Monday, July 29, 2013

How do I set up my web page?

One question we sometimes hear is "How do I set up my web page?" The need for web pages may vary. For example, a researcher may want to set up a simple website to share research results. Or an instructor may wish to share old tests and quizzes for her students to use as study aids. Or a project may want to publish updates so colleagues on campus can track the progress.

There is no "one size fits all" solution. In the past, we may have recommended using your "personal" website, or creating a new content area under the www website. But we have added many more web page options since then. I'd like to share a quick overview with you.

How much customization do you need for your website? Do you need total control, including installing separate programs to make your site work? Or do you just need a place to store "regular" web pages?

What is your technology skill level? Some folks feel very comfortable with editing the "raw" HTML code to create their own web pages, while others just want to type some text and have it appear on the web. Are you a technology novice, or a technology guru?

Your answers to these two questions will help guide you to the best fit to set up your web pages.


A few notes about these options:

If you aren't comfortable with technology, and you only need a place for your content to appear as web pages, then look to the bottom-left of the diagram. You can set up a blog on the University's UThink system. A blog makes it easy to write articles that appear on a web page just the way you wrote them. You don't have many options to customize the appearance or behavior of the blog, but the tradeoff is that it's really simple to use. Note that your UThink blog will appear at blog.lib.umn.edu/yourname/yourblog, such as my archive of Jim Bruce's "ITLP Tuesday Readings" at blog.lib.umn.edu/jhall/itlp/.

If you prefer to use different tools, you can use Google's Blogger. You already have a Google account anyway—all University faculty, staff, and students access their email via Gmail, and Gmail gives you a Google account—so feel free to set up your own blog. Editing is a little easier on Blogger because the editor looks more like, say, Microsoft Word with the toolbar for formatting your text. Again, you don't have many options to customize the appearance or behavior of the blog, but the tradeoff is that it's really simple to use. Note that your Blogger blogs will appear at yourblog.blogspot.com, such as my "Leadership and Vision in IT and Higher Education" blog at coaching-buttons.blogspot.com/.

Or, if you don't plan to make very many updates, and just want someone else to do the work for you, talk to us and we can arrange for our web developers to turn your content into web pages. We prefer to add these pages into the www website, so the web pages will use the Morris web design, but updating web pages can be as easy as emailing them to a developer.

But what if you need total control?

Sometimes, a project needs to have total control over its web pages. Maybe a research project requires a dedicated server where you can install new programs. Or perhaps you feel comfortable writing your own web pages, and you just need somewhere to put them. For that, look to the upper-right of the diagram. Our partners in the Office of Information Technology offer free server hosting (called "virtual machines" or "VM"). You can install whatever programs you need to support your project, and you can have total control over how you create your pages. It's great flexibility for projects that need that level of independence, but the tradeoff is that you'll need to know something about servers and web pages to take advantage of it. If this appeals to you, please let us know and we can help you get a server to use for as long as you need it.

A few projects find that OIT's VM service doesn't quite meet their needs. This might be because the project needs to install software in an odd location, or because the project requires "root" or "Administrator" access. OIT just doesn't allow that level of access. If that is your need, we can set up a VM on our systems for you to use. Again, this can mean great flexibility for projects that need that level of independence, but the tradeoff is that you'll need to know something about servers and web pages to take advantage of it.

What about web pages for class?

Many faculty wish to post materials to a website so their students can access them for study or projects. For example, you may choose to share old quizzes from previous semesters, so students can learn from them. Or maybe you want to make an article available electronically, for your students to read and respond to as part of an assignment. Sure, you could use a dedicated web server, or (like many faculty) share the files via your "personal" website. But I would also suggest using Moodle for sharing course materials. Moodle is designed specifically to classrooms. You don't have to teach an online class to use Moodle. Instead, talk with Pam about how to set up a Moodle to distribute course materials. It's pretty easy to set up Moodle so that only your current students can access the materials your post online; that's very handy if you are concerned about controlling your intellectual property.

Moodle doesn't require much technology skill; anyone can quickly learn it. The diagram shows an area bordered by a dotted line, suggesting that Moodle can accommodate a variety of customization. You can use it "as-is" to keep things simple, or you can modify how Moodle acts. Moodle is your best option if you need an environment customized for your class, but don't have much technology expertise.

Technology should be here to help you. If we can help you with your technology needs, please feel free to contact us. We would like to work with you to find the right solution for your needs.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Faculty use technology when they need it

Many IT units in higher education struggle with campus technology adoption. They try to push new technology to the faculty, only to meet resistance (at worst) or apathy (at best). The problem, of course, is that IT cannot drive change.

Technology is fairly new to the workforce, and that includes faculty. Remember, the PC was only introduced to office desktops in the 1980s (unseen mainframes in server rooms don't count). If people enter the workforce in their 20s and retire in their 60s, that's a 40-year work generation. So computers have only been part of the workplace for less than a work generation. There are still a lot of people out there who remember doing their work without technology.

And faculty are less likely than, say, accountants to embrace change. Accountants realized that they could use computers to add up columns of numbers, creating spreadsheets to track budgets, income, and expenses. People in sales adopted the computer to write business correspondence and other customer communication. But in higher education, it's different. For faculty, their job is teaching and for that they have relied on a chalkboard (or whiteboard) for pretty much their entire careers, going back to their years as an undergrad. Even Powerpoint was a stretch for most faculty to learn, but Powerpoint isn't much more than a "captured" version of their whiteboard talk, so many faculty eventually warmed to Powerpoint as a means of delivering lectures.

One of the faculty at my university often uses the phrase "Technology should be like a rock; it should be that simple to use." And there's a lot to that statement. Faculty want technology that is easy to use. They don't want to tinker with technology, they don't want to try the latest thing. Faculty only want technology when it supports what they need to do for instruction.

And that's where we in IT see things differently, of course. As technologists, we are highly driven to explore new technology. Sometimes, we get excited about things not because of what a new tech can do but because it can be done. We're just "wired" to be "wired." And that's good; it means we're in the right job. For us, technology isn't just our job, it's often our passion. We got involved with technology as a career path (programming, desktop support, server admin, databases, etc) because we were pretty much doing that already (building web pages, building our own computers, installing our own OS, etc) and what better job than to get paid to do what you love? So campus technology folks naturally gravitate to the latest technology: the Raspberry Pi, smartboards, video capture, and the like. And then we get confused when the faculty don't want to use it, as suggested in Classroom Technology Faces Skeptics At Research Universities from Information Week.

Faculty will adopt technology when they need it to do the job of teaching. The article includes some quotes along those lines.
"I went to [a course management software workshop] and came away with the idea that the greatest thing you could do with that is put your syllabus on the Web and that's an awful lot of technology to hand the students a piece of paper at the start of the semester and say keep track of it." What makes it easier for faculty to focus on teaching: learning how to put a PDF on the web (or a course management tool like Moodle) when they've never done that before, or printing out a syllabus and asking the students not to lose it?
"What are the gains for students by bringing IT into the class? There isn't any. You could teach all of chemistry with a whiteboard. I really don't think you need IT or anything beyond a pencil and a paper."
One quote that highlighted when faculty were interested in using classroom technology: "They're undergraduates - you need to attract their attention before you can teach them anything." Because here, using technology assists the faculty in the job of teaching students, which is the most important thing. In this case, using some technology in the classroom may help get the attention of students, which the professor says you need to do "before you can teach them anything."

I'd also remind anyone working in campus technology to remember three important questions when trying to effect change on campus:

  1. Is it the right change to make?
  2. Are the right people behind the change?
  3. Is the campus ready for this change?

Those three questions get at the three lenses of leading through change: Strategic, Political, Cultural. And you can be right on with Strategic and Political, but if you aren't respecting the Cultural lens, your campus community will reject the change and you will get nowhere. That's not to say you need to wait for people to be ready for a change. You can certainly influence that change acceptance by finding faculty willing to try something new, having them do a pilot, then getting them to talk about it with other faculty. That's usually the best way to introduce changes, and the most successful.

Monday, July 15, 2013

How I got started in technology

As technologists, we are highly driven to explore new technology. Sometimes, we get excited about things not because of what a new tech can do but because it can be done. We're just "wired" to be "wired." And that's good; it means we're in the right job.

In that light, I'd like to share some personal background about how I got started in technology.

In 1982, our dad bought a Franklin ACE 1000 computer (an Apple II clone) for us when we were in elementary school. My brother and I experimented with AppleSoft BASIC programming on that, and our parents also bought us a book about BASIC. After learning the essentials, we mostly skipped the tutorials in the book and jumped right to the reference section, figuring out things on our own by looking up functions and routines in the reference then trying them out.

It didn't take very long to "get" programming. I think after a year of writing programs in AppleSoft BASIC, I was writing pretty advanced stuff. The SIN and COS functions were pretty hard to grasp until I had the trigonometry classes (years later) to understand them, but the reference book showed how to use SIN and COS to draw circles, and that was enough for me at the time. Otherwise, I "got" it right away. I remember writing several small programs, such as a number-guessing game ("too high" or "too low" until you got it right).

I figured it would be interesting to write computer programs that mimicked the computer displays from television and movies. So whenever I watched a movie or TV program that featured computers (and it was the 1980s, almost everything featured a computer) I tried to mock up a similar display on our computer at home. It didn't take long to realize that a special effects person was doing the same behind the scenes, rather than the movie or show using an actual program, but that didn't take the fun out of it.

In 1983, the movie WarGames came out, and I decided I wanted to write the nuclear war simulator featured in the movie. It took me all summer, but I eventually wrote something that would draw maps of both the US and Russia, then let you select a few targets and launch missiles. The opposing side would return with a few missiles of their own. It even drew the missile tracks like in the movie. At the end, the program would tally the damage to determine the winner. (I think the "nuclear war is bad" message was lost on me at the time.) It was all in AppleSoft BASIC.

I used different versions of BASIC until college, when I learned my first compiled language. As a physics student, we needed to write our own data acquisition and analysis programs, so we learned FORTRAN77. It was pretty easy to pick up in class, since it wasn't worlds apart from BASIC. In the summer between my junior and senior year, I interned at a research lab. For half the summer, I took data. By the second half, they realized I was pretty good at FORTRAN, so they asked me to update a FORTRAN-IV program that analyzed ellipsometry data (precise optical measurements using a laser). I didn't expect this during my internship. I enjoyed it a lot, but learned to hate FORTRAN's computed GOTO.

After FORTRAN, my brother (a computer science student) introduced me to C, and I took to that right away. It was more powerful than FORTRAN, but still easy to write code. My brother taught me the basics of C, then I picked up the rest on my own through books, including Kernighan and Ritchie's book. And C really put me on the path to computing as a career.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Thanks to our great technology staff

Today, IT staff from around the University of Minnesota are participating in a variety of "get-togethers" to strengthen our "Community of We." At the Twin Cities, the Office of Information Technology has invited IT folks to a picnic from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. at Boom Island Park. They will be roasting pork and doing other community events.

Morris is a smaller campus, so we opted for something more personal: I took the IT teams to lunch at Pizza Ranch. It was my pleasure to buy lunch for the technology staff, and represent the "Community of We" between Computing Services, Library, and Instructional & Media Technology. We were also joined by LeAnn and Roger, directors at Library and IMT.

We had a lot of fun today, recognizing the excellent work by all the technology groups. You are the ones who get things done, who implement the technology that allows our great faculty to instruct the next generation of students. My role at Morris to support you, and it is my pleasure to serve.

This reminds me of a story from a friend of mine, Jim Bruce, retired CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. To paraphrase (hopefully correctly), Jim recalls a time when he was a young CIO at MIT. One day, when the president and regents were attending some off-site event, MIT received a surprise visit by the chairman and co-founder of Honda Motor, Soichiro Honda. Chairman Honda was touring the U.S. East Coast, and as they passed MIT one his aides pointed out that MIT was the premier scientific, engineering, and technology institute in America. Chairman Honda decided he'd like to visit.

Since the other senior executives were off-site, it was up to Jim to welcome the guests (meanwhile, a regent was called in from somewhere to meet them). Quick-thinking, Jim commented, "Chairman Honda-san, my wife owns one of your cars, and she loves it." Honda bowed deeply and replied simply, "It is my honor to serve."

It is very similar with me.  My role here is to support the University of Minnesota Morris, and the UMM technology teams, and it is my honor to serve. Thanks to our great technology staff at Morris!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Reflections on simplify, standardize, automate

Several years ago, I was the Senior Manager for Operations & Infrastructure in the Office of Information Technology, at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus. One tenet I always advocated was simplify, standardize, automate. The goal was to make our jobs easier, to free up our time from mundane or repetitive tasks, so we could give more attention and energy to working on more important issues. We used this to guide our future plans, to bring about transformational change in our IT practices.

One project that came from simplify, standardize, automate was the central web hosting system. Most of our web customers simply needed a place to put their web content, and didn't care (very much) about "web programming" such as Java, Perl, or PHP. Rather than continue instantiating a bunch of one-off web servers just to support this simple content, we set up a single robust web hosting service that could accommodate most (say, 90%) of our web hosting requests. This reduced the number of servers that we needed to support, which simplified the environment, and allowed us to standardize our web server administration. Over time, we further automated the process to create new websites for our customers. It was a large "win" that continues to benefit the university today. At Morris, we leverage the central web hosting service for several of our important websites, including some research websites.

Another challenge was database hosting. The university runs lots of databases (most of them are Oracle) and like most institutions, most databases require their own server. We had a tough time managing the server sprawl, as each new database usually meant a new server. Fortunately, the database administrators on my team, led by infrastructure manager Patton Fast, discovered a new way to support our growing Oracle database needs: Exadata. Although implementation happened after I'd left OIT to join the Morris campus, I was very glad to see this project kick off.

Prior to this, I'd long encouraged our Oracle sales engineers to develop an "Oracle/OS" distribution. This might come on a DVD (in several formats: say, one for Sun SPARC and another for Intel) that a database administrator installs onto an empty server. The server is automatically configured to run the database, and after installation, the database administrator doesn't need to worry about the operating system. The only difficulty would be managing enterprise storage, such as an EMC SAN.

After Sun purchased a storage company, and after Oracle purchased Sun, Oracle finally released such a product. To oversimplify, Exadata is essentially a "database in a can." The server and accompanying storage is self-contained in a frame. The underlying operating system is effectively "embedded," so database administrators don't have to manage the operating system. For all practical purposes, it is a database "appliance" and has saved the university in both time and budget. OIT's Andy Wattenhofer gave a presentation about U of M and Exadata at last year's EDUCAUSE Midwest regional conference.

I'd almost forgotten about the Exadata until I saw an update from the Enterprise Systems Upgrade Program a few weeks ago: ESUP Update, June 3-16.


ESUP Assistant Program Director Mark Powell was on hand last week to receive delivery of two new sets of servers: Exadata and Exalogic. The first set, Exadata, will house the Oracle databases. When OIT upgraded to the current version of Exadata servers, users experienced significant performance improvement.
The second set of servers, Exalogic, are new for ESUP. These servers will run PeopleSoft applications instead of the multiple servers currently used. The Exalogic and Exadata servers are designed to work together and Oracle will provide additional patching and upgrade services for these servers, which helps reduce system administration resources and costs to the University.
The servers will be split into two combined sets, pairing one Exalogic with one Exadata. The set in the WBOB data center will support ESUP’s production systems, while the second set (located in the 90 Church St. data center), will support the Program’s development, testing, and disaster recovery.

I'm glad to see this project continue. Way to go, OIT!

Welcome to the new Coaching Buttons!

Hi there, and welcome to the new Coaching Buttons blog! I have moved Jim Hall's blog to new blog called Coaching Buttons: Jim Hall's blog. My blog is still about "Leadership and Vision in IT and Higher Education."

I'm still in the process of moving over old blog posts, and I'll migrate the blog archive over the next few weeks. I may do some edits for grammar, etc, but otherwise the old posts will remain unchanged.

Don't forget to update your bookmarks and RSS reader!