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...