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Video – My Team Competes in GRCC’s Innovation Competition

April 26, 2011 3 comments

Visualization of Parking Feature of App

My favorite thing about working at Grand Rapids Community College is the small group of amazing people I get to collaborate with on a regular basis on really innovative and tech-driven projects (many of which we’ve managed to get through bureaucratic hurdles and actually put into practice – like being the first college in Michigan to offer text message alerts for students/employees in crisis situations back in 2005).

Some of these people (Szymon Machajewski, Garret Brand, and Eric Kunnen) and I recently entered GRCC’s “Armen Award” competition as a team with a mobile application built entirely by Szymon in his free time based on a concept we developed that would help save both students and the college time and money and promote conservation and sustainable practices at the college. Read more…

What the Follow-Through Will Get you

August 22, 2010 Leave a comment

*Updated with Photos Below

Rob Bliss Waterslide New York Times Article

Like I said – the Follow-Through.  Kudos to Rob Bliss.

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A Case Study in the Importance of Data Integrity

August 13, 2010 Leave a comment

Data integrity is really, really important.  No, I mean *really* important.  It’s tedious, boring, and unsexy – but how we tag, label, sort and publish information is critical.

Eye of Sauron

It’s more important than before because the good news is that it’s being used more than ever (instead of wasting away in moldering file cabinets).  The open architecture of so much of the Web 2.0 platforms means that we can mash data in new ways for new ends.  The bad news, though, is if the data isn’t sound – it can lead to problems.

Case in Point: my friend and colleague Donna Kragt in Grand Rapids Community College’s Institutional Research & Planning Department just informed me that I helped uncover a state-wide problem in how colleges in Michigan report data to the Federal Government.

If the Internet is Middle Earth, I try to be the equivalent of the Eye of Sauron for GRCC [ask your geek friends].

I discovered that “Braintrack College & University Directory” (a 3rd party student-oriented website) was incorrectly informing students that GRCC offers degrees in Public Relations Management.  I found out that they had scraped the data for GRCC’s profile from a federal database.  They also scraped a variety of other data from other locations, like our Student Life offerings and enrollment numbers.

One’s first instinct might be to get upset with Braintrack for repurposing this data – but that’s  misguided.  It’s actually good that other entities like Braintrack are doing so; it ultimately helps put GRCC in touch with more students (they’re a third party so their reporting on GRCC has more credibility than our advertising efforts, plus they may format the data in a more user-friendly way for prospective students, and they may even do their own promotional campaigns – all of which benefit us).

Related to data integrity is a story that was just published in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Marc Perry (“College Web Pages Are ‘Widely Inaccessible’ to People With Disabilities”) about a study showing that most college web content can’t be viewed by people with visual impairments.  This is important not only for ADA compliance, but because computers (like those that power search engines) are very similar to people with visual impairments: they rely on text to be able to experience the world – and making a site more ADA-complaint also allows search engines and social networking platforms to more easily index the site.  On a positive note – Blackboard (the course management tool used by GRCC) was just lauded for its handicap-accessibility.

It Took a Cartoon to Spark Thoughtful Higher Ed Web Design Discussion

August 4, 2010 1 comment

I’m an avid reader of the web comic XKCD by Randall Munroe, which offers a daily dose of hilarity in the form of snarky, science/geek-laden humor depicted by stick figures and often charts and graphs.  One recent strip (below) featured a Venn diagram illustrating the problem with most college/university websites:

XKCD Cartoon: "University Website" by Randall Munroe

The instant I saw it I forwarded it to the web team at Grand Rapids Community College, which is gearing up for a redesign of the site.

The comic is a superb example of how comics/cartoons and a bit of humor can parsimoniously strike at the heart of an issue in a way no lengthy academic treatise can.

The comic has been passed around many higher ed circles, and was recently featured in an article by Inside Higher Ed (“No Laughing Matter”) about all of the other web development staff who did exactly what I did the minute they saw the cartoon.  In the comments section, a discussion was sparked and unfortunately much of it focused on “clicks” and navigation – which I don’t feel are the heart of the problem with too many college/university websites.

For what it’s worth, here’s what I had to say:

Navigability is important, but thinking about websites in terms of navigating by clicks ignores how the web has evolved, which has resulted in the dominance of search engines.  It’s far liklier that a prospective student is going to run across the information they need on a college/university website by searching Google than by typing in the domain of the school and picking their way through menus.

Search is doubly-important when it comes to mobile web use (which a growing majority of our students are relying upon as their main connection to the Internet).

Any college/university website that can get students to the information they need in a couple of clicks likely doesn’t have enough information on it to be truly valuable to students; higher education is very information-dense and even portals are strained to provide enough real estate for links to all the content students need.

This is why navigation schemes are inherently problematic, and why they’re de-emphasized as we move toward the Semantic Web where search (and recommendation) are king.

I would rather see an emphasis put on freeing the data locked away in our vast enterprise systems than paring down content to streamline the front page of a website in order to meet an impossible standard.

Rather than trying to please everyone by imposing click limits on navigation – it’s more important to be developing a big footprint online and tagging content so that it’s easily indexed by search tools (and social media platforms).

Accreditation as Protectionism in the New Economy

August 3, 2009 Leave a comment

[Update: Am I prescient or what?  Inside Higher Ed just published an article about the battle going on at the federal level over which accrediting agencies are deserving of recognition.]

In his book (which I highly recommend) “What Would Google Do?,” Jeff Jarvis introduces a theme that runs throughout his discussion of how the Internet is fundamentally reshaping the world: “Protection is not a strategy for the future.” The most au courant example of this unwise strategy (which we can watch failing in real-time) is the newspaper industry, but there are plenty of others littering the info superhighway:

“How many companies and industries fail to heed the warnings they know are there but refuse to see?  The music industry is, of course, the best example of digital dead meat.  Detroit waited far too long to make smaller cars and pursue electricity as a fuel.  Many retail chains opened stores online but stopped there, not seeing opportunities to forge new relationships with customers as Amazon had.  Telecom companies were blindsided by the emergence of open networks that undercut their business – even as those networks operated on the telecom companies’ own wires.  Ad agencies kept trying to forestall the reinvention of their industry, still buying mass media evn as more targeted and efficient opportunities grew on the internet.  News executives thought they could avoid change and even believed they should be immune from it because they were the holders of a holy flame: Journalism with a capital J.  […] They lost their destinies because they wanted to save their pasts.”

As I read this section, it occurred to me that even the non-profit sector is not immune from the threat of an inclination toward protectionism.  For colleges and universities, protectionism takes the form of accreditation.

Read more…

Text Messaging Reduced the Spread of the Novovirus at Hope College

December 5, 2008 Leave a comment

UPDATE: Text messages reduce the spread of norovirus at Hope College
Posted By: Joshua Aldredge Posted By: Chris Fleszar | WZZM13 | December 5, 2008

HOLLAND, Mich. (WZZM) A text message proved effective in alerting thousands of students about last month’s norovirus outbreak at Hope College. Hope College officials informed the Health Department they had a database that contained all of the students email and tex messaging addresses. 3600 students were notified at once. Students were asked via text message to reply to an email detailing their symptoms and how long they were ill. The Health Department says in the end about 540 students responded. Officials say the information was crucial for determining a plan of action and slowing the spread of the virus. [Source…]

It should be noted that Grand Rapids Community College was the first college or university in West Michigan to offer emergency SMS text messages to students and employees. Years later, a temporary CIO for the college staffed by a consulting firm learned that the college had been doing this and called it “the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.”

Fortunately the college did not take his advice to drop the text messaging service it offers (but instead has invested in a more robust system which now serves over 4,500 users).