Monday, November 25, 2013

Teach, Don't Tell

Think about the work you and your colleagues do every day. We support the technology for our campuses; each of us "owns" a small part of the whole. You should know intimately how to do you job. But consider for a moment: what would happen if one of your colleagues disappeared and you needed to fill in? Maybe it's an extended vacation, or a sudden illness. Perhaps that person has retired, or moved to a new organization. Do you know what they did? Could you adequately fill that position, at least until someone more permanent could take over?

An important part of our jobs is to create documentation about the functions that we perform. Some folks consider no documentation as a form of job protection, but it really isn't. Managers often view someone who does not document their work as a liability. Those who fully document what they do often rise in the organization.

But how can we effectively write down how to do our tasks, in a way that makes sense to someone else? Sure, it's easy to describe your functions to yourself; you already know how to do the job. It's much harder to adequately define how to fulfill your roles and responsibilities to someone who hasn't done it as their day-to-day job.

As Steve Losh describes, the answer is Teach, Don't Tell. From the article:
If you want to take a person who has never played the guitar and turn them into a virtuoso guitarist, how can you do that? 
You teach them. 
If you want to take a high school student and turn them into a computer scientist, how can you do that? 
You teach them. 
If you want to take a programmer who has never seen your library before and turn them into an expert user of it, how can you do that? 
You teach them!
If the goal of documentation is to turn novices into experts, then the documentation must teach. You should think of your documentation as a lesson (or series of lessons) because that’s what it is.

The process needs to go something like this:
  1. Figure out what they already know.
  2. Figure out what you want them to know after you finish.
  3. Figure out a single idea or concept that will move state 1 a little bit closer to state 2.
  4. Nudge the student in the direction of that idea.
  5. Repeat until state 1 becomes state 2.
If you have ever taken a "CMR" (Communications, Media, & Rhetoric) class at Morris, you should recognize the process as rhetoric, which makes a good framework for any written material where you need to move your audience towards a new idea or concept. This is a long but very readable essay on how (not) to document computer programs. Use the same guidelines for documenting any process.

Monday, November 18, 2013

We need kneepads

Leaders need to be visionary, to think ahead several steps and see the "big picture." But it's equally important to listen to those around you, to find when "the answer is in the room." No single person can think of everything; leaders need to recognize when others provide a stronger vision.

One example that embodies this is Jeff Bezos's anecdote about the origins of Amazon.com. In those early days, the then-startup company operated from a 2000 square foot basement warehouse space that had 6 foot ceilings. The small team of original employees did a little of everything; programmers helped pack books into boxes, for example.
In fact, we were packing on our hands and knees on a hard concrete floor. … We were packing these things, everybody in the company … and I had this brainstorm as I said to the person next to me, "This packing is killing me! My back hurts, this is killing my knees on this hard cement floor" and this person said, "Yeah, I know what you mean." And I said, "You know what we need?" my brilliant insight, "We need knee pads!'" I was very serious, and this person looked at me like I was the stupidest person they'd ever seen. I'm working for this person? This is great. "What we need is packing tables." … The next day we got packing tables and I think we doubled our productivity.

I first heard Bezos tell this story as he addressed a luncheon, broadcast on public radio. But Bezos has shared this story many times, including on the Academy of Achievement archive.

It's a great example of listening to suggestions, and remaining open to ideas that aren't your own. Bezos might have remained "married" to his idea of buying kneepads; rather, he realized packing tables (so simple!) was the better idea and went with that. And immediately doubled productivity. Listen for the answer in the room, and recognize the vision that best answers your needs.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Network upgrades in Science & Math

I wanted to share a brief update on the network upgrades that are happening on campus. Since upgrading the campus network last year, we have remained committed to improving wireless network coverage across campus. The wireless network is an important part of campus life, and we want to ensure that the campus community can use the wireless network where it is needed.

As you may have noticed, electricians have been busy at work in the Science & Math Building this week. Computing Services and Plant Services are working together with Kieffer Electric and the U of M Office of Information Technology to upgrade the wireless network within Science & Math. The electricians will minimize disruption while they do their work. Thank you for your patience while we improve wireless network coverage in the West wing, faculty offices, and Auditorium. The East wing will be updated later.

After Science & Math, our next focus will be the Humanities Fine Arts Building. We are already in the planning stage for this building.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Students vs email

I read with great interest this article from the New York Times: "Technology and the College Generation." It discusses the current generation of students and their preference to use texting to communicate with friends, rather than email. Many students don't even bother to check their university email accounts. And that's different to how faculty and university administrators expect them to use email:
“Some of them didn’t even seem to know they had a college e-mail account,” Dr. May said. Nor were these wide-eyed freshmen. “This is considered a junior-level class, so they’d been around,” he said.

Universities now find themselves mandating that students check their university email every day. At the University of Southern California, Nina Eliasoph’s Sociology 250 syllabus reads: “You must check e-mail DAILY every weekday,” with boldface for emphasis.

The article focuses on how faculty and students use email, asking “How are they going to learn to use e-mail when that’s the model, and why would they want to?”

Paul Jones, a professor at the University of North Carolina, does not think they should have to. “E-mail is a sinkhole where knowledge goes to die,” said Mr. Jones, who said that he gave up e-mail in 2011. But in his quest to eliminate e-mail, Mr. Jones may have a surprising obstacle: students. Canvas, a two-year-old learning management system used by Brown University, among others, allows students to choose how to receive messages like “The reading assignment has been changed to Chapter 2.” The options: e-mail, text, Facebook and Twitter. According to company figures, 98 percent chose e-mail.

But I see this as the leading edge of a new trend. Rather than focus on how to get students to use email we need to look at how students communicate, and reach them there. What are the ways in which your campus is changing how you communicate with students?

Monday, November 4, 2013

Digital tourists

A friend shared Colette Bennett's article from The Educator's Room blog, discussing today's students and their use of technology. Bennett says They’re Not Digital Natives, They’re Digital Tourists. Digital natives are defined as those people who have grown-up using technology daily beginning in the 1960s, but the term is more commonly used to describe those born in the 21st Century. The current generation of students may be "digital natives" according to this definition.

Digital natives spend more than 4 hours each day viewing screen media, excluding games. They multitask, and may watch TV or IM their friends while working on homework. And they spend more than 7 hours each day using digital devices.

You'd think with these statistics that digital natives would be the first to adopt new technology, that instructors would be constantly playing "catch up" just to remain on par with the pace of technology change. But Bennett, English Department Chair at Wamogo High School (Region 6) in Northwest Connecticut, found otherwise: "Instead what we discovered was that many of our students were reluctant to try new platforms that differed even slightly  in organization or layout. A login in a different location was perplexing; an embed code or link could not be located.  We found our students were not naturally tech-savvy, save the requisite number of computer geeks per class. They did not want to move out of their comfort zone in technology, partly because they knew that work was involved, but, in fairness, partly because they were intimidated."

Bennett refers to these students not as digital natives but digital tourists. "I’m talking the “standing in line to see the Mona Lisa on the busiest day of the year and then leaving the Louvre once they saw it” kind of tourist. The “only want to eat at McDonalds in a foreign country because I don’t like food I don’t recognize” kind of tourist. The “I have no idea what kind of money this is” kind of tourist. In other words, bad tourists."

How to deal with these digital tourists? Bennett recommends instructors adapt Rick Steve's model, where travel is a political act: "In this model, students travel the alternate routes for productivity and interact and collaborate with others using many different software “languages”. They may stumble in these challenging and unfamiliar digital locations, but they will benefit from this exposure to the strange and unknown. They just need to get over their xenophobia of new software platforms." You may also recognize this as pushing students outside their comfort zones, encouraging development through stretch assignments, testing new waters.

How do you deal with digital tourists?