High Tech or High Touch?

I came across the phrase “high tech or high touch” in something I was reading recently, can’t remember what. The expression presumes that there’s a dichotomy between the two — that they are in essence, mutually exclusive. Why can’t we have both?

We tend to think about technology as isolating. We don’t really talk to each other any more. We text, or IM. And it’s not uncommon to see a whole group of people out to eat at a restaurant, and everyone is heads down in their cell phones. So perhaps it is — or can be.

But technology can also bring us closer to each other, and create a sense of community and connectedness.

I have family living in multiple parts of the country, as well as internationally — California, Florida, England — and I’m here in Wisconsin. My three siblings and I have nine children between us. With that many schedules to coordinate, along with the cost of travel, we are only really able get together in person once every 12 to 18 months or so. For most of our adult lives we would call or email each other from time-to-time, but it never felt satisfying.

And then Google Hangouts came along. We scheduled a weekly “family call” — it’s every week, at the same time (depending on time zone), and everyone who is around at that time logs onto the call. For a couple of years now we’ve been able to literally see how everyone is doing, and watch our nieces and nephews grow up. And because they see us weekly, we’re no longer strangers when we all do get together in person. Technology connects us.

It’s worked the same for me in my professional life, too. I travelled to the EDUCAUSE national conference last month, something I do every year. There are literally thousands of IT professionals who attend the conference, which, honestly, can be incredibly overwhelming for an introvert like me. It’s hard to make friends and meet people. It’s easy to feel alone in a crowd of 7,000. Except I’m active on Twitter at these types of conferences, and that has changed my conference experience. Suddenly, I’m part of a community, sharing thoughts and ideas about the experience with other like-minded people. Being “social”. And the social nature doesn’t end online — the community that is formed there helps to connect us to people offline, too. I recognized people who I had interacted with on Twitter, and they recognized me — starting conversations.

The connections don’t end with conversations or community-building, either. Throughout my career I’ve been blessed to have been introduced into a number of different communities, but also have moved around enough to not stay connected to them — and the people in them — regularly, at least not face-to-face. One of these groups are the folks behind EduSoCal. I now count these three musketeers as dear friends because of the relationships we’ve formed primarily through social media — Facebook and Twitter — supplemented with in-person get togethers at EDUCAUSE and other conferences.

Granted, there’s no substitution for a good old-fashioned face-to-face conversation, and “real life” interactions. But that’s not always possible. The power of technology to connect us — supplementing, supporting, and sometimes enabling those face-to-face connections — proves that we *can* have both “high tech” and “high touch,” at the same time.

What Do You Choose?

The always thought-provoking @ValaAfshar posted this on Twitter the other day:

If you look for the good in people, you’ll find it. If you look for the bad in people, you’ll find it. Remember, reciprocity.

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been reflecting on relationships recently — both personal and professional ones. No matter the type, relationships can be hard work.

We don’t always have choices in our relationships, especially at work. We can’t choose our co-workers or colleagues, the perspective and experiences they bring to their role, or how they may react in any given situation. But we can choose how we perceive those reactions, and how we respond.

The language we use to describe our interactions defines them. And the broad, sweeping generalizations we make about each other defines how we perceive those interactions, and respond. We’ve all heard the sentiments about the “inherent” conflict between administrators and faculty — administrators are out to impose their will on faculty, and faculty are resistant to change. We each have to “fight the good fight” to advance our perspective.

These thoughts frame our relationships with each other, predisposing us to look for “the bad” instead of “the good.” Consider the conversation to be adversarial instead of collegial. We can’t see that an action, reaction, or response might be unintentional, or driven by fear, or because someone is dealing with something unrelated in their personal life. We can only see what we’ve already decided to see — actions within the context of the frame we’ve created.

What happens if we choose, instead, to give the benefit of the doubt? Assume no malevolent intent? What opportunities might we create to better understand each other? Form deeper and more collaborative relationships? Find “the good” in the people around us?

Only you can make the choice…

Untethered, But Totally Shackled

I got a chance to play with Google Glass today, and wow — how cool is that?!? If you haven’t seen or played with Glass yet, find someone who has one and try it out. Now. Do not pass go, do not collect….well, you know the drill.

Glass frees us. It — along with  smart phones, tablets, phablets, and other mobile devices — enables us to live our lives completely untethered. On my way to EDUCAUSE this year I responded to emails from 30,000 feet in the air, and engaged with other conference goers via Twitter on the van ride to the hotel. These devices create opportunity — any location can be a classroom, every learner can create and engage his or her own personal learning network (PLN), anytime, anywhere.

But these devices also enslave us. I used to read on airplanes — real books, on paper. Or maybe I’d watch a movie. Now, I work. We used to talk to each other in person, or on the (landline) phone. Now people at the same dinner table communicate with each other via Facebook, Twitter, or text. My phone is the first thing I check in the morning, and the last thing I look at before I go to sleep at night. I sleep with it only a few feet away. And every time it buzzes or bings, I get a slight adrenaline rush. I feel compelled to check it, immediately.

I am not nostalgic for the “good old days.” I believe in the power that technology holds to transform our lives. But I do wonder, is being untethered *and* unshackled mutually exclusive, or is there another way?

MOOCs, MOOCs, MOOCs!

MOOCs, MOOCs, MOOCs! (said in the cadence of “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia“…)

I am *so* tired of hearing about MOOCs these days. There are cMOOCs and xMOOCs and blended MOOCs, oh my. There are small MOOCs — called SPOCs, standing for Small Private Online Classes — which defy all logic because, umm….doesn’t the first letter in MOOC stand for “massive”, making it, by definition *not* small?!? [pause rant] Okay, I’m being a little snarky here, SPOCs do bring with them some interesting and new elements to online education. But still…. [continue rant] I cannot go two days without hearing, seeing, or reading something about MOOCs. I mean, I now get *entire* newsletters and ezines dedicated to MOOCs, for pete’s sake. Anyway….you get the point. Seems like these days it’s all MOOCs, all the time.

College campuses like mine are abuzz with conversations about MOOCs. Should we be afraid of them? Do they even apply to us? How do they fit into a liberal arts educational context? Are they the next big business model? Will they replace traditional colleges? For the record, the answers probably go something like: no, yes, figure it out, no, and no (but will they alter it? yes).

As someone who came up working in startups, in Silicon Valley, in the late ’90s, I know something about hype. The first startup I worked for went from 13 to 200+ employees in the first year. We *literally* created an industry that hadn’t existed before — email marketing (yes, for all of you who now get spammed by dozens of “email marketers” each day, you can thank me). We went public after my first year, and had a billion — with a “B” — dollar valuation on day one with only about a million in sales. And we actually had a good business model, unlike so many other startups with similar trajectories but no chance of making money, ever. Now that’s hype.

The MOOC thing? Also hype. But — and this is a biggie — the startup hype of the late ’90s *did* produce ideas and businesses that ended up revolutionizing the way we do things. Like email marketing. And so will MOOCs. It may only be in hindsight — like with the dotcom bubble and burst — that we understand how.

The Only Constant

The only thing that’s constant is change.

Rising tuition costs. Shrinking population of 18-year old students. Increased attention from the federal government. An unsustainable business model. You don’t have to look very far to find a reason why higher education has got to change.

You would think that we would be primed for it. After all, we’re in the business of change. Education — especially in a small, liberal arts college — is about exploration, and transformation. Aka, change. It’s about learning how to learn, and how to apply universally-applicable skills like writing and critical thinking to whatever challenges (job and otherwise) we are presented with in the future. We teach our students to be lifelong learners. And, understanding that the world is constantly changing, prepare them for jobs that have not even been created yet.

And yet we, as institutions and as individuals who work in them, do not seem to want to change. We hang onto our traditions, our structures, our processes…dare I say *afraid* to let go? We are challenged to separate WHAT we do, and the value that it provides, from HOW we do it. We accept change as a given in our personal lives — maybe begrudgingly, but who among us still listens to 8-tracks, wears bell bottoms, or has a “brick” cell phone? So why do we expect (insist, even) that our work — from administrative processes to classroom technology — will remain completely unchanged?

How can we remain credible to our students if we cannot ourselves be lifelong learners? How can we remain relevant to our time if we cannot prepare ourselves for education models that have not yet been created? And why, oh why, are we so resistant to change?

A Time for Reflection

As a Catholic liberal arts institution, my college has time set aside every Wednesday from 10 to 11 a.m for “Sacred Hour”. The Norbertine’s value contemplation, and in keeping with that, Sacred Hour is a time for prayer, meditation, reflection, relaxation…pretty much anything you want except for work. No meetings can be scheduled, non-essential offices close, and the campus all but shuts down for one hour per week. Well, sort of.

Turns out that getting people to shut off or shut down for one hour is hard. With all of the talk about creating “work-life balance”, you’d think that we’d be thrilled with an institutionally-mandated break in our day and our week. Where we’re getting paid to do nothing. And there’s no expectation that we’ll have to “make up” the time. But increasingly, we’re having to *remind* people to leave their desks. Cancel their meetings. Not hold office hours or exam make-ups during this time.

Now, I must admit — I’m one of those people who strongly encourages my team to take advantage of the gift of time that Sacred Hour affords us, but spends far too much of it at my desk quietly working. It’s not that I don’t value the time. And it’s not that I don’t think it’s important. I do. It’s just that I am someone who has a really difficult time shutting down. Heck, I have a difficult time even *slowing* down.

And yet, taking time for reflection is every bit as important to being effective in your job as doing the work itself. Maybe more so, in roles where thinking strategically — about the big picture and long term — is a critical component of the job. And maintaining healthy body and mind — through exercise, sleep, eating, meditation, and more — helps us focus more, stress less, think clearer, and just generally be more balanced in the job itself. Or at least it does for me.

Today is Wednesday, and once again I spent the hour between 10 and 11 at my desk. But this time, it was a little different. Today I spent my time thinking about and writing this blog post, a form of personal reflection. So this Sacred Hour, I struck a balance. And isn’t balance what life’s all about, after all?

What a Long Strange Year It’s Been…

Extra brownie points to anyone who knows the musical reference in the title. :-)

It has been quite a year. It’s been over a year since my last post, but it’s not like I’ve been busy or anything. I just moved across country, started a new job, completed a massive reorganization, oversaw the hiring of about a half dozen new staff, renovated our office suite (which included facilitating the move from private offices to an open-concept, office-less workspace), drafted our strategic plan, and got promoted to vice president. Somewhere along the way, I was named as a “rising star” social CIO on Twitter, wrote a reference guide on classroom technology, and was appointed to the NITLE advisory board. So like I said…

Plenty of time to blog. Or not. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised to have Some guy named Rae… included as a 2013 “must read” higher education IT blog. What an honor! And a great reason to do something I’ve been meaning and wanting to do anyway — start blogging again.

So I pledge, dear readers, to write at least once per month for the next year. Maybe more, but certainly no less. And with this post, August 2013 is done…right? :-)


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