“Buy-in as Infrastructure”

“How often do you get to gather a group of faculty and other academic stakeholders from across your institution in one room and have them talk to each other about how they teach and what they need to serve their students well?”

From Michael Feldstein’s 
Toward Operational Excellence at Student Success: California Community Colleges

Let’s assume that creating positive, sustained, and effective change at a university level involves:

  1. Getting the right people, in the right place, at the right time, to establish shared goals.
  2. Collectively communicating those goals and carrying them out over time. 

The reason this is so hard is that every single part of that process is difficult, particularly within the existing patterns of work and life for busy, productive faculty, students, and staff at a modern university. 

“Buy-in” is a holy grail, an idealized state, though sometimes this descends into notions of “incentives,” “carrot and stick,” or “removing obstacles.”

What if, as Michael Feldstein writes in the quoted article above, buy-in could be culturally re-framed not as knocking obstacles aside, but as building infrastructure?

For an example of one approach to “buy-in is infrastructure” look to  this 2017 white paper out of Georgetown University, Lessons from a Change Process. In this paper, Catherine Armour and Randy Bass talk about “the viability of experimental and creative curricular work in a culture designed for deliberative shared governance and slow change.”

“We developed strong stakeholder involvement as part of our iterative design process—one that frequently included associate deans, the registrar, compliance officers, and financial aid representatives—early in each project’s development. Likewise, we communicated well and regularly with our board, alumni, and donors.”

Even then, sustaining and maintaining that infrastructure sometimes fell by the wayside, much as it does with actual civic infrastructure:

“We do not give ourselves as good a grade on continuous communications with faculty. Early on there were many open invitations and speaker events, and a drumbeat of updates. As the work became more intense and demanding, we focused inward, and neglected to continue to reach back out to this important community. We learned it is absolutely critical to spiral communications outward, and to be as inclusive and open as possible, especially as the work takes specific shape within a core group.”

This is hard to do! Even starting from a firm, stable footing only goes so far without monitoring, maintenance, and reaffirmation. None of those concepts are alien to the work of the university, but they do require a reshaping to day-to-day priorities. 

Domains 2017

In an attempt to give an exhaustive account of my experiences at Domains 2017 (June 5-6, 2017), I fear I have very early exhausted myself. The conference was such a remarkable and singular experience for me that I felt the need to honor it with as thorough a documentation and compilation as I could. That effort almost resulted in this post never being completely finished or published, so I have decided to let it go and simply post it.

What follows are an accounting of compiled notes and memories from the presentations, projects, and discussions I experienced in roughly chronological order.

Where possible, I use the heading for each of the following to link to the presentation materials, tool, or topic concerned.

Odds and Ends

Rather than drop these scattered notions to the bottom, I place them here because I want to remember them in particular.

  • A growth and empowerment-focused lesson plan for teaching the web:
    • 1st assignment: highly structured, step-by-step, copy and paste “about me” page.
    • Final assignment: blank slate expressive “about me” page to replace the former.
  • Appeal to students (originally from Seth Godin?): “Google your own name. Are you happy with what you find there?”
  • Pushing course blogs to the front page of a Domains site helps attract more courses. Spotlight students to attract other students. If an institution’s Domains front page just looks weird, clunky, and silent, there won’t be nearly as much realized potential.
  • A particularly good FAQ for a Domains site: http://create.ou.edu/faq/
  • Consider partnering with Civic Engagement and Service Learning: http://cesl.umass.edu/


Tim Clarke, Muhlenberg

A little web server on a hyper-local WiFi drive. Some fascinating potential for contexts like:

  • Field schools and other “remote” scholarly work.
  • Threatened communities.
  • Art installations.
  • Work with undocumented persons.

librarybox componants
I believe that I connected to the device on the uppermost left side of the table.

librarybox screencap
My phone connected to Tim Clarke’s LibraryBox.








Adam Croom has done a more recent write-up (The Offline Web) on his thoughts and experiences around LibraryBox/PirateBox.

OU’s Webfest

Keegan Long-Wheeler, OU

Oklahoma U’s faculty development series on the web. Faculty are encouraged to “visualize what you know about the web” right at start and again at the end, and mindfully compare their two views. The facilitators started with the ground-floor, concrete level bits and pieces of the web: files, servers, FTP. The aim seemed to have been pure demystification, letting faculty touch and see the “real stuff” that made up the web.


Martha Burtis, Director of the Digital Knowledge Center at the University of Mary Washington

Emphasis mine: “The building of sites is absolutely the core activity of Domain of One’s Own. When the project first started one of the things I would frequently say when talking to students about the web was that I wanted them to realize that the web was not something that happened to them but they were happening to. And I still believe this is an important message for our students to hear to and understand.”

Please read it. The other specific thought that occurred to me: Breaking something can make you realize you had power over it, and fixing it can show you that you can control that power. The trick is how to shape an environment where folks can come to those two realizations.

Reclaiming the Web as a Democratic Project: Domain of One’s Own as Transformational Resistance

Lora Taub, Associate Dean of Digital Learning at Muhlenberg

We should build a student advisory board for UMass Create! We need student voices, and we need to bring students together. Something like Muhlenberg’s Domains and Donuts (see below): A specific, bounded time for Domains users to get together to work and support each other.

An Annotation-Powered User-Innovation Toolkit For Educational Technologists

Jon Udell of hypothes.is

Much of the important elements of this presentation are covered in the linked post, but I never pass up an opportunity to highlight one of the projects mentioned: the Digital Polarization Initiative.

Just a Community Organizer: Visualizing Community for Domain of One’s Own

Marie Selvanadin (Georgetown), Tom Woodward (VCU), Yianna Vovides (Georgetown)

Georgetown Domains currently hosts ~700 sites, ~65% of which are students. Yianna Vovides‘s take on how the focus of the domains project has changed for them: “We started with faculty and realized our primary audience was students.”

They went to departments already using portfolios or with interest thereof. They got the director of Gen Ed and the dean the College of Liberal Arts on board. They first cohort included four first year experience classes and four 400 level courses. They held workshops for the faculty cohort the semester before and met before the semester started.

They curate and spotlight sites (student site, course sitefaculty blog) on their domains site home page. They noted that they ask permission before they spotlight someone’s domain!

Tom Woodward of VCU also presented some clever and (relatively) simple ways to scrape and display usage across WordPress sites installed on a domains instance, capturing screenshots of the site home pages. He also showed a method for pulling out a timeline of posts. In response to a concern I raised about how that usage data, once collected, could be used against users, the presenters responded (in what I hope is a reasonable paraphrase): The more ways to look at something, the more facets reveal themselves, and the more developed and productive discussion to be had about usage.

We Are Not DoOOMed! Strategies for Centering Assistantship in a Domains of One’s Own Community

(This was a two-part session, and I unfortunately missed most of part 2.)

Jenna Azar (Muhlenberg) & Jarrett Azar (Muhlenberg). Jenna runs the Digital Learning Assistants (DLA) program, an undergraduate student-staffed, student and faculty-serving support service focused on domains. Jarrett is a Class of 2020 student and a DLA (yes, they are parent and child, which is great!).

Dorm and a Domain

The DLA program unofficially started with a  “Learning in the Digital Age” first-year pre-orientation cohort: the option to move in 3 days early, to get a “Dorm and a Domain.” 

The pre-orientation was and exploration of tools and apps, framed by conversations about being a learner and citizen in a digital age. This ranged from using a local Snapchat filter to advertise a dance party to readings of Freire, Vygotsky, & hooks.

While they hoped this pre-orientation cohort would produce Digital Learning Assistants, they didn’t make it a requirement.

In fact, it sounds a lot like UMass Amherst’s Innovate@ Symposia, except for incoming undergrads rather than instructors. That said, here’s Muhlenberg’s Domain of One’s Own Faculty Learning Community

Digital Learning Assistants

Each DLA can choose to focus on 1 of 4 areas (based on my imperfect notes): mapping, publishing, storytelling, archives. There were 8 DLAs in the first year of the program, offering open hours in Spring 2017 after more focused spin-up in Fall 2016. These open hours operate a lot like UMass Amherst’s Instructional Media Lab, in that they are helping students and faculty teach themselves, not going in and solving problems themselves.

Domains and Donuts

Every other Friday, the DLAs came together to do domains work, with a healthy supply of donuts on hand. This was open to faculty doing domains work, too. It wasn’t exactly a drop-in support and service space, more of a drop-in community support space. In other words: “I’m going to install this thing on my domain and I’m pretty sure I’m going to break it, so I came here to have folks to talk about it with.” I like a lot of things about this model. It emphasizes peer support, it’s a specific community time and destination rather than a nebulous office, and it has donuts! We’re doing some similar stuff at UMass IT Instructional Innovation with our Techspresso Retreats, but I think we could consider the benefits of the specific topical focus and the peer/community support concept of Domains and Donuts.

Finally, a quote to remember from Jarrett: “You learn who you are by what you decide to share.”

Small Steps Go a Long Way: Designing Learning Tools with WordPress

Tanya Dorey-Elias, Alan Levine. Thompson Rivers U

“All these tools have got to be about giving people back control.”

Tanya Dorey-Elias started by noting that we were on unceded native (or aboriginal, in .ca terms) land. I’ve increasingly seen this practice in conference panels and other framing of North American spaces, and I appreciate it every time. My own lack of confidence in bringing that up in similar contexts just indicates a lack of research on my part about the land I’m on at any given time.

Tanya started with an amazing exercise and framing metaphor about boots, the context in which they are used, and how this connects to other technologies. Happily, she wrote this up and frames this much more powerfully than I could.

Alan Levine highlighted some SPLOTs: “SPLOTs are the demented spawn of a shotgun marriage, between the drive to simplify open web expression and the refusal to require participant data.” He specifically showed off Tru Writer

For this online writing tool, no account or name needed. Just go in and use it. The default “ID” is Anonymous. Part of the purpose of tools like this is due to (as I understand it) much more restrictive/protective Canadian laws around how personal information can be collected and stored, but also to challenge the narrative that trackable online identities are always appropriate. For example, making a space for sharing stories not usually told about experiences with abuse: http://whenineededhelp.com/

‘Just Make it Work!’ Workflows & Tools to Make You Look (Mostly) Competent When You’re One Person Supporting 22,000 WordPress Sites

Tom Woodward, Virginia Commonwealth University

This presentation was about the trevails of running a huge multisite WordPress site similar to blogs.umass.edu. Tom’s excellent presentation is linked in the title, so I’ll pull out my big takeaway: The blogs.umass.edu multisite and UMass Create web domains should be mutually-supporting tools for our population. We shouldn’t ignore one for the other, but should highlight the difference in affordances and constraints.

Automating Analytics for Your Domains Project

Peter Senz,  Brigham Young University

BYU Domains has 5800 users, which is the largest current DoOO instance with Reclaim Hosting.  BYU started their pilot in 2015. By end of the year they had 1000+ sies. Started with “techie” groups. They went “live” as a full service in Jan 2016. Peter shared that his CIO is a little disappointed in the “5800 sites” figure; he wants 10,000! The majority of use is from students (about 65%).

The usage isn’t as centered around classes, but mostly around individual users. For example, at least 30 of the sites are students selling their photography.

How do they de-provision accounts?
  1. Check for Active User (“eligible to register” student or employed faculty/staff) in the general IT information system.
  2. If they aren’t active, show a notice on the site dashboard (cPanel).  warning with a link to their site migrations page, as well as the RH individual hosting purchase form. Side note: RH is getting a burst of BYU folks transferring out of BYU to Individual Accounts.
  3. Send a monthly email for 6 months.
  4. After 6 months disable the account, 1 month later delete account.
How do they auto-provision accounts?

When a new user logs into the BYU domains page:

  1. The system checks if they’re an Active User (see above).
  2. If so, a WHMCS (domain) account and a WordPress account are auto-created.
  3. A welcome message is sent to them with an invitation to log in and choose a domain name (including support info).

No IT staff have to take action throughout this process, though they contracted an outside developer to build the above two processes.

Why so many users?

He mentioned a few potential factors:

  • The IT staff does lots of presenting to classes about digital identity and sovereignty every semester. Presentations aren’t focused on the technical, but more values-driven.
  • They publicly kick out the faculty member from the class when they present to students; make it clear that it’s “about students.” They make sure a given class presentation aligns with the syllabus, too.
  • Students are used to jumping between multiple online spaces for their scholarly work. Specifically, the Center for Teaching built and runs an LMS, and IT also supports Canvas and Moodle.
  • Finally, almost everyone uses their personal email rather than their BYU email to register or access services at BYU. The sense of the “one-stop-shop” or “walled garden” just isn’t there for most of the BYU population.

Beyond the LMS

Tim Klapdor, Charles Sturt University

TIm’s talk was more strategic and aspirational, framing the original purposes of the LMS, what it has become, and how a more distributed system, with individual learner domains as the nodes, could actually promote a more useful and enriching environment, especially for the kinds of “distributed, life-long learners” that make up an increasing amount of students.

A collection of other fine folks’ takes on Domains 2017:

Critiquing Domains 17

Domains 2017 #notaconference

Gleanings from the Fields of #Domains17

Thrill Ride

Inspiring More DoOO Power Users – A #Domains17 Perspective

#domains17 – MBFWL

..and finally, from Oklahoma U’s Adam Croom: Small is Beautiful. Metaphors and Other Musings from #Domains17

Pew Report on “The Future of Free Speech, Trolls, Anonymity and Fake News Online”

I spent my lunch reading over this report (“The Future of Free Speech, Trolls, Anonymity and Fake News Online” compiled by the Pew Research Center) and have skimmed through the rest. The summary is probably a 10-15 minute read, and the major findings of the report (the first page) is probably more of a 45 min read.

The report (composed mostly of the responses from experts, or just people who felt like braindumping on the topic, see the P.S. below) is organized into 4 themes or projected futures about the future of the internet as a medium of communication, discourse, and information:

  • Theme 1: Things will stay bad because to troll is human; anonymity abets anti-social behavior; inequities drive at least some of the inflammatory dialogue; and the growing scale and complexity of internet discourse makes this difficult to defeat
  • Theme 2: Things will stay bad because tangible and intangible economic and political incentives support trolling. Participation = power and profits
  • Theme 3: Things will get better because technical and human solutions will arise as the online world splinters into segmented, controlled social zones with the help of artificial intelligence (AI)
  • Theme 4: Oversight and community moderation come with a cost. Some solutions could further change the nature of the internet because surveillance will rise; the state may regulate debate; and these changes will polarize people and limit access to information and free speech

P.S. and disclaimer: I’m actually quoted in it (click here and scroll up a bit)!

Video: Deep Work with Cal Newport

I recently finished Deep Work (2016) by Cal Newport, a writer and computer science professor at Georgetown.

I read a lot of “productivity lit,” and while Deep Work definitely falls into that category, it offers a lot of practical framing for how individuals and organizations can structure their work environments to help produce better, more meaningful outcomes.

Where I gather (not having read it) that Carr’s The Shallows focuses more on “here’s how the social and technological environment we have created is making us produce distracted, surface-level, ultimately-automatable work,” Deep Work trends towards “… and here’s what you can do about it.”

I recommend reading the book if you’re interested, but this 30 minute interview with Newport (embedded below) hits most of the high notes; the interviewer is engaged and knowledgeable, and they both share a number of specific practices and stories about how the topic relates to their work.

Here’s the audio version via iTunes.

Newport also writes a fine blog, Study Hacks, which goes into detail on specific tactics for deep work and related topics.

“Collaborative Overload”: Professional Team Performance Through a Management Lens

From the Jan/Feb 2016 Harvard Business Review: Collaborative Overload.

Emphasis mine:

“Research we’ve done across more than 300 organizations shows that the distribution of collaborative work is often extremely lopsided. In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees…As a recent study led by Ning Li, of the University of Iowa, shows, a single “extra miler”—an employee who frequently contributes beyond the scope of his or her role—can drive team performance more than all the other members combined.

“But…[w]e find that what starts as a virtuous cycle soon turns vicious. Soon helpful employees become institutional bottlenecks: Work doesn’t progress until they’ve weighed in. Worse, they are so overtaxed that they’re no longer personally effective…In our quest to reap the rewards of collaboration, we have inadvertently created open markets for it without recognizing the costs. What can leaders do to manage these demands more effectively?”

(I should stress in the extreme that I don’t put myself in this category; this isn’t a “woe is me” post. I do feel that I recognize this happening to numerous colleagues.)

The article suggests several solutions, like detailed time and communications tracking, surveys and feedback, and other data-gathering, followed by instituting processes, technologies, and even physical space changes to support the changes the interpretation of the data suggests.

Also, from a sidebar on inequities around the expectations and views of women’s collaborative work:

“In an experiment led by the NYU psychologist Madeline Heilman, a man who stayed late to help colleagues earned 14% higher ratings than a woman who did the same. When neither helped, the woman was rated 12% lower than the man. By improving systems for measuring, recognizing, and rewarding collaborative contributions, leaders can shift the focus away from the gender of the employee and toward the value added.”

I’m not sure exactly how the system vaguely described here could help reduce systemic implicit bias, but it would likely be better than the “impressions” suggested by the colleague ratings above.

Qualification 1: I work in higher ed, and most, if not, all of the research mentioned here seems to have been focused on private industry. Different environments, different interests, different temperaments. I would suggest that the pressures on these organization are increasingly similar, however.

Qualification 2: At least some of these authors admit that they help organizations develop solutions to these problems, so it’s in their interests to portray these challenges in ways that they can “solve.” That said, I didn’t see anything in the article that suggests they are arguing in bad faith.

“Do Black Students Benefit as Grad Rates Increase?” (Often: No)

From the new report: Rising Tide II: Do Black Students Benefit as Grad Rates Increase?

Emphasis mine:

[Andrew Nichols]: Our data show that almost 70 percent of the schools we studied increased graduation rates for black students from 2003-2013. However, those gains lagged behind those of white students, so more than half of institutions (53 percent) failed to narrow the completion gap between black and white students.

Worse still, almost a third of the schools (73 schools) saw graduation rates for black students either decrease or stay the same. And an alarming number of institutions, 39, experienced both declining graduation rates for black students along with widening gaps.

Fortunately, our data was not all doom and gloom. Fifty-two institutions that raised overall grad rates stood out for also substantially improving black student success. These institutions increased the graduation rate for black students by at least 9 percentage points, which is twice the average increase for all institutions in our sample. They also reduced the graduation rate gap.

These institutions prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that what institutions do — or don’t do — matters a great deal. And most important, they provide real-life examples of what other institutions can do.

Where do faculty leave the innovation-decision process?

A rich-for-mining research article that could inform any strategy  for instructional innovation (while this is focused on physics, there’s a lot to draw from for any discipline):

“Use of research-based instructional strategies in introductory physics: Where do faculty leave the innovation-decision process?” (2012)

I recommend at least skimming through to the Discussion and Conclusions & Implications sections, but here are a few key findings pulled from the abstract:

“The largest losses occur at the continuation stage, with approximately 1/3 of faculty discontinuing use of all research-based instructional strategies (RBIS) after trying one or more of these strategies. Knowledge and/or use of RBIS are significantly correlated with reading teaching-related journals, attending talks and workshops related to teaching, attending the physics and astronomy new faculty workshop, having an interest in using more RBIS, being female, being satisfied with meeting instructional goals, and having a permanent, full-time position. The types of variables that are significant at each stage vary substantially. These results suggest that common dissemination strategies are good at creating knowledge about RBIS and motivation to try a RBIS, but more work is needed to support faculty during implementation and continued use of RBIS. Also, contrary to common assumptions, faculty age, institutional type, and percentage of job related to teaching were not found to be barriers to knowledge or use at any stage. High research productivity and large class sizes were not found to be barriers to use of at least some RBIS.”

Also via Teach Better Podcast Episode 25: Changing the Culture of Teaching With Noah Finkelstein

The main unit of instructional change in higher ed? The academic department.

A lot to chew on with this article!

Here’s a few choice quotes:

“Instead of steady-state interactions, a change agent may encourage the development of new ideas (emergent change) by connecting faculty members that do not usually interact and thus may have diverse perspectives…”

“Because of these periphery nodes, this department may require prolonged support before the entire network is reached. Change agents should also be aware of the isolated individuals. New ideas may reach these individuals through means other than informal social connections (by formal meetings or indirectly through department culture).”

“To spread emergent ideas through policy changes, the change agent will need to ensure the new ideas are reaching the formal leadership. Studies have found that the department chair plays a crucial role in connecting the innovations created by the individual faculty with the administration of the university…”

And finally:

“When subgroups exist, the change agent must be aware that opinions and norms may vary across subgroups. Targeting individuals in different subgroups can increase the reach of prescribed change initiatives. The potential variety of opinions can also be valuable to encourage the emergence of new ideas.”


Via Teach Better Podcast Episode 25: Changing the Culture of Teaching With Noah Finkelstein

Side note: this all maps cleanly onto the work in the 2003 collected volume Group Creativity: Innovation through Collaboration DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195147308.001.0001

Full citation and abstract:

“Promoting instructional change: using social network analysis to understand the informal structure of academic departments,” Higher Education , Volume 70, Issue 3, pp 315-335
DOI: 10.1007/s10734-014-9831-0

Abstract: Calls for improvement of undergraduate science education have resulted in numerous initiatives that seek to improve student learning outcomes by promoting changes in faculty teaching practices. Although many of these initiatives focus on individual faculty, researchers consider the academic department to be a highly productive focus for creating change. In this paper, we argue that it is important for change agents to understand the informal social structure of the academic department and introduce social network analysis techniques to uncover this social structure. Examples are given from data collected in five academic departments. A short sociometric web survey was used to ask instructors to identify colleagues with whom they discuss teaching and the frequency of their discussions. Techniques of social network analysis are used to determine the current state of the department, target participants for a change initiative, and anticipate the spread of new teaching ideas. Results suggest that these techniques identify informal structures that would otherwise be hidden and that may be important for planning change initiatives.