A common frustration for me is that in my role as ‘facilitator’ and evangelist of the small pieces approach is that I really don’t have the chops to make serious mojo happen on my own — I have always depended on the kindness of techies. The frustrations usually take the form of some technical meltdown or glitch that is completely beyond my pathetic skills.
Latest example: I had the great pleasure of meeting Jon Beasley-Murray, a professor here at UBC, a few weeks back. He runs a couple of exceptional weblogs (Posthegemonic Musings and Latin America on Screen), I was thrilled when he contacted me and suggested a meeting. Turns out he’s doing some very cool stuff, has lots of ideas and is willing to experiment. Nice guy, too. I made some recommendations, among them the use of Technorati tags. So how has it turned out?
I’ve been a little frustrated, as over a week ago it seems they stopped indexing this page, just when I was in the middle of retrospectively adding tags to previous posts. I wrote several emails to their support, but no answer.
And I’ve been keeping essentially all my posts on the front page here until technorati spiders come and index it–even though that breaks my feed.
It’s all been a bit of a pain. Most of all, in that, in a fervor of thinking that this tag business was in fact a good thing (partly having been convinced of their worth by Brian Lamb of Abject Learning), I’d spent quite a while adding all those tags…
(I suspect that some algorithm had determined that so many new tags in such a short time meant that my blog was a spam blog; but 10 seconds looking at it should, one might have thought, have convinced a human observer otherwise…)
In further frustration, I cc-ed the last couple of my emails to David Sifry, technorati’s founder and CEO. He wrote back and said he’d look into the problem personally. Which is kind of cool, but it would be easier on him if his minions were more efficient about responding to support queires.
… I have no idea what’s going on.
I’ve completely wasted his time. I have no idea what to do or say. Why am I doing this crap again? What exactly am I facilitating?
Now, now, Brian, don’t beat up on yourself… You are hardly to blame for Technorati’s failures or weirdnesses! And I have faith! When (OK, and if) they get their act into gear, I’ll be back asking you how to create a webpage out of an RSS-driven tag stream, so that my last100 kids can have my thoughts on the texts we’re reading without having to wade through everything else. In other words, I am still persuaded by the vision you outlined!
More, anon. Meanwhile, other readers of this splendid blog Abject Learning should already recognize that the stress here is on learning rather than abjection…
Why do you say you’ve completely wasted his time? Perhaps the idiosyncracies, gaps, weak spots, and letting-go of this brave new online world were not the topics he intended to learn about, but they’re still vital lessons in tempered but not quashed optimism. He may not agree, of course. Some faculty have very narrow definitions of productive effort, and refuse to use information technologies because they are unreliable (with what are often equally narrow definitions of “reliability”). But what I read in his blogs doesn’t make me think this is one of those faculty.
No bum, no steer.
You may be too close to this to see the bigger picture. Even if you’re right and this particular initiative is a total bust (which I strongly doubt!) you will never be successful if you don’t take risks, and when you take risks, sometimes things don’t work out. That said, this initiative is not over yet, so give it a chance. If you need to respond to your colleague, just be honest. But I suggest you wait a bit and see if things get better.
Thanks for the comments. When we heard about the problem, we jumped on it right away, and our engineers are figuring out what went wrong. If you notice anything strange going on as well, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line at dsifry AT technorati DOT com…
Thanks, all of you. I’m calmer now.
I agree you are being entirely too hard on yourself. But I also think there’s another lesson here. When ‘small pieces’ means “more power to the end user” I think it is a great thing. When ‘small pieces’ means “you’re on your own, bub” I think it’s a problem, and I think we often dismiss too easily the concerns of IT folks and administrators over providing quality of service, helpdesk, etc. Unfortunately, too often those arguments are just veils for “I want to control this,” but I fear we’re chucking the quality of end user support baby out with the centralized server bathwater.
I’m not levying this at you personally; I think you guys are doing great things with your blog and wiki services, your RSS aggregator and workshops. But I do think we need to engage this question, both at a systems level and at an end user support level. I appreciate the honesty of your post for allowing some of that discussion to happen. Cheers, Scott
Scott makes an excellent point, to which I respond with a counterpoint: it’s very easy to grow babies in this business. On some level, I want a bit of that “I’m on my own” feeling among the faculty I serve because it helps them take constructive ownership of their use of the tools. In some respects, even a simple hammer in the hands of a single user becomes an occasion for support problems that (here’s the point) anyone who picks up a hammer more than once learns to accept. Doesn’t mean there’s no support, but it does mean that there are no guarantees, and that an acceptable level of risk and an appropriate level of personal resourcefulness needs to be part of any strategic deployment of any tool.
Again, in some respects: “small pieces loosely joined” reveals the responsibility that’s inherent in any kind of significant agency. That doesn’t mean no end-user support. It does mean that this tool we call a “computer” is useful in direct proportion to the amount of learning and risk we’re willing to accept.
Sorry that sounds like such a sermon. I agree with you, Scott, but too often “support” means “this’ll be like a light switch” (and even THOSE break down, though infrequently). Our clients need to have a deeper understanding of the complexities.
When ‘small pieces’ means “more power to the end user” I think it is a great thing. When ‘small pieces’ means “you’re on your own, bub” I think it’s a problem, and I think we often dismiss too easily the concerns of IT folks and administrators over providing quality of service, helpdesk, etc. Unfortunately, too often those arguments are just veils for “I want to control this,” but I fear we’re chucking the quality of end user support baby out with the centralized server bathwater.
Sorry for the long quotation there, but I think this is a good point. On the other hand, I very much appreciated Brian’s approach when I talked to him: he was very much prepared to work with where I was at that point, and then suggest incrementally other things to try out. (Yes, tags being a central one.) So I could keep doing what I was doing already, and try adding another element, with no great losses really (apart from some frustration) if it didn’t work out. Then if it turns out I feel that tags are working, then I may move onto the next step he suggested, using RSS and tags to aggregate posts from diverse pages to a specific page.
What he didn’t ask me to do was to buy into a whole system, let alone a system that is self-contained with no transferable benefits. That’s where the problems start, I think. (And that’s why I’ll continue to avoid WebCT, for instance…)
Anyhow, I’ve gone off the point and I have to run. But I could have more to say about IT support in academic environments if given time and space…
“Bum steers” will always roam on the horizon of experimentation, so there is always a roll of the die when you step off the safety ledge. If we all avoided risk that we’d be deeply esconced in PowerPointProduction.
As all have seen, and commented, there are things learned, gained in what can be quickly labeled as “failure”. Kudos for being open on the experience.
I deal daily with the inertia, smell of fear, to even encourage the consideration of the kind of efforts by Jon, much less getting not just faculty, but even IT folks, actually taking on the small pieces. And while many of us are energized by new tool after new tool, I am smelling a backlash of resistance, and loating of YANT (Yet Another New Technology)
Part of the trick here, I think, is to convince our colleagues that the tools are not different from the product or the desired result. (That’s where my hammer analogy falls apart.) IT tools such as blogs, wikis, etc. etc. are not a means to an end, they are an aspect of that end. Likewise, assignments for a course of study are not (or shouldn’t be) detachable little exercises, but microcosms of the larger aims of the course itself.
IT tools are metaphors (allegories? symbols? avatars?) for the tasks they enable. That’s one reason computers are so cool.
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