we made it

I’m still amazed at how intense the last several months have been. The Taylor Institute construction was completed, the AV systems were installed and integrated, and an seemingly endless series of high profile events have taken place. The past 6 months have been by far the most intense, high stress, high energy, high profile, and chaotic that I’ve ever experienced. And we’re currently on the last major event for awhile.

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Each of these items is an epic event, taking weeks or months of planning. Each has taken 100% of our attention, and we’re learning about life in a world-class teaching-and-learning research facility. But, I’m looking forward to the end of Congress 2016, which is the last major event for awhile1. REDx is the last #congressh2016 event in the Taylor Institute (aside from a tour that I give on Friday, but that’s trivial), and we might actually be able to relax and enjoy the event.

The biggest thing I learned, or had reinforced because I already knew it, was that the Taylor Institute team is absolutely fantastic. An extremely creative, passionate, interdisciplinary team where everyone works incredibly well together to do amazing things. I can’t wait to see what everyone is able to do, once we’ve recovered from this insanely busy High Profile Event Season, and we can all focus on our our jobs again.

Whew. We made it. It’s been one hell of a year so far. Looking forward to things settling down a bit, and then to playing with instructors and students to try some fun things with learning technologies and spaces for the rest of the year.

  1. the next major one I’m aware of is a learning technologies symposium which I will now be able to start planning, targeting late 2016 or early 2017. More to come on that front… []

on untethering

I’ve been without work email for almost a week, as a result of a rather large-scale malware incident that took many systems on campus offline. Many folks in IT have been working around the clock to restore hundreds of computers and systems, and I’m thankful for their efforts. It’s a heroic, thankless task, and they are likely getting some steam from people despite the fact that they’re working flat-out to resolve this.

But, it’s given me a chance to think about things. Having no email or calendar for nearly a week. Initially, I was really freaked out. I basically live in email. Everything is in there. It’s my living archive of things I need to remember, and I’d expected to be paralyzed without it. And my calendar has become my only way to cope with the constant stream of demands on time. If it’s not in my calendar, it doesn’t exist. Often, I’m booked solid all day every day, for the next couple of weeks1.

And, we are legally restricted from using non-university-provided email or calendar tools because we need to comply with data retention policies so that things like FOIP requests can be handled. If I spun up a separate work email/calendar account, FOIP requests wouldn’t have access to those, and there would be no institutional record.

So. No email or calendar for a week. And it’s been awesome. I still find myself occasionally checking email, but largely, I’ve been actually talking to people more, or texting, or using other channels as needed. And I feel like I’ve been more productive, less stretched-too-thin.

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I need to learn from this. I’ve given email and calendar so much power that I’m basically just along for the ride. A robot, following the algorithm generated by the Exchange server. Be here at this time. Do this thing. Answer this question. Then go to this place at this time. I feel like I’d lost some autonomy, some control, some flexibility, although I was busy. So busy.

“How’s it going?”

“Oh. You know. Busy. So busy!”

“Yeah. I know what you mean.”

“Can’t talk. Gotta go! Busy!”

Yeah. I don’t want to be That Guy™. I need to untether, even after I get a shiny new email account this afternoon.

The other thing that happened this week – my Wahoo RFLKT bluetooth bicycle display died. It connects to Cyclemeter on my phone to show data (time/speed/distance/average speed/whatever), and I’ve loved it. But I’ve been riding without any live data this week. I still record the data using Cyclemeter on my phone, but I can’t see the data while I’m riding.

Again, I expected to be twitchy without the constant feedback. But, again, it’s been awesome. I feel more relaxed. I’m enjoying the rides more. There’s something about not having a constant stream of data running in the background. I don’t know how fast I’m going. Or what time it is. Or how late I am. I just focus on riding.

So. I’m thinking a lot about untethering. The data is still very important to me – for the bike, it’s motivating to have a record of the rides – for email, it’s how people communicate2. But I’ll be trying to take back some of the power I’ve given it.

  1. in a rolling event horizon – more than 2 weeks out, and the calendar is pretty empty, but booked solid for the next 2 weeks – which makes it super-fun to try to accommodate last minute, even urgent, requests []
  2. still, in 2016, email is the common platform. We use other tools, but everyone uses email []

on the Taylor Institute grand opening

It’s been a long process, but the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning opened this morning. The last 4 years have been an intensive planning/collaboration/development/implementation process, with people from many organizations coming together to build on the vision of the Institute.

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From the Institute’s website:

The Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning is dedicated to better understanding and improving student learning. It is both a building and a community that extends well beyond the building’s walls.

The Taylor Institute brings together teaching development, teaching and learning research, and undergraduate inquiry learning under one roof.

The institute supports building and sharing teaching expertise; integrating technologies to enhance learning; and conducting inquiry to improve student learning. Through the College of Discovery and Innovation, the Taylor Institute offers undergraduate students opportunities for inquiry-based learning, experiential learning and interdisciplinary research.

It’s an impressive interdisciplinary facility, intended to become a community centre for teaching and learning to bring instructors and students together from all 13 faculties on campus, as well as to include the broader community. We have many groups working together within the institute, making collaboration a part of how we work – including learning technologies, learning and instructional design, curriculum development, educational development, and scholarship of teaching and learning. All of these groups are housed together in a single facility in the heart of our main campus, making it an important place for people to come together to explore and experiment with teaching and learning innovation.

I worked most closely with Bernelle, Sextant, and Matrix (and of course UofC folks in the Taylor Institute, Information Technologies and Campus Planning) in the design and implementation of the amazing learning technologies in the Institute. Much of the early design work was highly conceptual, as the technologies had never been implemented in this way before. Early in the process, I asked for photos of what some of the pieces looked like, and for names of people I could talk to about how well they work. “um. that’s not possible. nobody’s ever done this before.” Awesome. No pressure 🙂

The active learning classrooms are designed from the ground up to be flexible and reconfigurable. Skyfold walls are retractable, making it possible to have one giant active classroom, or 3 smaller ones. Everything is on wheels. The rooms feature 37 “collaboration carts”1, with all of the computer hardware installed in an IT server room on a mezzanine floor, and all video passed back and forth over ethernet and HD-BaseT. The carts are fully mobile within the active learning studios, and will work in any of the floorbox locations in these rooms.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how people use the facility – the initial implementation has some core functionality, but the real magic will happen when people start going off script and doing things nobody imagined. We have lots of fun projects planned to help stimulate that kind of innovation…

  1. we really need to come up with a better name for these… []

On starting a PhD

Last night, I officially accepted an offer to enter a PhD program at the University of Calgary. So, it’s a thing, now. Starting in Fall 2016, I will be a PhD student in the Computational Media Design program. CMD is an absolutely amazing interdisciplinary program. From the About blurb:

At the University of Calgary, we formed the Computational Media Design Program to enable students to conduct research at the intersection of art, music, dance, drama, design and computer science.
The Computational Media Design (CMD) graduate program is composed of the Faculty of Science: Department of Computer Science, the Faculty of Environmental Design and the Faculty of Arts: School of Creative and Performing Arts and Department of Art. Students can earn graduate degrees, both Master of Science and PhD. The research-based graduate degrees explore the relationships between and among art, design, science and technology.

Basically, put a bunch of people from radically different fields together in one program and let them play. Computer scientists. Hardware designers. Artists. Performers. And let them explore issues in an intentionally inter- and cross-disciplinary way. Things like the Giant Walkthrough Brain came out of this program. And they do things like designing and building robots to explore telepresence – but not just in a Silicon Valley “I bet we could sell this crap” way – this is “what does this stuff really mean? what does it change about how we think/work/play/communicate/etc.?” There are a few of their major projects listed on the program website, but many others under development that aren’t listed yet.

I’m extremely fortunate to be working with 2 amazing supervisors – Dr. Ehud Sharlin and Dr. Patrick Finn.

Dr. Sharlin works on human-computer interaction through the utouch research group. Robots. Tangible computer interfaces. Virtual and mixed reality.

Dr. Finn works on technology and artistic performance – “creative and collaborative exploration and the use of performance studies in everyday life” through the School of Creative and Performing Arts.

Many people have asked me questions at various stages of the application process (I’ve been extremely fortunate to have the support of amazing people, both personally and professionally). In no particular order:

Are you INSANE? Why would you DO this to yourself?

Maybe? I don’t think I’m necessarily insane to be doing this. I know it’s a huge commitment, and I’m already in way over my head, but that’s the point. I need to push myself so I don’t just hunker down and become complacent.

Why do this? Not sure there’s a simple answer to that. Basically:

  1. When I finished my MSc, I didn’t feel like I was done. I still wanted to keep going. I’m fortunate to be in a position where that could have easily meant just doing my job and exploring with others through that role, but I felt like I needed to be doing my own research. So, I’ll get to do both – working with researchers on campus through The Day Job, and working on my own research as well. Hopefully, I’ll make a tiny dent somewhere.
  2. Through the Day Job, we’ll be working closely on research projects from many disciplines. While I could learn much through just paying attention as we work on those projects, I think I need to have a firmer grounding in research – designing, implementing, analyzing and disseminating findings. The best way to do that is to jump in and be a researcher.
  3. I don’t want to be a faculty member. I don’t think the prof thing is for me. But, I want to make sure doors aren’t closed to me because I don’t have a piece of paper. I’m not looking for career advancement or anything like that – I have the best job I’ve ever had – but who knows what opportunities might pop up a decade or 2 down the road. I wouldn’t have my current job if I hadn’t finished my MSc (which happened literally months before I needed it to apply for this job).

I know that I’m going to have to work extremely hard to maintain a sense of balance between my family/work/research lives. Normally, a PhD student is working on their program full time. I won’t be quitting my day job to do this, which means it will take me a little longer to complete, but also means that I will have access to some pretty incredible resources through the Taylor Institute. Kind of an ideal scenario.

What is your PhD going to be on?

Hey. Slow down. I just got into the program. I don’t actually start until Fall 2016. Waaaay too early to be locking down what I’ll be researching. I have some ideas, but want to stay open because that’s the whole point (to me). I have a few broad areas that interest me. Maybe some way to connect them?

  1. Making sense of an individual’s context in (learning) communities. Much of the data about a person’s connections, and the things their friends/colleagues/neighbours are doing, is already out there. But only Big Companies get access to it. What if individuals could access and make use of their own data? What would that look like? What could they do with it?
  2. Exploring physical learning spaces. How does the design of a space change the learning (or teaching) experience? What kinds of activities are possible in a flexible/adaptive/technology-rich learning space? (This is where the Day Job kicks in, since we’re now less than 2 weeks away from moving into a pretty amazing technology-rich facility with incredible learning spaces designed to explore this…)
  3. Exploring how physical and digital learning spaces blend and overlap. How does the design and implementation of technology (from physical architecture to online environments) allow people to stretch and distort space and time? And what does that mean for the learning (and teaching) experience? And, how do individuals (students and instructors) maintain a sense of self and autonomy in such an environment?
  4. Lots of other ideas bouncing around. So, maybe something tangentially related. Or completely separate.

Do you realize how much work a PhD will be?

I think so. Maybe not. I know it’s going to suck up basically every second of free time for the next few years. I already feel like I’m in way over my head – being accepted into a program with people 10-20 years younger than myself, who are literally the best in their fields. I haven’t written actual code in many years (aside from hacking some PHP for WordPress plugins and themes – not exactly Computer Science). I have so much to learn before even getting started. And, because I’m doing this at the UofC, there is some pretty spectacular pressure (from myself) to do well. This is home turf. This is where my professional life is. Failure at this PhD thing would kind of suck, so that’s basically not an option. I can’t just withdraw and pretend it never happened. Colleagues have vouched for me, and I need to nail this. No pressure.

So, there it is. I’ll be easing into the program this summer, meeting with my supervisors to design the course portion of my program, and meeting the other students and researchers in the CMD program.