it is for public consumption. But I think I can at least summarize the major topics that arose from both that conversation and the conversations at the conference — at least from my point of view. In no particular order they were:

  1. Exploring alternatives to traditional technologies: There were several questions about use of Voice over IP (VOIP) instead of analog phones, whether cable TV was necessary in the dorms given content now available over the web, and whether wired connections to the internet in the dorms were necessary anymore.
  2. Data security: In this category, there were concerns about keeping certain kinds of data private and controlling access to information through effective forms of identity and access management.
  3. Mobile Devices: The iPad was in many people’s hands at this conference, and I think it and other mobile devices were on people’s minds. Do we provide them? Do we provide content for them? Will they replace the laptop?
  4. The Future of the Learning Management System: Many small colleges have now moved to open source LMSes. Some are still thinking about it. Some are wondering if other technologies (e.g. blogs and wikis) will one day supplant the LMS.
  5. Handling high demand for services with a small(er) staff: Some institutions have had staff reductions, others because of their size had a small staff to start with. But we are living in an increasingly rich technological environment and our user community have increasing expectations for our services. How do we meet those needs and manage expectations?
  6. Getting value out of the ERP: ERP (Enterprise resource planning) software (e.g. Banner or PeopleSoft) is integral to a colleges’ business operations. But this software is also hard to use and expensive to maintain. How do we get the best value out of these systems? And what do projects like Kuali mean for small colleges?
  7. Funding replacements: How do we continue to fund replacing desktops, infrastructure, and classroom technology when our budgets are shrinking?
  8. The Cloud/Outsourcing: Do we look to cloud services like those that Google provides to save money and improve services? Do they really do both of those things?
  9. Managing Projects: How do we set priorities for our projects in IT? And how can we both plan well and be agile?
  10. Managing relations with other departments: More and more IT organizations need to collaborate with other departments on campus. Contact with the Communications department, who are now managing web sites, is one obvious example where this is happening… but it’s occurring in other places as well.

As I finish up this blog post, I am realizing that it is probably an overly ambitious one. I’m sure I haven’t covered everything. Perhaps I’ve done too much! But blogs don’t need to be the final word, right? I wanted to at least make sure that I captured what I’ve been hearing and thinking as I move forward into a new year and under new leadership within our merged organization. I’m sure this is a question I’ll be returning to again and again, and that we’ll be returning to as an organization.

When is it “good enough”?

We had the third Tech N Talk Tuesday brownbag lunch this week. It’s part of a series; each week over this semester (and maybe next if this is successful), we host lunchtime conversations about technology’s intersection with teaching and research. We cover a different topic every week. The first was on Mobile Devices in the classroom. The second was on Podcasting (with two faculty presenters: Leah Niederstadt and Michael Drout).

This week we discussed a class project by Assistant Professor of Hispanic Studies, Domingo Ledezma. Faculty Technology Liaison, Jenni Lund, helped him out with the project. Ledezma’s students worked with primary sources — 16th century Spanish texts about the exploration of the “New World” — and digital images of maps from the period. Using the book as a source, they worked with Google Earth to map out part of one of Magellan’s voyages and attached text (in Spanish that they wrote) and images (primarily cropped segments of maps from the period) to points along his journey. The images were created by students cropping digital versions of old maps and uploading them to Flickr. (I’ll find the link to the Flickr account and post it here soon.) Great stuff!

Some good questions were raised by Ledezma’s talk: These types of projects are a great way to get students interested in and grappling with the texts, he told us, and so they function as great pedagogical tools. The process of creating this interactive map in GoogleEarth helps them learn more about the text — much in the same way researching and writing papers helps them learn about a topic. But what happens to these projects when the class is over?

One faculty member wanted to know where we store them and make them available for others to see. Sure, we can put them up on the web, but multimedia projects like this that are pulling from multiple sources — a kml file, Flickr — and which use GoogleEarth for display are not like an academic paper that fits well into… say… DSpace. And there’s no guarantee that a project like this will last into the future. Will GoogleEarth and Flickr always be around? Will we be able to view these maps ten years from now? At the rate technological changes are moving, what about 1 or 2 years from now?

Ledezma and others followed up with questions about trying to show others this work. Is it ready to just post somewhere after the class is over? Given that class projects are… well class projects, it would seem that a certain about copyediting and fact checking needs to happen before it is put out there for all to see. But who does that work? We’ve hired students to do it in the past — but is that the right approach? And my big question: how much of this kind of work really needs to be done before we can post it?

I have worked on a lot of projects that we planned on getting up on the Web to share with others, but that we held off on posting because we wanted to make sure it was right before we did. More recently, I have been thinking that you have to decide ahead of time that there comes a point when a project is “good enough.” After a while, you have to stop tinkering and just get it up there. The trickier part is finding that sweet spot — the point in the project where the thing you put out there isn’t too chocked full of errors, but that isn’t too long after when the project started or the class ended.

Someone attending the talk rightly noted that the point of these projects isn’t so much the product anyway — that it’s the process. The process helped those old texts come alive for students. The process made students more engaged. If that’s the case, maybe we should just post them right away. Or maybe not at all? I don’t know… on the one hand, it would be a shame to hide all of that good work, but on the other, I’m not sure the perfectionist in me would want to get stuff out there that was too rough. I’m thinking my new mantra might need to be, “there comes a time when it’s good enough.” I just wish I could find a way to know when it was that time.

It’s ironic that that I should be ending on this note and that this theme is the title of this blog post. You see, I started writing this on Tuesday and have been coming back to it on and off ever since. It seems I’ve got to have the same attitude about posting to my blog too. OK, Scott, time to post. This may not be perfect… but it’s a blog! And good enough.