Saturday, March 26, 2011

Why Research is Important

On Thursday night, Gail and I had the opportunity to attend the undergraduate research banquet at Seaver College (Seaver College is the undergraduate liberal arts college at Pepperdine). The evening consisted of a dinner, followed by a series of breakout sessions featuring original scholarship conducted by our undergraduates, through a collaborative relationship with individual faculty members. It was an impressive agenda. Fifty-one faculty mentors participated in the program, supporting eight-five students who carried out research projects, and thirty-five papers were presented.

This raises the question of why research is important, particularly at an undergraduate liberal arts college. If the core collaborative experience in college is the faculty to student relationship, which I strongly believe, then the core activity conducted through that collaboration must be an investigation of the world around us – the thing that we call life. This investigation is what we call research. Collaborating with undergraduate students through research is something that Pepperdine University does extremely well.

The concept of research is becoming more controversial in higher education these days. Sometimes, the word ‘research’ itself has taken on a bad connotation, reflecting that higher education is focusing too much of its efforts away from teaching students. In my home state of Texas, there has been considerable controversy of late. At the University of Texas, the Board of Regents recently hired (and later reassigned) a consultant who has previously published papers questioning the value of academic research and whether tenured faculty members are paid too much. These writings, published through the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPFF), support what TPFF calls “seven proposed breakthrough solutions” designed to reform higher education. These proposals are designed to reduce the costs of education through increased transparency, accountability, and better outcomes. These are timely and worthy goals regardless of what you think about TPFF's recommendations.

To be sure, when academic research is pursued at the expense of good teaching, even at the undergraduate level, something is not right. However, at the same time, we have to recognize that good teaching is not about imparting knowledge alone; it is about imparting the process by which knowledge is created. To use an analogy, we don’t want only to feed our students knowledge—we want to teach them how to fish for themselves. Doing so prepares our students to be creative, innovative, and productive members of society. That is how Pepperdine lives out its mission of preparing students for lives of purpose, service, and leadership.

A recent editorial in Pepperdine's student newspaper The Graphic summed up why research and teaching go hand-in-hand. It’s worth quoting:

We aren’t paying for knowledge at a university; knowledge is a free commodity these days. We misunderstand our education when we think it’s defined by doing well on tests and earning a GPA. There is something bigger that takes place. What the university provides, that no other website or book or library can provide, is an environment where those who love to learn can come and uncover reality together (Pepperdine Graphic, March 24, 2011).

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Some Progress, Ray, But Not Nearly Enough

After receiving a very significant amount of criticism regarding the Blackboard COURSEsites Terms of Use (TOU) over the past weeks, as discussed in a previous blog, Blackboard has responded by updating its TOU. In some ways, the changes could be considered an update, in the sense that the terms have been changed in order to accommodate concerns raised by the community. In other ways, the changes are really just clarifications of what Blackboard really means by its TOU. Despite this update, unfortunately, our biggest concerns with Blackboard COURSEsites have not yet been addressed. To Ray Henderson, the President of Blackboard Learn, let me say – There’s more work to be done here.

First, Blackboard has clarified that it does not intend to include advertising in COURSEsites “in order to support the service or generate revenue at this time” (emphasis added). Of course, Blackboard is free to change the TOU regarding the use of advertising at any time (without requiring your explicit agreement). This isn’t really much of a change from its previous TOU.

Second, Blackboard has clarified its need to obtain a license to view, copy, and distribute user content that is uploaded into COURSEsites. In an email, Blackboard stated that it requires “a license to the users’ content so that the COURSEsites staff and support representatives can view the content freely and duplicate as necessary” to diagnose the causes of issues and to rectify them “as they arise without disrupting active sessions.” Additionally, Blackboard has modified the TOU to state that it will not use users’ content for its own promotional and marketing materials without the express permission of the user. Fair enough; this satisfies my concerns about this section of the TOU.

Third, Blackboard has clarified who is permitted to use COURSEsites and has stated “with the exception of general tuition for student course enrollment in a non-profit institution, you (users) may not charge any fees to any party for their use of your COURSEsite.” Fair enough; this clarification to the TOU also satisfies concerns I raised earlier.

However, these minor changes do not in any way resolve the issues that currently prevent me, as CIO, from recommending COURSEsites to my faculty. Ray, it would be helpful if Blackboard would be willing to answer the questions raised in my earlier blog:

Is COURSEsites available for regular, recurring adoption by faculty members or is it limited to introductory, investigative use only?

Will faculty members be expected to pay a fee for regular, recurring use of COURSEsites beyond the “introductory, investigative” period?

Ray, resolving these questions in a way that is favorable to faculty who desire to use COURSEsites on a long-term basis would go a long way to ensuring that COURSEsites lives up to its potential. You articulated in your earlier blog that COURSEsites is “a free version of our (Blackboard’s) latest learning management system for individual instructors.” Until these two questions are resolved, it’s hard to see this as anything else than more marketing hype from Blackboard.

*Note the COURSEsites Terms of Use cited in this blog was downloaded from this site on March 18, 2011.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pepperdine's iPad Research Reported in CHE

Yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) did a story on the impact of the iPad on learning. The story, entitled “iPads Could Hinder Teaching, Professors Say” was expected, as some of our faculty and staff had participated in interviews with CHE reporters and the magazine had requested photographs of our faculty and students collaborating with the device. The story, which includes information on iPad initiatives at a number of institutions, was negative in tone and that was somewhat disappointing. My communications manager, Dana Hoover, did remind me though that Pepperdine’s coverage was by far the most positive report within the story itself.

Congratulations to Dana and Professor Timothy Lucas who has invested significant energy and enthusiasm into making this project a success.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Servant Leadership

Of all the positions in IT organizations, which is the most difficult? Is it the director of networking, who is responsible for making sure fast, reliable Internet service is always available? Is it the administrative systems director, who is often caught in the cross hairs between end users struggling to use the systems, managers who want to customize the systems, and campus leaders who want to reduce costs? Could it be the technology and learning director, who is responsible for advancing the use of technology in pedagogy amidst an often-reluctant faculty? Perhaps it is the CIO, who is responsible for coordinating all services and making sure they are delivered as one whole. There is one job that is tougher, one that is unheralded, that faces demands and that endures uncertainty like no other. It is the job of the helpdesk manager. 

There are three reasons why this is so, in my opinion.

First, the nature of supporting end users with technology is inherently stressful. Many times, the ones requesting support tend to request help only after they have endured significant frustration. Supporting these individuals is often done through some technology medium – such as over the telephone or by email communication – which removes face-to-face contact and body language from the conversation. These are stressful collaborations. Multiply that times 500 requests a week (in the case of Pepperdine) and you get a very demanding job; day-in, day-out.

Second, help desk managers have little control over the actual systems that end users have trouble with. That is to say, help desk managers find themselves at the mercy of others over whom they have no control. I have heard, on many occasions, stories from help desk staff who are able to identify trends and see problems that need to be corrected permanently, but who receive no support from others in the IT organization when trying to get this done. The combination of being squeezed between end users who need help and being powerless to control the circumstances causing the problems adds to the complexity of this work.

Third, the position requires strategic thinking. Although it is often easier to just sit back, respond to requests reactively, and leave at the end of the day, help desk managers also have to face strategic responsibilities. These include analysis of user support patterns, identification of underlying problems not always apparent at the surface level, and advocating for solutions to others for whom the help desk isn’t always a priority. Diligence, and even perseverance, is a required part of the job every single day.

The best help desk managers I know are those who handle these responsibilities in a way that can only be described as servant leadership. The concept of servant leadership was suggested by Robert Greenleaf, who described it as the concept of leadership through serving the needs of others. By making the needs of others a priority, being mindful of them, and always giving them attention, one becomes a humble steward of people – the most important resource in any organization.

The help desk manager as servant leader has been on my mind this past week because the person who played this role for me at Texas A&M University at Qatar recently passed away. Teresa Chipman can only be described as a servant leader. Always a great listener, empathetic, and acting constantly with foresight, she was a vital part of the community of Texas A&M University faculty, students, and staff working and living in Qatar. She was a member of the church that Gail and I supported in our home, she hosted us for many meals in her home, and she is the one who introduced me to LOST.

Teresa, I will always remember the grace that you brought each day to a very difficult job. Your example of servant leadership is one that I aspire to everyday. May you rest in peace, and know that I have faith that we will see each other again.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

March 2011 Information Technology Status and Activity Report Up

Our Information Technology Status and Activity Report for March, 2011 is up and available. Lots of good things going on, including our launch of the annual TechQual+ survey. As of today, about 225 individuals (10% response rate) have completed the survey. Our goal is to exceed a 20% response rate and we are well on our way to achieving that. The data collected in this survey provides the foundation for our regular, recurring cycles of planning throughout the organization.

For more information please read this month's report. Congratulations to my colleagues for a great month!

March 2011 Information Technology Status and Activity Report

Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Step in the Right Direction, Ray, but…

This morning, I created my account on Blackboard COURSEsites. According to Ray Henderson, the President of Blackboard Learn, COURSEsites is “a free version of our (Blackboard’s) latest learning management system for individual instructors.” As you may know, Pepperdine University discontinued its use of Blackboard Learn last month and adopted Sakai in its place, upon the recommendation of Pepperdine faculty and students.

My point in writing is not to beat a well-beaten horse further regarding Blackboard products or service quality (try typing ‘Blackboard gripes’ into Google), nor is it to provide a ringing endorsement of Blackboard Learn as an LMS. However, I do think that the introduction and availability of COURSEsites is a very positive development for Blackboard. If we take Ray Henderson at his word, which I do, that COURSEsites represents Blackboard taking “inspiration from the open source model…to its logical extreme,” then this is a step in the right direction for a company whose motivations are often viewed as suspect.

Nevertheless, as my colleagues on the EDUCAUSE CIO listserv have pointed out, when you dig a bit deeper beyond the marketing hype, the COURSEsites terms of use (TOU) raise several questions.

Is COURSEsites available for regular, recurring adoption by faculty members or is it limited to introductory, investigative use only?

The COURSEsites TOU states that it “gives clients an opportunity to utilize Blackboard technology on an introductory basis.” Ray acknowledges that COURSEsites is considered as a marketing tool for encouraging grass roots faculty support for purchasing an enterprise license for Blackboard Learn. Because “introductory basis” is not defined in the TOU, it is unclear how long Blackboard will allow a faculty member to use COURSEsites on a recurring basis. What is clear is that regular, recurring use by individual faculty member should not be assumed.

Will faculty members be expected to pay a fee for regular, recurring use of COURSEsites beyond the “introductory, investigative period?

The COURSEsites TOU states that faculty “must pay all applicable fees associated with your use of the Service. Any renewals of the Service shall be at Blackboard’s then-current rates.” One can easily infer that after a faculty member completes their “introductory period,” they may be expected to pay a subscription fee to Blackboard for their continued use of COURSEsites.

Can COURSEsites be used for active courses offered by a college or university for which students are charged tuition and fees?

The COURSEsites TOU states that faculty members agree not to “reproduce, duplicate, sell, trade, resell or exploit for any commercial purposes any portion of the Service, use of the Service, or access to the service.” If I am teaching a course at Pepperdine, because Pepperdine charges students tuition and fees for the course, am I in violation of the TOU?

These are just three of the most egregious sections of the TOU. There are parts that are equally problematic, such as inability to opt out of Blackboard marketing communications, a lack of clarity regarding backups and disaster recovery provisions, and Blackboard’s ability to copy and use all content stored in COURSEsites for their own marketing and promotional purposes. Because of all of these issues, I could not recommend to any of my faculty colleagues that they adopt COURSEsites for any of their courses.

This raises the question: What exactly is Blackboard up to? There appears to be a very real gap in terms of the marketing hype surrounding COURSEsites (i.e., that it is a free Blackboard offering for use by individual faculty members) and the nitty gritty detail expressed in the COURSEsites TOU (i.e., that it is a marketing tool intended for evaluation only). It is precisely this type of gap that is typical of Blackboard marketing and leads many to hold Blackboard suspect.

Let me state again, for the record: Ray, you are to be commended for a step in the right direction. Now, I encourage you to “stick the landing” and update the COURSEsites TOU so that it is a free service for adoption by individual faculty members on a regular, recurring basis. Doing so will help you to increase the impact of Blackboard on higher education, while also helping you to sell more Blackboard Learn licenses. Not doing so will limit the potential impact of this initiative.

Note: the COURSEsites TOU described in this document was downloaded from this location on Wednesday, March 2, 2011.