Sep 072013

A colleague of mine who specializes in the history of Russian railways once told me that that biggest challenge to locomotion is traction. Generate sufficient force so the engine’s wheels bite onto the rails and everything else will follow.

I’ve been thinking about traction lately while struggling to gain it in regards to resuming a regular blog. Quite some time has passed since I cracked open the laptop and shouted into the world wide wilderness. After winding down and then abandoning my initial foray into webloviating back in the summer of ’09, I turned to directing or collaborating on a few new on-line projects. Each involved considerable investments of time and energy — while meeting with varying degrees of success. None, however, provided a platform for posting observations on the things I was thinking about. I didn’t have much of a desire to do it anyway. My heart wasn’t in it; my interests were elsewhere. Talking for the sake of talking didn’t strike me as terribly useful. There’s already plenty of that on the Intertubes.

Instead, I started a new manuscript project, then paused it to pursue a more challenging one (still in progress). I also developed a series of new courses and, over the last year or so, have been working to assemble a DIY course management system (CMS) that would give my students (and the public) better and open access to the stuff I do in class — while freeing me from the execrable proprietary CMS used by my employing institution.

The result of my DIY efforts is “Scott Palmer’s On-line Knowledge Emporium™” (or, SPOKE™) — a network of course sites built using WordPress MU and hosted by the (highly recommended) commercial outfit Blue Host.

Since getting my current batch of university-level courses up and running in mid-August, I’ve been looking for an excuse to use my shiny new platform to restart blogging. Why? Because. That’s why. Thanks to a recent post on Joshua Kim‘s “Technology and Learning” blog at Inside Higher Ed I’ve finally managed to gain the traction I needed.

A few days back, Josh ran a piece called “Downsizing Ourselves” which proposed that academic IT departments should look for ways to make themselves less necessary. His intentionally provocative summons emanates from the stark economic reality “that academic IT demands are increasing faster than campus IT budgets.” In an age of scarcity, the metastasizing costs of providing top-down, one-size-fits-all services and support to university users is not sustainable, at least not for all but the most elite institutions. With this in mind, Josh asks:

What if we consciously did everything that we could to make our services no longer needed?

What if we designed systems that faculty and students could use without our assistance?

If we moved to a model [of] faculty and student selected learning platforms, platforms that they had responsibility for running?

Is the idea so far-fetched? How many of us manage to make our web platforms work without the help of an IT department? If our enterprise systems did not exist would faculty and students suddenly stop using technology?  

No campus wide LMS? No problem. Professors and students will use DropBox, Discourse, Lore, or whatever platform that they want.

No campus provides e-mail and calendaring? No worries. Last time I checked there are plenty of free options that our community can choose from, and does everyone really need to be on the same system?

These are not rhetorical questions. Thanks to increasingly affordable, high-quality hardware, the proliferation of open-source programs such as WordPress, and no-cost/low-cost services like Skype (premium), achieving independence from institutional IT structures is do-able for faculty and their students. But, it’s not easy. There are personal and professional costs. Designing and maintaining websites is a time-sink. Things do break, usually at the worst possible time. The energy spent building and fixing is energy not spent researching and writing. Ironically, the folks most likely to be interested in experimenting with IT tools (untenured Assistant Professors and recent PhDs) are most likely being evaluated by others who may not appreciate (or, frankly, be qualified to judge) the professional value of their endeavors.

For these (and other) reasons, I agree with Josh’s conclusion that “a shift to full technology self-service for faculty and students is likely too much to ask.” Still, I’m willing to do my part to nudge it along. At least for now.

In the meantime, I’ll be using this space to comment on the unfolding experiment and to engage with folks, like Josh, already blogging about instructional technology, digital humanities, and other issues concerning higher education. I’ll also post entries from time to time relating to my scholarly interests in Russian culture, technology, and whatnot.

So, “thanks” to Joshua Kim for providing the traction I needed to get into motion.

BTW: The name of this blog is Because. That’s why.


Because. That’s why.