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One Size Doesn't Fit All:
Designing Scaleable, Client-Centered Support
for Technology in Teaching

Mark Donovan, Ph.D.
and Scott Macklin
Associate Directors, UWired
University of Washington
Seattle, Washington
December 1998

Presented at
CAUSE98: The Networked Academy
An EDUCAUSE Conference on Information Technology in Higher Education
December 8-11, 1998
Washington State Convention & Trade Center
Seattle, Washington
© 1998 Mark Donovan and Scott Macklin

For much of this decade, institutions of higher education have scrambled to keep pace with rapid changes in information technology. The explosive growth of the World Wide Web has made it obvious to most that networked technologies will play an increasingly significant role in teaching and learning, though the nature of this role is not entirely clear. The initial response of many campuses to support technology in teaching has been to establish a faculty technology center, offer workshops and training to interested educators, and perhaps support faculty technology projects and the transformation of particular courses. Sometimes these activities have been assumed by units responsible for campus networked computing, at other times units responsible for instructional development have taken the lead. These efforts have often been predicated on targeting "early adopters" that are eager and willing to teach themselves how to use and implement new technologies. Often this is done under the assumption that early adopters will play the role of Johnny Appleseed, spreading innovation in their wake.

For the most part, though, this has proven to be a poor strategy for promoting educational transformation through the sober incorporation of technology. As the Web has pushed technology into the educational mainstream, these early adopters have been replaced by "wary adopters" looking for easy ways to bring technology into their teaching but unwilling to match the time commitment of the pioneers. While the classic early adopter was often drawn to technology for its own sake, reveling in the "gee whiz factor" of new technologies, wary adopters are inherently pragmatic. Representing the mainstream of educators, wary adopters are willing to use technology when it can be demonstrated that doing so will add value to their teaching without significantly reducing the time already allocated to teaching, research, and service activities. The mainstreaming of technology has been at once heartening and overwhelming. With the need to evangelize about the educational potential of technology diminishing with each passing day, those of us working to support technology in teaching are faced with the twin challenges of scaling up support services and ensuring that these services meet the often different needs of wary adopters.

This paper explains how the University of Washington's UWired program has navigated these challenges and fundamentally rethought its approach to the support of technology in teaching and learning. During the past year, UWired has aggressively reexamined its programs, practices and facilities, engaged stakeholders in broad conversations on the role of technology in teaching, and embarked on a significant redesign of its support model and physical spaces. This paper first presents a brief institutional profile of the University of Washington and sketches the history of UWired, a five year-old collaboration intended to promote and support educational technology and the institutional transformations necessary to take advantage of the opportunities this technology affords. The paper then explains the evolution of our faculty support model and details the development of the Catalyst Project, the centerpiece of our effort to rethink what we do. The final section of the paper briefly discusses some of the lessons we think can be derived from UWired's experience. We have worked to create a lean, flexible unit capable of effectively responding to--and leading--change in a highly uncertain environment.

Computing at the University of Washington

Located on 700 acres of Lake Washington waterfront in Seattle, the University of Washington is the Northwest's premiere institution of higher education. Approximately 35,000 undergraduate and graduate students are enrolled in programs offered through 16 colleges and schools and more than 100 academic departments. With more than 3,500 faculty members and 13,000 staff, the Seattle campus of the University of Washington is, by any measure, a very large place. In 1990, the UW opened two additional campuses north (UW Bothell) and south (UW Tacoma) of the Seattle campus in an effort to expand educational access for the citizens of Washington state.

The vast majority of computing activities at the UW are supported by Computing & Communications (C&C), the unit responsible for maintaining campus data networks and centralized computing resources. In recent years, Computing & Communications has had to balance its responsibility for developing the Pacific Northwest's "gigapop" connection to Internet2 and Washington state's "K-20 network" with dramatically increasing demands for computing resources and support at the UW. Since 1993, computing activity and the corresponding infrastructure needed to support it, have increased at a breathtaking rate. For example, in 1993 approximately 400 miles of fiber connected the campus, some 14,000 devices were connected to the campus network, and C&C hosted approximately 10,000 email accounts and no Web pages for individual users. By 1997 these figures had changed markedly--the campus was connected with over 1,000 miles of fiber, nearly 30,000 devices were connected to the network, and C&C hosted approximately 60,000 email accounts and more than 9,000 individual Web sites. These figures actually understate computing activity, as departments and individual users have established hundreds of servers connected to the network, many functioning as email and Web hosts.

According to a recent survey conducted by the University Libraries, over 80 percent of undergraduate students use a computer daily, mostly for email, and approximately 75 percent report using a computer capable of browsing the World Wide Web from their residence. Among faculty surveyed, more than 90 percent report using email to communicate with their students and more than 30 percent report having "placed course materials on the Web," while an additional 23 percent report that they are interested in doing so. Information technology has already deeply penetrated the practice of teaching and learning at UW, though faculty lag behind students in their use of technology. C&C has done an outstanding job of keeping pace with the technological growth and change, maintaining a large and robust technological infrastructure. Though it does provide computer training to the campus community--in 1997 it offered nearly 600 training classes--C&C has not been positioned to provide extensive, instructionally oriented support to campus educators. UWired has been charged with this task.

UWired--The Early Years

In 1994, at the behest of the provost to "do something" about information technology, the UWired partnership was forged among the University Libraries, the Office of Undergraduate Education, and Computing & Communications. Each unit saw the potential for collaboration in the promotion and support of technology in teaching and learning and wished to avoid duplicating efforts and creating unnecessary competition for resources. Begun as a series of pilot projects and supported through the contributions of its partners, UWired has always been based on an ethos of collaboration and experimentation. As one of its founders noted, "We were given the ability to experiment, and more importantly, we were allowed to experiment and fail." The ability to rapidly develop and implement new ideas--and discard the ones that don't work--has been key to UWired's success as an agent of change.

UWired's initial project provided 70 freshman with laptop computers and participation in a yearlong seminar in the use of technology led by librarians. This initiative was linked with Freshman Interest Groups (FIGs), a program of the Office of Undergraduate Education designed to provide freshmen with an intimate educational experience in the midst of a massive university. From conception to implementation, this project took six months--an amazingly short period of time given the typical pace of events at a large university. As with many of UWired initiatives, this initial project provided an important testbed for concepts and strategies, which have been refined and scaled over time. By fall 1998, information literacy training reached over 2,000 students in 90 FIGs, accounting for nearly half of the entering freshman class.

Since this initial pilot project, UWired has engaged in a number of activities aimed at realizing the potential of technology in education. These have included conducting faculty workshops and training, opening a faculty technology center, building model wired classrooms or "collaboratories," developing a framework for information literacy, and launching outreach activities targeting community colleges and K-12 teachers and students. 1997 was a watershed year for UWired, as the unit secured a permanent budget, reorganized its staffing, and assumed responsibility for the university's two largest campus computing labs with nearly 400 seats total. Two additional partners also joined UWired: Educational Outreach, the university's extension and continuing education arm; and the newly created Office of Educational Partnerships. These changes have been accompanied by a fundamental rethinking of UWired's role in the support of campus educators.

Initial Efforts at Supporting Educators

Though UWired began as an initiative to support student uses of technology, the UWired partners understood that parallel efforts aimed at supporting teachers were a necessity. UWired's efforts to support faculty were initially confined to workshops and faculty showcases. These early efforts were driven by the energies of those faculty who were pioneering educational uses of then-new technologies such as email and the Web. By 1996, UWired had a full-time coordinator but still no permanent budget. With the libraries donating space in the undergraduate library, and the other partners contributing funds, the UWired Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology was created to provide a physical space to expand faculty training and house the coordinator, a network administrator, and a small student staff. When it opened in 1996, the UWired Center consisted of eight workstations reserved for faculty drop-in use, a scanning station, a small teaching area for workshops, and three offices.

Two key principals stood behind the creation of the UWired Center: (1) faculty would be most likely to develop effective educational uses of technology if the use of technology were rooted in pedagogy, and (2) effective support for technology should be personal and intensive. As established, the Center focused on four types of activities:

The innovative courses program was launched in the spring of 1995, a full year before the opening of the Center. Once the UWired Center opened, support of this initiative consumed considerable staff time. The program brought librarians, technologists, and curricular specialists together to work with faculty members interested in incorporating information technology into their course plans and operation. Specifically, this support consisted of helping faculty create lesson plans using new technologies, incorporating information literacy into the presentation of class research projects, and limited custom programming to create interactive Web sites. In addition to this extensive support, faculty teaching innovative courses were also able to utilize the UWired collaboratories for class sessions. During the four academic quarters the innovative courses program was in place, nineteen courses in fields such as fisheries, nursing, and English were transformed. According to student evaluations and faculty self-reports, the innovative courses program significantly enhanced teaching and learning.

Developing a Campus-wide Support Strategy

While the innovative courses program was successful in enabling enthusiastic faculty to meaningfully incorporate technology into their teaching, by mid-1997 it was becoming clear that the program was an idea whose time had come and passed. Far from being be a spark for the widespread transformation of teaching, some faculty found a chilly reception when they returned to their departments and evangelized about the potential of technology. In an unexpected way, the innovative courses program actually may have erected a barrier to change. Often, it seemed, other faculty looked skeptically on the achievements of the participants and shrugged off their success by saying, "Of course you did all that neat stuff . . . look at all the time you invested and all the support you received."

In addition, the support provided by UWired created an expectation that such support would always be available. Significant staff time thus had to be devoted to maintaining and updating "legacy courses" that had come to depend on custom programming, the intensive involvement of librarians, and the use of UWired�s Collaboratories. Our limited resources were being increasingly consumed by these activities at the same time that demand for support increased dramatically, as indicated by a doubling in the number of visits to the Center from 1997 (less than 800) to 1998 (more than 1,700 and counting). The reevaluation of the innovative courses program was accompanied by a widespread feeling that the university was entering a new phase in the integration of technology in teaching. This new phase marked a shift from the aggressive use of technology by early adopters to the more widespread, though perhaps less intense use of technology by faculty in general. In addition to UWired�s efforts, the campus was replete with scattered, uncoordinated--but often impressive--efforts to make meaningful use of technology in teaching and learning. As we considered the need to change our approach, we consciously sought to find ways to identify and highlight the activities of others, rather than simply attempt to enlarge the organization and stake out more turf.

As UWired set out to rethink its approach to faculty development and support four guiding principles emerged. The support model had to:

  1. Substantially reduce the barriers to entry posed by an educators initial foray into educational technology,
  2. Be flexible enough to adapt to changing technologies and needs of educators,
  3. Be scalable campus-wide, and
  4. Be sustainable with existing resources.

Courseware: The Road Not Taken

In late-1997 UWired began a conversation with the divisional Dean for Computing in the College of Arts and Sciences, the university's largest college. The dean made it clear that he thought the university had reached a point where the potential of educational technology could be realized, but only if the technology could be easily incorporated by faculty without the significant time commitment that had marked the activities of early adopters. He made the case that the university was ripe for an initiative that would provide coherence to the technology choices faced by faculty, and argued that a failure to take advantage of this opportunity would result in a balkanization of technology that would be neither cost effective nor effective educationally. We shared his concerns and his belief that new approaches were needed to support technology in teaching. His enthusiasm and commitment were encouraging as the UWired staff had been wrestling for several months with how best to engage departments--rather than just individual faculty--in the process of incorporating technology into teaching.

The dean's primary concerns, stated over and over, were that faculty time had to be regarded a precious resource, and that implementation and support of educational technology had to be structured to make minimal demands on faculty time. As a sign of his commitment the dean vowed to support the college-wide adoption of a "Web tool," if one could be found, that would simplify the task of creating online educational material. He asked UWired to spearhead an evaluation of Web tools and this led to a series of meetings in early 1998 that were known internally as "The Great Web Tool Debate."

The "Web tool debating society" as one wag called it, numbered about a dozen people and consisted of UWired staff, staff from C&C's Information Systems Client Services group, faculty, and managers of key campus labs. Immediately it became apparent that the label "Web tool" was actually being used to refer to two distinct classes of products. The first included all-in-one courseware products such as Web Course in a Box, TopClass, and WebCT. The second class of products consisted of off-the-shelf Web editors such as Adobe PageMill, Claris HomePage, and Microsoft FrontPage. The group quickly developed a skepticism of the all-in-one "courseware" products for several reasons:

Perhaps most fundamentally, courseware is, by its very nature, tool-focused rather than people-focused. Educators begin with the tool and then are forced to work within (or around) its constraints. To faculty, many of whom are understandably nervous about the changes in their role that technology may precipitate, we believed such products would send the entirely wrong message: using technology means plugging your course into and conforming to software templates. Our firm belief is that for technology to be effective its use must be driven first and foremost by pedagogical goals. Incorporating technology into teaching certainly requires faculty to rethink their approach education and acquire new skills, but our concern for faculty time led us to argue that these new skills ought to be extensible and transferable. Learning to use a courseware product might provide some short-term benefits, but ultimately the technical skills acquired by educators would be limited to a particular product. Our belief in the power of open standards and the collaborative potential of new technologies led us to see the Web itself, not any one piece of software, as the "killer app."

As the Web Tool Debate continued and the UWired staff conducted extensive testing on a half-dozen of the most popular Web editors, we also actively sought to engage faculty, support staff, and department heads in broad conversations about their issues and concerns relating to faculty uses of technology. Several things became apparent in the course of these conversations during the first quarter of 1998:

The Great Web Tool Debate, which began with a mandate to identify a standard tool for adoption by the College of Arts & Sciences, ultimately rejected the idea that a tool would solve our problems. What we needed was a strategy.

Rethinking Support for Educators

For the remainder of 1998, UWired, in cooperation with faculty, Computing & Communications, and the University Libraries, has embarked on a period of aggressive activity designed to develop and implement a campus-wide strategy for supporting technology in teaching. Four principles guide this effort:

  1. We will work to support the campus computing infrastructure and strive to make its many robust parts coherent from the perspective of educators.
  2. Our end product will have to be user-centered, growing organically from the needs and wants of our target users: campus educators.
  3. We will minimize dependence on custom-made solutions and strive to implement off-the-shelf technologies and generic homegrown products.
  4. We will place a premium on good information design.

C&C and the Libraries developed their own initiatives to better connect their core services with the needs of educators using technology. The Libraries initiated an electronic course reserve program that digitized course materials and posted them to the Web, saving educators the time to do this task and standardizing the dissemination of materials for students. In the Undergraduate Library, which houses the campus' largest general access computing lab, the UWired Commons, librarians established a new reference desk in the middle of the lab to assist students. Recognizing the need to differentiate between the various types of computing users, C&C has split the departmental/user Web server cluster into server clusters corresponding to different populations and uses (faculty, student, staff, courses, and departmental servers). C&C has also implemented the Kerberos network authentication protocol which (among other things) has helped streamline the management of network resources such as Web accounts, email lists, and newsgroups and has helped to facilitate the development of UWired's web-based instructional tools.

At UWired, we have taken it upon ourselves to find a way to knit together the various services and features of the infrastructure that C&C and the University Libraries were providing and connect these with both "how-to" support for educators and guidance on the effective implementation of technology in teaching. We believe that the technology to enhance teaching and learning already existed--and was rapidly improving--but that the costs of acquiring the information to implement these technologies was just too high for the typical educator. At root, we saw the problem as one of poor information design.

Though our conversations with educators that used the UWired Center gave us a sense of how to tackle the problem, we were wary of the hubris that can accrue working in a technology center removed from the day to day routine of faculty teaching, research, and service. While at the time no systematic data had been collected to provide a profile of faculty technology use, our intuitive sense was that a significant portion of the faculty had already made a foray into educational technology. Of those who had not yet taken the plunge, our sense was that a large number were sitting on the sidelines, interested in pursuing technology but waiting for things to become easier.

What Do Faculty Want?

To get a firmer sense of what faculty wanted, we decided to ask them. Through what often seemed like a never-ending series of meetings, UWired staff met with faculty, TAs, and computer support people from a range of colleges and departments. For the first time, UWired staff found themselves meeting with department and college heads to find out how these units were developing--or wished to develop--institutional responses to educational technology. We found, for example, that UWired was not widely seen as an important resource for departments. While motivated individuals made the trek across campus to use our facilities and consult with our staff, departments viewed the Center as a centralized administrative unit that was perhaps in competition with them for scarce resources. This realization led us to develop a targeted set of services aimed at assisting units in the development of technology plans, the creation of useful Web resources, and the training and support of faculty and teaching assistants.

In addition to gathering institutional perspectives on educational technology, we also strove to identify the wants and needs of individual faculty by conducting a series of faculty focus groups during the summer of 1998. Our goal was not just to better understand their technology needs but also to learn more about the teaching challenges and work habits of faculty. Before we developed a new support model we thought it imperative that we understand how such support would connect with the lives of busy educators.

The focus groups reaffirmed our sense of the barriers to technology adoption, but often challenged our notions of how best to address the barriers. Unsurprisingly, faculty told us that a lack of time was the most critical barrier to experimenting with technology. They also made it clear that while they definitely wanted both how-to technical support and guidance on good practice with educational technology, they did not want these different types of support conflated. This desire was in direct opposition to the way we had been approaching the support issue. Because of our belief that instructional practice needed to guide the use of technology, we commonly tried to weave together instructional suggestions and technical support into workshop curricula and handouts.

As we asked faculty how they worked and how educational technology might fit into their work habits we were struck by a significant difference between our thinking about technolgy and theirs. For those of us working day in and day out to support technology in teaching, the technologies--email, the Web, multimedia--are part of the fabric of our work life. By virtue of our jobs, we have developed a fluency in using software applications and networked technologies that most faculty neither share nor aspire to. While we had been committed to a "holistic" approach to the use of technology, faculty told us that they were much more calculating in their use of technology. They wanted to know how to accomplish specific tasks using technologies and wanted to be able to easily repeat these tasks in subsequent academic quarters. Those who had used technology reported that when they attempted to repeat their use in subsequent quarters they often found that they had forgotten how. Our initial belief that we could help make faculty broadly literate in educational technologies will likely be true in the long run, but in the short run such an approach has limited effectiveness and was a recipe for faculty frustration.

The Catalyst Project

The discussions with faculty and departments--which continue to this day--played a crucial role in shaping UWireds new model for faculty support. During the summer of 1998, the UWired Center directed nearly all its resources into reshaping our core support activities. Because of slender resources (3 FTE staff and 4-5 FTE student staff), we decided to suspend faculty workshops for the summer and reduce our open access hours to provide our staff with concentrated work time. Our decision to temporarily cut back our services at a time when demand for them was growing was not made lightly, but our consistent belief was that we would only be able to catalyze the effective use of educational technology if we fundamentally reconceptualized our approach to supporting faculty. Doing this required us to focus our staff on this change and recapture their work time.

Talking about "changing our support model" is fairly abstract. (We discovered this when we tried explaining to some of our undergraduate staff what it was we were having them do.) We meant a change in the services we offered, a change in how they were offered, a change in the day to day activities of our staff, and a change in the role we played in the technological transformation of teaching and learning. We wanted to establish the UWired Center as a clearinghouse of ideas, technologies, and practices. We wanted to disseminate useful and usable information, to connect people with resources and with one another, and to amplify interesting ideas and practices. The challenge was in figuring out how to do this--quickly.

The Concept

We labeled this initiative "Catalyst," and a key, early decision was that we would use the Web as the primary means to deliver support. Relying on the Web allowed us to rapidly disseminate our materials, model good information design for faculty and, perhaps most importantly, allow users to tailor their support experience to their needs. We also decided that campus educators were not our only target; an equally important goal of this project was to find better ways to disseminate information to the staff and TAs in the trenches who often assumed the role of supporting faculty. While a design team developed and tested approaches to presenting this information and creating a coherent net of support for educators, other staff worked at developing the tools and materials that would become Catalyst.

Design and development work proceeded throughout the summer and early fall 1998; in late fall we moved into a production phase, readying Catalyst for a campus-wide rollout in early 1999. The final design of the Catalyst Web site includes five core components:

  1. Method Guides, focusing on instructional practices and implementations of technology that can enable these practices;
  2. Profiles of campus educators, describing in their own words the ups and downs of their experiences using technology;
  3. Quick Guides, providing standardized, task-oriented guides to the implementation of a particular technology;
  4. Technical Documents, providing step-by-step how-to instruction on a wide range of topics;
  5. UWired Tools, allowing educators to generate custom scripts from Web-based forms, providing them with advanced functionality without any programming.

Method Guides and Profiles

The Method Guides and Profiles are intended to firmly root an educator's exploration of educational technology in instructional practice and the real-life experiences of their peers. An educator who knows nothing about the possibilities of technology in teaching can navigate Catalyst by following links related to their instructional goals. An educator, for example, might choose a guide for "increasing communication between students," "using sound and images," or "promoting student collaboration." The Method Guides provide a narrative about these instructional practices that is detached from specific technologies. Users of the site will find bibliographic resource materials oriented to a specific instructional technique and brief descriptions of the different enabling technologies that might help them put these instructional techniques into practice. In the focus groups and one-to-one encounters, faculty consistently told us that while they felt there were probably uses for technology in their own teaching, they wanted a better sense of what others were already doing. The Profiles meet this need and provide an adjunct to the Method Guides, attaching a face and a context to the use of technology. The Profiles, do of course, promote the use of technology, but they also attempt to provide educators with a sense that the use of technology--like all instructional tools--is iterative. Thus the profiles often let them see how their peers experimented with technologies, enjoyed success and grappled with failures.

Quick Guides and Technical Documents

The Profiles and Method Guides are our attempt to provide information and resources on the instructional uses of technology in a manner separate from the technical know-how required to implement that technology. Each of these sections, though, includes links to Web pages that step educators through the implementation of an attractive technology. We call the pages Quick Guides. Quick Guides are not really "technical documents"--we reserve that label for specialized documents that assist an educator in a specific task, often with a specific application ("inserting images in Claris HomePage," or "creating a course newsgroup," for example). In contrast, Quick Guides provide an overall map of the process of incorporating a technologically mediate instructional practice into an educators teaching. During design and development, our working analogy was the popular AAA "TripTik," a custom map that the auto club compiles for members. A traveler notes that "Im driving from Seattle to San Francisco and Id like to take the scenic route" and the appropriate, modular pieces of a road map are compiled and bound to form a custom guide.

Quick Guides work much the same way. Once an educator decides, for example, that they wish to build a class Web page, the appropriate Quick Guide organizes the various bits of information about the instructional practices, computing infrastructure, and desktop tools they need to accomplish the task. The Quick Guides function as a table of contents to Web-based technical documents produced internally by UWired, Computing & Communications, the University Libraries, and Web resources produced externally by vendors or other educators. Quick Guides are more than just a collection of links; they are made usable by the adoption of a taxonomy that parses the implementation of technology into four steps: (1) Planning the use of technology and articulating technology with instructional goals, (2) Creating Web-based materials or resources, (3) Connecting with the campus network resources, and (4) Reflecting on the use of technology and deriving lessons which can be applied the next time a user moves through this four-step process. The process is mapped out graphically on the Web site and standardizes our presentation of material, both through our Web materials and in our face-to-face consulting and workshops.

When we presented earlier drafts of the "process map" to faculty, we were heartened by the positive reception. The Plan-Create-Connect-Reflect formula provided a consistent well received conceptual framework for the use of technology. In addition to organizing resources in a consistent way, the framework also corresponds to the iterative nature of academic work, be it teaching or research. Making distinctions between planning the use of technology and just using it helps to reinforce our belief that for technology to be effective in education, its use must be intentional. Separating "create" from "connect" has helped us isolate support for the use of authoring tools and software applications--which most faculty pick up with relative ease--from the more daunting challenge of navigating the computer network. Time and again we have seen "ftp" become the biggest obstacle faculty face when they make their intitial foray into the use of educational technology. Our schema helps us separate this frustration from the other steps in using technology and helps us better support the use of the network. (We have, for example, eliminated "ftp" from our public vocabulary; we speak instead of "saving files to the server.").

UWired Tools

In our experience, the first thing educators do once they take to the Web is digitize their paper materials, posting syllabi, assignments, and sometimes lecture notes to a course Web site. The second thing they typically do is include links to Web sites they think are interesting and in some way support the course they are teaching. While both of these activities are useful, they just scratch the surface of the Web's educational potential. The problem, of course, is that advanced functionality that takes advantage of the interactive potential of the Web through things such as collaborative tools, quizzes, or even simple Web-based email senders requires backend programming. Our approach has been to build a suite of generic, Web-based instructional tools that educators can customize simply by filling out Web forms. Three tools--and one set of templates--are part of the initial rollout of Catalyst:

  1. WebQ, an online quiz and survey generator;
  2. Peer Review, an online collaborative tool allowing students to asynchronously critique material posted to the Web;
  3. UMail, which creates anonymous or non-anonymous feedback forms sending email to the instructor and/or others; and
  4. Course Web Templates, which provide an easy starting point for faculty to create their own course sites.

The development of these tools and the templates, like all aspects of the Catalyst project, has been driven by user needs.

The Peer Review tool was the first application developed at UWired that employed what we refer to as a "Web-hosted" model. Mark Alway, our lead developer and a student in Technical Communications and Computer Engineering developed the initial incarnation of the Peer Review tool as a class project in early 1997. At about the same time, a campus writing lab approached us for advice on the purchase of an off-the-shelf collaborative writing tool. We suggested they pass on the pricey product and then took the opportunity to involve the writing lab in the further development of the Peer Review tool. As early positive reviews (and heaps of constructive criticism) rolled in, we began to develop the idea of providing a suite of task-oriented, Web-based tools modeled on the Peer Review tool. These new tools could quickly provide campus educators with advanced Web functionality that required no advanced skills on their part to design and implement. We considered and rejected the idea of creating a similar tool to build out course Web sites for educators. Though many campus technology centers have taken this route, our reasoning for not doing so was as follows: basic Web publishing was fast becoming a ubiquitous feature of most desktop software (e.g., Microsoft Office), Web publishing was an important basic skill worth learning, and our minimal resources were better spent developing focused tools that added advanced functionality to teaching and learning.

WebQ and UMail were also developed in collaboration with educators. Based on frequent requests to create online quizzes and provide students with the means to send anonymous course feedback, our development team created products, made them available to interested educators who came through the UWired Center, and iterated based on their feedback. All the tools utilize a common interface and operate on the following model:

  1. UWired creates and centrally maintains the code (in the cases so far, these are CGI scripts written in Perl);
  2. Users authenticate using their Kerberos-based UWNet ID;
  3. A user account is created based on this authentication within UWired's server space provided by C&C;
  4. Users select from the menu of tools and then build out tools based on their needs (all the tools allow users to restrict access if they wish to the UW domain, a class password, or a list of class members);
  5. When complete, users are given a URL to distribute to students or link from their course Web site.

The result is that educators can easily add advanced features to their Web site, students are confronted with familiar, standard interfaces, and UWired can focus on developing, updating, and troubleshooting a single code base. Our longer-term hope is that, through this model of Web-hosted tools, UWired will be able to identify, repackage, and disseminate many of the one-off projects isolated developers across campus have been building.

Taken as a whole, the Catalyst project represents a substantial shift in direction for UWired's efforts to support educators. We have moved away from working intensely with a few educators toward providing a central clearinghouse for the information, resources, and tools needed by a broader population to effectively incorporate technology in their teaching and learning. We have involved educators in every step of design and development and have worked to link meaningful information about the instructional uses of technology with the technical support required to implement technology. Through our Quick Guides we have tried to develop an enduring framework for the process of using technology in teaching. By focusing on highly modular technical documents and a centrally administered suite of tools, we have begun to reduce the burden of supporting faculty thereby leveraging our resources to allow us to help more people with only a marginal increase in our own capacity. As we developed Catalyst, we understood that we were undertaking more than just another initiative--we were transforming our entire organization, including our popular workshop series and the operation of the UWired Center.

Rethinking Workshops

Despite the fact that workshops are seldom an optimal format for promoting learning among adults, like most other campus technology centers UWired has offered workshops since its inception and to this point they have been our most visible and successful means of reaching out to the university community. Prior to the advent of Catalyst, workshops were offered daily, on a drop-in basis to small groups. Most of our workshops focused on skills instruction--how to use PowerPoint, or build a Web site, for example. While we valued the small-group interaction and liked the fact that educators could feel free to drop in without advanced notice, these activities also created a support problem. Sometimes attendance at the workshops outstripped the capacity of the Center, at other times nobody showed up. After suspending workshops for the summer, we reinstituted them in Fall 1998, but scheduled them less frequently, moved them to a Collaboratory (wired classroom), and required participants to pre-register. Overall attendance has been comparable to our drop-in workshops, but we have created a more predictable, more manageable, and therefore less burdensome environment for our staff.

Taking the cue from the modularity of the Catalyst project (and its underlying assumption that it was not so important that we provided the instruction or assistance as long as educators had access to the information and tools that they needed) we have moved to "package" and distribute our workshops so that others--TAs, computer support staff, faculty in leadership positions--can widely offer these workshops to educators in their own departments. We have been developing workshop curricula that employs the Plan-Create-Connect-Reflect framework introduced in our Quick Guides and draws upon the Web-based technical documents available via the Catalyst Web site. We plan to disseminate these workshop packages to all comers and hope that we can save department-level computer support personnel the work of creating materials that duplicate the Catalyst components. In a smaller institution, such an approach might not be necessary, but at the UW hundreds of support personnel are engaged in similar activities, work in relative isolation from one another, and often duplicate one another's work. There are, for example, probably two dozen different sets of handouts explaining how faculty can create Web pages on the university network. Recognizing that much of the most important and hardest work that goes into supporting educational technology takes place at the department level, our intent is to help streamline basic support functions so that the energies of these local support personnel can be directed toward meeting the idiosyncratic needs of educators in their home departments.

Refocusing the UWired Center

The Catalyst project addresses many of the basic support duties performed by our staff at the UWired Center, and we expect it to lower the per educator cost of supporting technology in instruction. We are not worried, though, about going out of business. We know that many educators still want to be able to meet and talk with a person about their plans regarding teaching with technology, and we will continue to be available to them.

While we think the drop-in consulting functions performed at the UWired Center are a critical part of support for faculty, we have reconsidered the importance of maintaining the Center as an always-accessible workspace for educators. Since its opening, the Center has been configured as a mini-version of the general access labs available to campus students, staff, and faculty. While some educators certainly appreciate having access to a comfortable workspace, the majority of visits to the Center are from educators who are seeking specific types of assistance. Those who do work there on a regular basis primarily engage in word processing and Web browsing. The general access model has required the maintenance of several similarly configured computers so that they share common capabilities for drop-in users. The tradeoff has been a constrained ability to experiment with new software and hardware tools.

Educators we work with tell us that an important way that we add value to what they do is by helping them make decisions about which tools and technologies to employ and how to use them. To ensure that we will remain able to perform this function, in 1999 the Center's identity will be reconfigured primarily as a research, development, and demonstration space. We plan to reorient our space and equipment so that we are better able to mimic the diverse computing environments that educators work in and provide educators with hands-on experience with a range of tools. The change into an R&D or studio environment is not meant to simply push us to the bleeding edge. It will also allow us to test, support, and promote less expensive, low-end consumer products that may be more appropriate for educators than the latest and greatest release of the "industry standards." We will, for example, be able to consult with an educator who is interested in digital imaging and be able to show them the high-end workhorse, Adobe PhotoShop (which we currently use), as well as other simpler and less expensive tools.

While we remain the only place on the UW campus where any educator--faculty, librarians, teaching assistants, and instructional staff--can drop in and receive assistance with educational technology, we also wish to do more. We are convinced that it is important to ensure that our operation is nimble enough to identify, test, and support emerging technologies. We are impressed, for example, at the rapid advances being made in streaming media technologies and need to be able to find the right mix of tools and practices to promote their effective use. This change also positions us to establish new partnerships with technologists on campus and in the private sector, and it should enhance our ability to attract and retain a remarkably talented student staff. With the launch of Catalyst we will have established a framework for the distribution of the information, resources, and tools needed to support educational technology that will allow R&D efforts at the UWired Center to be quickly and widely disseminated.

Lessons from UWired

The past year has brought a flurry of activity and change to UWired. Though this paper has focused on our efforts to support educators, in the past year UWired also assumed responsibility for the two largest general access labs on campus, launched (and handed off) several outreach projects, aggressively developed collaborative relationships with select departments and colleges, sparked a campus-wide dialogue on intellectual property issues, and continued to work with on-campus programs designed to help freshmen and student athletes. By its very nature, UWired is a self-reflective organization with its members constantly evaluating their activities and redirecting them when they seem off the mark. Working in such an environment is both exhilarating and exhausting. While many of our programmatic decisions are bound to be a function of the constraints and opportunities posed by our particular environment, we do believe that our organizational model and culture can provide lessons for others grappling with similar problems and tasks. We summarize some of these lessons below.

The "vision thing" is critical. UWireds vision is one where teaching and learning is infused with the best technology, and "technology" becomes just another tool that helps teachers teach and students learn. We believe that this will only be realized through efforts that catalyze and support systemic change. We advocate for this vision and work to support activities that will make it a reality. We dont, however, presume to know exactly how this will happen. If we thought we had the answer, we would probably be wrong. Promulgating this vision throughout our organizational--as opposed to promoting single program or idea--keeps people focused on outcomes: better learning and better teaching. It also sends a message to our partners and staff that their ideas are not only welcome, but are in fact crucial to our success and the realization of this vision. One way we do this is by taking the time to provide staff with the "big picture." Even when student staff members are engaged in relatively mundane tasks, their understanding of how these connect with and support our larger goals gives those tasks meaning. This vision--and not our current list of projects and programs--is the filter through which we evaluate existing activities and new opportunities.

Think strategically. Operating in an environment with constrained resources (and what environment isnt?) forces us to continually reexamine our use of time, people, and money. While of course we work to increase the resources we have to work with, we also make sure that the resources we have are being used in ways that move us toward our vision. We often encounter organizations that seem to be either trying to do too much with too little or too little with too much. There are many things we would like to do that we cant; the number of good ideas always exceed the resources available to support them. At one point we were interested in creating a course Web page builder in line with the Web-hosted model used in the UWired Tools, but ultimately we decided that the resources required to do this were better spent elsewhere. For us, part of thinking strategically means being able to look for solutions that already exist but have not yet been connected with pressing problems. It also means looking for ideas and projects that we are in a unique position to launch only to later hand these off to others who are better positioned to maintain them. We look for ideas, projects, and opportunities that have the potential to leverage resources, and we try and take advantage of good opportunities as they present themselves. The result is a kind of organizational Darwinism where ideas, not people, compete and where (we hope) the fittest survive.

Accept uncertainty; embrace experimentation. We think that the only way to realize our vision and make good strategic choices is to accept the fact that we are operating in a highly uncertain environment. Rather than erect protectionist walls around our organization and our programs, we understand that our survival and success are predicated on our ability to adapt and change. Living in the Pacific Northwest gives us a front-row seat to watch the development of "the new economy," and despite all the hype and pabulum we have been impressed with the ability of many firms to quickly shift, adjust, and focus in the face of external pressures, technological change, and new ideas. We think that such flexibility is only possible when an organization creates and maintains a culture of experimentation that generates and evaluates ideas and approaches, discards most of them, and embraces the ones which best advance their goals. Clear and open communication with stakeholders and staff prevent this uncertainty and experimentation from becoming chaotic. Our termination of the innovative courses program and reconception of the UWired Center are representative of our continuing attempts to entrench and foster such a culture. Accepting that we will never "get it right" but are instead engaged in a process of continual iteration makes everyone involved in the process understand that experimentation and change are elements of our success, rather than evidence of failure.

Collaborate. Often. We are the first to admit that our schedules often seem overbooked with meetings, but we see these as integral to what we do. It is far too easy at a large institution to become isolated from the issues that others face and the creative solutions that they develop to deal with them. UWired was founded as a partnership and as the organization has grown, this partnership as flourished up, down, and across the administrative hierarchy. Certainly relationships such as this are complex and are not always easy, but the prevailing ethos is that we can better identify problems and advocate for good solutions if all our constituent units cooperate and work together. UWired provides a venue and an operating arm for this collaboration. In regular meetings of steering committees and working groups, members of the partner units come together with UWired staff and exchange ideas, develop programs, and otherwise attempt to find common links between our different efforts.

Apart from the formal UWired partnership, we also seek out connections with colleges, schools, departments, and service units. We are frequently approached by people in the throes of grant-writing or strategic planning who are looking for a sounding board for ideas, information on trends and activities at the university, or services from UWired. We seldom turn down an opportunity to meet with people and have found that such meetings almost always uncover a previously unknown link between their activities and those of others on campus. Being able to, in effect, broker relationships between units improves the social intelligence of the university as it prevents people from "reinventing the wheel," and often leads to cooperative projects or initiatives. During the past five years, UWired has worked not just to keep up with change but to be a spark for it. While we are unsure exactly what the future will bring, given the promise of educational technology and the pace of innovation, we are certain that the UWired collaboration will continue to evolve and improve in order to support our vision of the university as a place where good practices and technological tools help teachers teach and learners learn. Better.

Web sites associated with this paper:

University of Washington:

The UWired Web:

Computing and Communications "Computing and Networking" Web site:

University Libraries Information Gateway:

The Catalyst Project (site goes live 2.1.98):

Contact the Authors:

Mark Donovan, Ph.D., Associate Director, UWired
Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology
Tel. 206.616.4174
[email protected]

Scott Macklin, Associate Director, UWired
Online Multimedia Production
Tel. 206.616.3613
[email protected]

Contact UWired:

University of Washington
Box 353080
Seattle, Washington 98195-3080
[email protected]
Fax. 206.616.2873