Posts Tagged 'academic tech'


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.

Death of the Computer Lab?

Question: What are the most popular buzzwords in IT?

Answer: Last year, the “cloud”. This year (so far), “VCL” and “VDI”. As in, if you can build a virtual computing lab (VCL) using virtual desktop infrastructire (VDI), you can shut down at least some of your computing labs and save money as a result.


Everything we know about computing labs indicates that lab usage has *increased*, even as the number of student-owned computers/laptops has risen to near universal levels. Let me rephrase that. Other options exist, but usage has increased. And yet we believe that the introduction of another option (ie, VCL/VDI) will now decrease usage/need?

Ummm….remember when computers and email were supposed to help us move to the “paperless” office? Yeah, I’m getting more paper than *ever* these days, too.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of VDI. We have a virtualization strategy at Menlo that extends far beyond the lab (more on that later), and are very excited about VDI’s potential — as a change agent for how we deploy desktops across the institution, and as an extension of the physical lab. But not as a replacement for it.

Here’s how I see it…

Today we have specialized labs that each run a different set of software. So to teach a Photoshop class, you have to reserve lab #1, and to teach an accounting class with Quickbooks or another accounting application, you have to reserve lab #2.

A VCL/VDI solution changes this, because you can virtualize your Photoshop desktop or accounting desktop, and then allow access to that desktop from any lab, or really, any location. This enables your faculty to reserve any lab they want, but unless you have dozens of underutilized labs, doesn’t change the fact that faculty will still want to teach their classes using the software, which generally means, in a lab somewhere.

And keeping in mind that virtually everything we do is computer dependent these days, and more and more disciplines/professions are using specialized software, the instructional usage of labs is only bound to increase. In fact, we built another instructional computing lab at Menlo last summer, and it’s already nearing max capacity (and usage in our other labs has not decreased).

Does that mean you shouldn’t explore VCL/VDI? No!!

In my view, there are a good number of benefits that VDI can provide your constituents, and your staff. Better access to software, increased life of hardware (you can run a virtual desktop on the equipment in your physical labs, too, not just in the ether), easier image/desktop management, greater flexibility, simplified support, and so on. Presumably lower costs too.

So is there a strong case for virtualizing your desktops? I believe so, yes. But as for those reports about the death of the computer lab as a result? Ehhhh, not so much.

The “Trouble-Free Semester” Challenge

Recently I sat down with our Faculty Senate steering committee to discuss ways to engage faculty in short and long-term IT strategic planning. While we had a protracted conversation on the subject, one comment stood out—both for the insight it provided me and for the subsequent conversation and thought that it has sparked. Roughly paraphrased, it was this: “I can’t even begin to think about what technology I may want in the classroom in the future when I can’t trust that the technology that’s there now will work [and she gave an example of a classroom that wasn’t functioning properly]. Give me a semester without any technical problems, and then we can talk.” My gut reaction and immediate answer was, “it’s not possible.”

I can hear you faculty-types now…typical IT answer, always “no.” Guilty as charged, on this one anyway. But in fairness, my thoughts raced to all of the different types of reported “IT issues” we encounter in any given week. A fair number of them aren’t really technical problems—they range from power issues (something was turned off) to user “tinkering” (in a classroom another professor or student may change a setting), to just plain old user error. There are a decent amount of truly technical problems mixed in, of course—and we can, and should, minimize those. But when all issues are lumped together as “IT” problems, well, I feared we would never be able to meet the “trouble-free semester” (TFS) challenge.

I’ve thought about this comment a lot since that meeting, and have revisited it several times in conversation with our Senate chair. Underlying it, I believe, isn’t just a frustration and lack of confidence in the technology, but with the IT department itself (based on tenuous faculty-IT relations with several previous IT directors). So I know, and accept, that my first job must be to cultivate relationships with our faculty and build trust based on open communication, collaboration, and accountability.

With stronger faculty-IT relations, a “trouble-free semester” is not at all out of the question. Together, we can discuss our respective roles and responsibilities in resolving both real and perceived technical problems, and use real data—via Help Desk tickets—to quantify our current level of IT issues, and set targets for reducing/eliminating them. Already, as a result of these initial conversations, we (in IT) are discussing maintenance measures, from regular classroom “check-ups” to automated nightly restarts of classroom computers to reset key settings, to prevent problems *before* they occur.

And so, dear faculty…I believe we *can* create that trouble-free semester, after all. Will you join me in accepting the TFS challenge?

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