Monday, April 22, 2013


Building A Tech Playground

In discussion with some technically-minded colleagues today, in two different contexts, the same idea came up.  Wouldn’t it be great if we had some sort of dedicated lab/room with plenty of up to date technology, where faculty could go to learn (and teach each other) how to use some of the latest tech in their courses?

The idea was that the best way to learn a technology is to play with it -- I strongly believe that, just as I believe that the best way to learn a concept is to teach it -- but that playing with it requires the presence of both the tech itself and a safe space.  I’ve been to enough conference presentations in which the speaker is clearly flummoxed by PowerPoint (which leads to the inevitable audience participation -- “minimize it!”  “click the x!”  Ugh.)  that I sympathize with students who don’t relish watching their professors do the equivalent in class.

Space is at a huge premium on campus, as is funding, so a project like this couldn’t be undertaken lightly.  Having said that, I don’t see much wisdom in ignoring the future because the present is tight.  The future has a way of sneaking up on you.  In my perfect scenario, a smallish tech playground would become the nucleus of a sort of “skunk works” ethic that would spread virally, as early adopters showed off so many cool things they could do that others would start to want in.  Word of mouth among peers is incredibly effective; the trick is in getting that first spark.

Funding being as tight as it is -- and faculty time being as tight as it is, for that matter -- we’re really not in a position to just throw a whole bunch of spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.  We’d have to pick tech stuff carefully, and figure out the support strategically, to optimize the likely bang for the buck.  If you detect a bit of a tension between wanting to support open-ended innovation and needing to stay on-budget, you have what it takes to be an academic administrator.

I don’t have a clear sense of how to do this, but I do know that I have some marvelously smart and cosmopolitan readers -- wise and worldly, one might say -- so I’m thinking this might be a good time to resort to crowdsourcing.  Wise and worldly readers, I seek your counsel.  How would you recruit people to design the initial space?  In this context, “design” includes selection of technology, arranging of staff support, and the like.  

If you’re on a campus that has done something like this -- they’re sometimes called “Centers for Teaching Excellence” or suchlike -- do you have any tips on what to be sure to do, or not to do?  If there are already bodies on the barbed wire, I’d rather climb over them than fall on it myself...


We have a space like that, called the Teaching Commons, on the 26th floor of the Du Bois Library at UMass Amherst. Come and take a look sometime. I'm not directly involved with it but I'd be happy to arrange a visit after the semester ends (May 11) if you'd like. If so, drop me a note (
We have a space like that, but it worked better before it got taken over by Ed Heads in our Teaching Excellence Center. They assume all classes are like the ed classes they took.

IMHO, the biggest obstacle to a "skunk works" type of sharing is time. That is really expensive. The best faculty don't have a lot of time to share ideas because of the teaching load and additions like Outcomes Assessment that get added on top of the teaching load.

The least intrusive way to share is to foster peer assessment (sitting in another's classroom) with a debrief as the only goal. Both parties learn from watching each other, even in very different subjects (algebra, calculus, physics, chemistry) that rarely talk to each other at a university. Maybe even especially in really different subjects, because you see some universal truths.

Distance is also a factor if you have to cross a large campus (and go to the 12th floor) just to share an idea. But you don't need a dedicated space. We have lots of "regular" tech classrooms on my campus, but you are right that free time for experiments is limited during the day in regular semesters. The best time to do those things would be in the summer.
With respect to choosing programs: One place to start building up your "library" would be to look for free programs. They're not always as flashy or comprehensive, but they can still be incredibly useful, and it helps you give people ideas of what types of things technology can do--stuff that they might not have even considered before. Sue Frantz has a wonderful Technology for Academics blog where she highlights free, easy-to-use programs and websites.

As far as scheduling, on our campus we've had a one-day in-house conference in May, after finals but before summer school. It's free professional development for attendees, cheap for the school to set up, and college service for those who present. One day isn't enough by itself, but could be a nice kickoff/recruiting event.
Two somewhat related projects: You might check out the new Thinklab at the University of Mary Washington, though I suspect it's targeted more at students than faculty and it's more of a makerspace than what you describe needing. Still, it might be worth seeing how they funded it and how much faculty peer learning might be a part of its vision. When I was at UC Davis, the tech folks built an accessible technologies center where anyone could go try out all kinds of hardware and software to see what worked for them. I know you're not talking only about accessibility here, but it might serve as a model.

(I just have to mention, too, that the CAPTCHA for my comment is "agonize" and "adequate." Perfect for so many posts about higher ed pedagogy and technology.)
I'd think carefully about what you could support if the faculty actually decided to use it in large numbers. There's no point in having "the room of exciting technology that we can't afford to put in the actual classrooms", after all. (Reminds me of the schools a few years back that would, with great ceremony, buy one e-reader and then tell everyone it could be checked out for two weeks if they wanted to use it in their classes.)

At this point, if someone still doesn't know how to use PowerPoint, I'd suggest that it's probably a case of willful ignorance rather than lack of opportunity to learn. I had to give PowerPoint presentations as an undergrad in a non-technical major, and I graduated in 2002, so I suspect at this point everyone teaching a college class has used it before unless they were avoiding it on purpose. Getting active tech-resisters to learn things is a different problem than the one that would be solved by just having a place to experiment on campus for the interested but not knowledgeable. The resisters wouldn't show up in their spare time to learn new things (after all, PowerPoint is probably installed on their office computer already, and if they wanted to practice using it they'd be able to do so in their office).
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