Thursday, November 09, 2006

Academic Resource Center: the Little Engine that Could

Six weeks into classes, and our Academic Resource Center is just sitting there, so over-resourced and underused it's almost embarrassing. It was a good idea -- to create a space where students can go to get help about any of the services offered by our academic support group, a one-stop shopping resource offering services from the library, IT, media center, writing center, and quantitative skills center. For a great example of this kind of thing, see Allegheny College's Learning Commons. Their director, Rick Holmgren, told me that it took five years for the idea to take shape and become a reality. Which should make me feel better about ours given that it hasn't even been a year since we started talking about it.

You could say, with apologies to Dr. John, that we were in the right place but it must have been the wrong time. Except it's the other way around. Our timing was really good, but we're in a really bad location.

Timing - We've got freshmen now, and they're young and unsure of themselves (although they want you to think they've got their acts together). Many of them are really in need of some help, but they aren't taking advantages of the services we offer.

Location - We've put our new center in a suite housing the advising and administrative offices for lower division. It's not a place where students tend to hang out. It's behind a door down a weird hall from the cafe. It's so quiet you feel like you should whisper when you're there. However, it was the only place available to us, so we happily made it our home.

We're all getting pretty dispirited about our persistent lack of visitors, thinking it must be a failed experiment. I'm trying to hold on to the fact that it is a Good Idea. But we need to be in a place where students already go. This is a non-residential campus. These tend to be the places where students hang out when not in class: the Commons Cafe, various little study alcoves, the vistas (open areas with chairs and tables and great views of the wetlands), and the Library.

We need to be in the Library. A year ago, even six months ago, I would have said this wasn't possible for political, financial, and logistical reasons. Things change, thank goodness. Things haven't changed enough yet for this kind of move to happen, but I can see a possibility. If we can hang on through the rest of the year, we might be able to get to a better place. Which would still be only two years into this this!

In January we need to submit a proposal to fund our Center for the 2007-2008 academic year. We were originally hoping to be able to show use statistics at that point demonstrating the need for this service. Instead, we have a harder job of convincing a committee of students that this really is a good idea, in spite of the lack of use this fall, and that it's worth funding the continuing experiment of making it work. I think we can do this. I think we can. I think we can. I think we can.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Getting a Life*

One of the really intriguing things that people were talking about at educause this year was the use of multi-player on-line games in instruction. I was mulling that over yesterday while reading blogs and came across a mention of Second Life in ALA Tech Source, lauding the amount and variety of library activities available there. I don't know where I've been (I think maybe under a big soggy leaf), but I decided it's time to see what the fuss is all about.

So I downloaded Second Life and dived in. I felt completely lost at first, and kind of hounded by messages and crowds. All around me people kept saying things like, "Help! I'm confused!" and "Am I naked?" and "What do we do now?" I hate crowds, and I hate confusion. And I was very confused because for some reason I couldn't see my own avatar. So after floundering about I quit, and went back to trying to tame my email - a familiar, declawed, sedate old beast. But before long I went back to Second Life, which had politely left me in the museum-like space where I had been when I quit, although I have no clue how I got there.

And ah-ha, this time I could see my avatar! Immediately somebody says, "Hey Elizabeth, nice body!" (Elizabeth being my name there.) And I thought, "Jerk!" But then I thought - what is that weird striped thing behind me? Do I have a tail? Yes! I have a big furry white and black tail, and I have lots of other furry stuff. And I have no idea why. Obviously I have a lot to learn. I removed the tail and put on some clothes and then I flew for a couple of minutes.

Next time I visit I'm going to quit obsessing about my looks. I'm excited about checking out Info Island, for example. It's interesting to me that librarians seem to have taken this so much to heart. What an image change that profession is going through!

* This entry honors the memory of Ian Beach, who most certainly would have been bubbling and excited about Second Life possibilities some time ago, who would have given me a really hard time about the furry tail, and whose vision and enthusiasm continue to be missed, big time.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Back from EDUCAUSE

It's always rejuvenating, going to EDUCAUSE. And although I usually get some great information from the sessions themselves, the best part is the talking and listening - the conversations with colleagues who get closer every year and chance meetings with strangers during lunch or while waiting for the shuttle.

I think I swapped baggage. I left home feeling ineffectual, very cynical, and pretty cranky about it. I didn't even know I had gotten so cynical until I started talking with fellow Fryers, most of whom were enthusiastic and optimistic and excited about what they were doing. They gave me lots of encouragement:
  • In response to my reluctance to blog because of its public nature - "Use a pseudonym!"
  • Regarding my hopelessness about how long it takes to make things happen - "But you've only been working on it for a year! It took us 5 years to do a similar thing!"
  • About being buried too deep in the organization's structure to be effective - "Gather information and tell good stories!"
They spoke in happy exclamations like that. I despaired that I had let myself get so cynical and resolved to have a positive attitude. It's not like I left all my baggage in Dallas, though. I just traded my old bags in for something different - less cynical, more determined, but with other bits that I won't mention because this is, after all, public. I'm not going to use an alias, even though it was a great suggestion. I'll just try not to pour it all out, even though some of you (my mom, for example) would probably be more interested in reading this if I did.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Blog Topics

You sure wouldn't know it by reading this blog but I actually do think, a lot, about blog topics. I've got quite the list of things that I might some day write about. Maybe. Here are some of them:

- Why I don't blog very often
- Exercise as a way to access the divine (or maybe it's just the sublime)
- UW's courseware discussions
- Can collaboration work when there's unequal commitment to a project?
- Moving forward in spite of it all
- Be prepared and be flexible: where IT resources need to go
- Strategic planning
- Perseverence
- Being creative with space, or Where do we put all this stuff?
- Thoughts on Facebook and MySpace
- My karate kid

Maybe someday soon I'll start at the top and work my way down. Maybe.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Our Frye Practica Reports are due soon. Here's what happens when I try to work on mine:

I'd better check my mail first to make sure there aren't any crises I should know about. Oh, I haven't read today's Chronicle mail. I really ought to scan through that so I can stay on top of what's going on in the world of higher ed. Article on how priming can affect how beautiful you think something is makes me think of Mark which reminds me that he should be back by now from taking Davey to the dentist, so I call to see how the appointment went. We get to talking about our "new" piano which we just adopted yesterday from some friends who are downsizing, so after talking to Mark I sent email to my dad (retired Presbyterian minister) to ask if he had any old hymnals lying around, because hymnals are full of great, easy-to-play music. Got email right back that he would send me one of the "red" hymnals that I grew up with. Yay.

Okay. Better get to work. But first I better check my calendar to be sure I'm right that I don't have any meetings for a couple of hours. Yep. But I do have those interviews this afternoon, and I better read the resumes so I can remember who the candidates are. Which makes me really sleepy. So I walk across campus to the coffee cart where I buy a chai and run into Cheryl and start a conversation about how odd it is that cats race wildly through the house at night as if being chased by dragons.

Walking back I realize that I haven’t heard from Andreas in a while about our blogging project, and that Becky and I really need to get to work on training plans for the fall, and how are we going to support clickers, and did I put next week’s retreat on my calendar, and did I get Davey signed up for that last week of summer camp, and which chapter of Oblinger’s book did I say I would report on, and why in the world am I walking around outside when I have all this work to do?

Back in my office, I have a brief conversation with Andreas about blogging, and then decide I really better get to work on the Frye report. But then it strikes me: when was the last time I ran Spybot? Can’t remember, so I run it now, and then update VirusScan for good measure.

Aaaaiii! 45 minutes have gone by and I haven’t done a thing! So what do I do next? I blog about it!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Somehow mountains move. Which is why I am so drawn to that Goethe quote that serves as the subheading for this blog: there's a magic that happens when you start something. And it's really, really cool.

Despite my fears and complaints during the past year about the work we're doing here, there is progress. It won't look like much to some people, but given the enormous workload we struggle under, most of which is related to maintaining the status quo, I'm feeling proud of the little bit we've been able to accomplish so far.

Podcasting: I appointed a task force to make recommendations for how we might collaborate with the Campus Media Center to start offering scalable support. The group suggested three possible solutions, with varying degrees of associated resource needs. We hope to have a pilot project running by the fall.

Blogging: We're experimenting with Moveable Type. The infrastructure piece is finished. As we figure out how to support it, Student Affairs will be our test group. They hope to pick an incoming freshman who can keep an interesting and appropriate blog, and they plan to stay in touch with incoming first years partially through blog postings. Starting in the fall, we might expand this pilot to include our Faculty Institute.

(Aside: We will actually have first year students here in the fall. I mean, we have deposits from bunches of them. We are giddy with that success.)

Collaboration: I'm on a task force that's planning a academic resource center for first years. We're going to be located in the same office suite that will host the first year advisor and program coordinator. The plan is to bring together all of the disparate services offered through Academic Services, with the goal of helping first years get themselves oriented to the kinds of support available to them. This resource center (which sure does need a name at this point) will also be the main support center for our developing electronic tools - blogging, Blackboard, electronic portfolio (once we get there), web page development, etc.

(Another aside: I have done what I can to move us away from using the word "freshmen," and towards the less loaded "first years," but there's too much standing in the way. We're going to have freshmen, but I'm going to keep calling them first years until the tide comes in.)

It's pretty amazing to me to see that we actually are making progress, even if it feels awfully slow at times. I'm proud of my folks who have worked so hard to get things started. There's a long way yet to go, of course, but now that we're underway things will continue to happen.
Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now. - Goethe

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Getting saved through laughter

There's way too much seriousness in the world. Today I ran across this great essay by Ryan Bachtel on the American Democracy Project.

Lorenz believes that humanity’s one ace in the hole might be our capacity to laugh. In his words: “It redirects threatening behavior [and] forms immediate bonds … Humor is a lie detector. It unmasks pretence, debunks arrogance.” He takes this further, quoting G. K. Chesterton, who wrote: “the religion of the future will be a highly developed sense of humor.” You might have noticed that people do not generally kill one another over ideas that are acceptable to joke about.

Keep laughing!

Monday, March 06, 2006

Time and iTunes

Time is most definitely not a river, or if it is then the one that I'm riding on crashes and bounces down waterfalls most of the time. Who has time to keep a blog? Not me, apparently.

But I refuse to drown! Very soon, really, I'm going to blog about progress on the local electronic communities front. But for now I have to make note of my idea for a future update to iTunes software.

Playlists for the Lazy: I run; I cook; I clean; I fold clothes; I drink wine -- all while listening to my iPod, usually in Shuffle mode, and the music I like to hear is likely to change depending on what I'm doing at the time. Many people create playlists for just this purpose. But I am lazy. (Or perhaps I have a bad relationship with Time. See above.)

I have profound and revolutionary ideas when I run. Here's Saturday's idea. This grew out of 1) an earlier conversation about Clippy, the annoying MS Office help thing, 2) a sense that my iPod has a mind of its own, and 3) endorphines. It's AI for the iPod, especially for the lazy. You load up your iPod with music, set it on Shuffle, and start living your life. The software takes notice every time you skip to the next song. Over time it detects patterns.

One day you're running, and instead of having to skip on by Wynton Marsalis in order to get to the Tom Tom Club, your iPod says, audibly, "It looks like you're in the mood for upbeat music. If true, press yes. Otherwise, I'll continue with Shuffle." (Or you're cooking dinner, and it says, "I believe you're in the mood for something quiet and atmospheric. If true...") After awhile these new categories appear on the menu and you can select them before you start an activity.

And no, I'm not just talking about selecting a genre. It's about the mood of the music, not the genre. I have an old Chris Isaac album that can make me feel like I'm either crawling through a swamp of self-pity or bounding happily like a cat. You can keep running to the last movement of Beethoven's 9th, when that huge chorus is screaming out its joy, but Mozart's Requiem is best left for folding laundry.

Playlists for the Lazy.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

They're starting early

I was thinking this morning about ways we can start getting ready to support podcasting, and then read Dan Karleen's posting about the use of podcasting in K-12 that referenced this article in the New York Times . As Dan says, it won't be long (it's even already happening) before students will be coming to us already expecting podcasting, the way they've been expecting other online communication tools for a long time.

And now Apple's released their iTunes U, which is mentioned in just about every blog I read. See Dan Karleen, Gardner Campbell, and D'Arcy Norman, to name a few. Here at UWB, we'll sit back for a little while longer and see how the dust settles. But in the meantime, we'll be building up a general support strategy under the assumption that we'll need to be ready when the time comes.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Why I read the newspaper

It started around the time Davey was born, almost 9 years ago now. We would lounge in bed in the early mornings, nursing. Mark would bring me the newspaper and a cup of coffee. In those first months, Davey would often go back to sleep, and I would leisurely sip my coffee and read the paper. That's the way I remember it, anyway. Over the years since, coffee and the newspaper (the actual paper kind), in bed, have become more than a tradition - it's almost a ritual. But now Mark and I take turns, because somebody has to get up to keep Davey company while he gets a start on breakfast. (Whereas I wake up needing coffee, immediately, Davey wakes up needing Nutrigrain cereal bars, immediately, followed by eggs and toast and cereal and french toast and soy sausage and a waffle and lots of milk, usually all during the same breakfast, which can easily span an hour.)

Yesterday morning it was my turn for the coffee/newspaper ritual. I was greatly comforted by the total lack of bad news, of real news of any kind. It's a great way to start the day, realizing that surely nothing bad had happened in the world, since there was no real news in the paper. Here's what I did learn. These three articles took up the entire inside front page.

1. Some penguins in a zoo whose baby chick had been stolen some time ago have laid an egg. (I can't find a web reference. Apparently this good news made the print edition but not the web archives.)

2. A New York cabbie, who happens to be a woman, has a blog.

3. Scientists have discovered that January 24th is the worst day of the year.

Although these are all fascinating, I was most struck by the blogging article. Was it the fact that it was a cabbie blogging that made it newsworthy? Or was it because she's a female cabbie? Does this mean that blogging is really mainstream now?

But mainly, can you imagine being the editors, or whoever it is who gets to decide what to publish where? Wouldn't you like to know what goes on in their heads? Can you imagine sitting around a table strewn with coffee cups and newspapers (!) and saying, "People have been worried about those penguins. Our readers will want a lengthy article about the fact that they've managed to lay another egg."

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Fabulous Peruvian has wireless

I'm just back from a glorious week of skiing at Alta. We walked into the Alta Peruvian for the first time in 10 years or so to find it exactly the same as it used to be, with one exception. It was the middle of the afternoon, so everyone was skiing and the lovely lobby was almost completely empty. However, there were 5 or 6 guys lounging about, and every single one of them was on a laptop. It seemed utterly incongruous to me. This is a lodge that caters to the hard core skier - the only luxury comes from the outdoor hot tub and pool. There's no TV, and the only in-house entertainment is in the games closet (we had a hilarious Clue tournament). But it now has wireless, as well as a little computer room for those who forgot their own.

I had a computer-free vacation nonetheless. In fact, I completely detached from work. My only thought about work occurred one night during dinner. Meals at the Peruvian are served family style, and we happened this night to be sitting with Todd, the Peruvian's general manager. Somebody asked him how he hired people - how he advertised. He said he used something called I immediately thought of my empty database administrator position and asked how a job gets categorized as "cool." The other folks at the table looked at me strangely when I suggested that my dba position might be a fit. I guess there's cool, and then there's cool.

I still think what we do here is pretty darn cool, and getting cooler. We spend an awful lot of time just doing the business of our daily grind, but I was inspired by Gardner's blog about his group's retreat. We need to do that. We can't step aside for two days like that, but we need to find the time to get everybody thinking bigger. That's the way to keep cool.

In the meantime, Mark somehow found time to put up a few of our Alta pictures, even though it's his first day back following a rather blissful sabbatical.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Frontrunner

For 6 or 7 months I've been posting off and on over on Bloglines, mainly because I've been very happy with their aggregator for so long. A couple of months ago I started playing with Blogger, mostly because I thought it would be a good idea to try to separate work blogging from non-work blogging. Working for the state makes you kind of cautious in that way.

However, it turns out that the Bloglines inteface is icky. Maybe it's kind of like using VMS mail (or Pine) instead of Outlook. There are probably people who like the bare bones nature of it. It also turns out that I don't do much non-work blogging, as much as I would like to. There's just not enough time in my life. So, I hope all my admiring fans (ha hahaha HEEE HAAaa ha ha) will find me here.

Couple of notes: Here at UWB we're planning to admit freshmen for the first time next fall, so we're trying to figure out who these people are and how to both attract them and support them once they're here. Today I was reading Christopher Harris's posting about how youngsters get information, and also thinking more about the Bailey Library website. I think Slippery Rock has the right idea -- bring students in using the media they're already familiar with. It's simple, really. It's about repackaging what's already there.

I'm heading up a task force that's charged with developing a freshman resource center, focused on technology support but also including writing and quantitative support. We've been thinking of a physical space, but perhaps we should also be putting together a virtual space. I wonder if there are people out there using blogs to support students -- kind of like Slippery Rock's library, but with a focus on technology tips, Blackboard updates, etc.