Saturday, April 23, 2005

How Much Is Too Much?

I sometimes get a sense from faculty members that they are overwhelmed.

Generally, this is owing to them teaching several classes, having advisees, coaching, living in a dorm, regularly having comments and grades to do for all of the above, plus all the other responsibilities that go along with working at a boarding school. I suppose it is understandable...

But I'm afraid I might be contributing to this problem.

We currently use what seems to me just a handful of applications. However as I look at them the list really does get fairly large. In "productivity" apps alone, we have Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook (or Outlook Web Access), OneNote, and GoBinder that are on everyone's Tablet. Then we have the school portal and the school web site (for internal and external use, respectively). We have limited focus apps, such as MS Reader and Adobe Acrobat (that do much the same thing). Some people use Project, Publisher, PageMaker, and there are department specific apps such as Geometer Sketchpad and Fathom and the four programs that our language department just purchased. Then there is the multitude of utilities such as the wireless projector software, VPN client, spyware checkers, etc. Individuals also use apps that we don't support in any significant way. I don't even know how many.

On top of this, we are trying to get folks to use Blackboard in their classes and we are introducing DyKnow to selected teachers.

Hmm. Maybe I have already contributed to the problem…

For me, at least, this is a real risk. I am one of those people who are like machines when there is new stuff to learn. I have too often stayed up through the night and neglected my family to work with a new programming language and have missed workouts or meals to play around with a new piece of software. I generally can't get enough of it when there is something new to learn and I forget that others can easily get too much of it. I have to fight the urge to throw every cool new piece of software into the mix and I wonder if I haven't lost that fight a few too many times.

Still, every single one of the packages that we use has its place and is very worthwhile. But how do we introduce new ones most strategically? And how do we do so in such a way that folks don't get swamped. And how do we simultaneously improve skills in the existing apps. And how do we do all of this when everyone is already so busy? (See the second paragraph.)

Particularly tricky is the question of helping folks to choose between applications when their functions overlap, or at least appear to. One example of this is the OneNote/GoBinder combination. Both are note-taking applications and do a credible job of that function. Beyond that, however, they offer different features. GoBinder has the task management function (which, by the way, Outlook does as well) and the Syllabus page for managing assignments. OneNote, on the other hand, has shared sessions (a similar function is also offered by DyKnow) and audio and video recording capabilities.

An argument could be readily made for simply selecting between these overlapping applications and offering a more limited selection of software and capabilities. And there is merit to this argument. Folks would have fewer applications to learn and it would probably be simpler to develop a higher skill set sooner. It would simply be that some software capabilities wouldn't be available.

On the other hand, all of these applications (the Tablet-oriented ones at least) are early in their development lives and features are being added regularly. The future is bright for them, but the future may well look very different from the present. Limiting our selection of applications now would ease the learning curve, but it would also close the door on both present and future capabilities that may well be crucial to someone. It could, of course, be opened again, but we would be much further behind the learning curve.

I guess the direction we are going with this (if I don't sound really positive that this is the best way to go it is because I am not--but I think it is) is toward a broader selection of applications, which we in IT need to know pretty well. We will work with faculty to identify the features most useful to them and help them to select and learn those apps that they need for themselves and their classes. This, of course, puts students in the position of needing to learn all of them to at least some level. From what I have seen, though, this is among the least of our problems. In this way, we can adopt a Darwinist attitude toward the applications and let the most fit and most adaptable survive.

Our current battles to find training time in the schedule is going to make this hard and I hope that next year we will factor this into our scheduling decisions up front. I do think the miasma of applications will clear in the minds of faculty members as they begin to work with the Tablets more and see what works for them and what doesn't. Time to practice, time to think, time to discuss make a huge difference in this process.

That seems to have been the case so far with those who already have Tablets. Applications they don't use recede into the background and the confusion lessens--at least until the next new application is introduced.

Now what do I do about all the apps I haven't even had a chance to explore yet?


  1. You’re correct: you are part of the problem. <g>

    Seriously, you’re correct in your assumption that faculty everywhere have a lot on their plate – especially at this time of year. Your best opportunities for training are at the beginning of the year (before their usual planning/getting ready for the school year time) or at the end of the year (after grades and other end of the year activities are done).

    In our district, we also had some luck with an annual one-night-weekend (Fri) getaway for our science and math teachers at a “resort” (where room and board are paid for by the district) put on the first weekend of November. With 10 high schools (plus alternative schools) to draw from, this event has about 60-80 people attending.

    During this “conference,” we have a Friday night keynote after dinner (one hour) followed by “open computer” free-for-all (usually lasts until about 4am), where people wander around and look at what other people are doing/using in their classrooms and/or evangelizing about this weekend. On Saturday, we have three after breakfast/before lunch small session breakouts (usually 12 to 15 session per round) where teachers share software/hardware that they’re using in their classrooms with others.

    After lunch, we pack up and leave (and try not to fall asleep at the wheel).

    For students, providing them with a list of apps (or a tablet loaded with them) at the beginning of the summer should give them some time to prepare themselves.

    Whatever you do, always try to enlist the help of faculty/student early adopters -- as major helpers, they're invaluable (as you well know).

  2. use the new apps...they are all cool i think