These are my notes from the Wednesday, October 29th EDUCAUSE 2008 session, “Creating Applications for Converged Devices Like the iPhone: Start with a Vision,” presented by Hab Adkins, Manager of Programming and Support, and James Langford, Director of Web Integration and Programming, Abilene Christian University.

As an iPhone user and mobile computing fanatic, I wanted to hear how the ACU iPhone/iTouch deployment was going. This was a fantastic presentation, one of the more exciting of the conference for me. James started by saying that their ACU Mobile initiative was driven by academics, not simply the “coolness factor” of the iPhone. The development work prior to the fall 2008 launch could not utilize the SDK just released by Apple, so the developers used Apple dashcode to create web apps. When asked if they would use the SDK to migrate to native apps, Hab said they were looking into it and that some of the apps might benefit.

They reviewed a number of their applications:

  • Student profiles, including photo submission. Instructors see class rosters with photos and can launch a game that helps them learn students’ names, matching names with faces. They developed an  attendance tool using student photos and class rosters. Instructors see a graphic summary of attendance information at-a-glance and can identify at-risk students quickly.
  • Personalized Google Calendar feed and information about campus events. They have also established a Google Calendar for every course.
  • Point-to-point campus directions. A student developed the algorithm for finding the shortest distance, a great example of involving students in development.
  • Connection to Xythos that allows students to access personal and course-related files and deposit files into Xythos folders.
  • NANO (no advanced notice) polling tools. This was brilliant. We used one of the tools during the presentation. Polling results for multiple choice questions with one-word response options can be displayed as a tag cloud, where the size of the word indicates the number of times it was selected.
  • All services are also available via laptop/desktop from the ACU portal.

My main take away from this session was, if you want to know how to do this right, talk to ACU. Their vision was solid and aligned with campus strategic goals, their development work was inspired, and they accomplished a great deal in a short time.

After the session, I thought about the following:

  • Those of us with laptop mandates know that the portable media player, data storage, communication, and web functions provided by the iPhone are nothing new. However, we have struggled for years to integrate laptops into classrooms ill-suited for their use. We wrestle with weight, power, and other issues that discourage laptop mobility. Is the iPhone a device that competes with a laptop or are we reaching a point where both devices serve different, but symbiotic, academic functions?
  • ACU’s NANO tools illustrate the potential of the iPhone to engage students in class and the value of the iPhone as a media player is obvious. However, the benefits of the Xythos connection and accessing full-page content not intended for a handheld are not as clear. Apple designed the iPhone to provide access to full web pages and other documents, not mobile versions of them. Users then zoom in on the areas of the page they want to review. I think the jury is still out on whether this is a better user experience than accessing “moblized” verions of the same content.
  • I think ACU’s student profile, face-to-name game, and class attendance apps are absolutely fantastic and just scratch the surface of what’s possible in terms of using iPhone-like devices to improve student-faculty interactions both in and out of the classroom. If I am sitting in the cafeteria and I see a former student at the next table whose name I don’t recall, wouldn’t it be great if I could look that up on my iPhone and greet the student by name? Those are the things that students appreciate and remember.



These are my notes from the Wednesday, October 29th EDUCAUSE 2008 session, “Teaching and Learning in Two New Smart Classrooms: Research Findings on the Pedagogical Implications of Space Design,” presented by Ann Hill Duin, Associate Vice President & Associate CIO, Linda Jorn, Digital Media Center Director, and Aimee Whiteside, Research and Evaluation Consultant, Digital Media Center, all from the University of Minnesota.

The Digital Media Center assessed the effectiveness of two Active Learning Classrooms at the University of Minnesota. The rooms accommodate 117 and 45 students and include:

  • Large, circular tables
  • Multiple, 3-person, shared, switchable displays at each table (each table can accommodate 9 students)
  • The ability for instructors to display any shared student display on a front screen and push content to student displays
  • Other collaborative accouterments (e.g., glass whiteboards)

Research questions related to faculty attitudes and expectations, student perceptions, teaching and learning strategies, and the impact of the physical features of the room. Multiple methods were used to gather the data, including instructor interviews, student and instructor surveys, student focus groups, and over 30 classroom observations.

Attitudes and perceptions of both students and instructors were uniformly positive and teaching in the room changed student-faculty and student-student relationships (e.g., more contact, more familiarity, greater level of comfort). Instructors reported that the environment supported their transition to a facilitator role and their willingness to redesign their courses around collaborative learning and teamwork. Challenges included training instructors to use the capabilities of the room “on the fly” and human factors issues (e.g., pillars obstructing lines of sight). None of the challenges were major obstacles and neither students nor instructors wanted to return to a traditional classroom at the end of the term.

My favorite finding came from the student open-ended responses. Students indicated that they felt more appreciated and engaged when meeting in the active learning classrooms. This relates to a psychological variable that we rarely measure directly: place attachment. As a former student and faculty member, I know how demoralizing it can be to walk into a large lecture hall where it is immediately apparent that the top priority in designing the space was not teaching or learning, but money. I think it benefits institutions when students and instructors feel attached to learning spaces. Unfortunately, we actively discourage the personalization and customization that would lead to stronger attachment when designing and assigning classrooms. Our focus on standardization and other practices that are blind to the preferred pedagogy of specific instructors, departments, and colleges turn classrooms into all-purpose conference rooms and faculty and students into visitors.

We were reminded in the general session this morning that complexity can be managed using good models and methods. Room planning and assignment are complex processes, but aligning them more closely with pedagogical needs and goals is certainly not an impossible task. What seems to be missing is an appreciation on the part of facilities planners and campus administrators of the value this might add in terms of not only improved learning outcomes, but stronger place attachment. The exciting work by the University of Minnesota is a great example of how departments charged with managing learning spaces might begin to help the institution gain this understanding and change their ways.


These are my notes from the Wednesday, October 29th EDUCAUSE 2008 general session with V.S. Ramachandran, Professor and Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition from UC San Diego, on The Unique Human Brain: Clues from Neurology.” This session worked for me and was a pleasantly surprising choice by the conference planning committee. Normally, you get a keynote speaker who is one of the following:

  • A celebrity who can tell a good story and make the audience laugh
  • A technologist who can give a good history lesson and make the audience proud
  • A politician who can sound the alarm and make the audience anxious

Ramachandran did none of these things, although he did have some funny bits (e.g., “How can Bush believe in intelligent design when he is a walking contradiction of the theory?”). Instead, he spent a good 45 minutes describing several of his research programs in cognitive neuroscience. This was a brilliant professor delivering a solid lecture that would have been right at home in an undergraduate psychology course.

The content was relevant in a subtle, but powerful way. If you consider the number of neurons in the brain, the number of connections those neurons make with one another, and the fact that each connection can be one of several types (e.g., exitatory, inhibitory), the number of possible brain states may exceed the number of particles in the known universe. How would you use a model of this complex system to explain prosopagnosia or face blindness, where the afflicted can’t recognize other people, even family members, by looking at their faces, yet have no difficulty recognizing their voices? How would you explain why amputees feel cramps or movement in their “phantom” limbs? Long story short, Ramachandran and his colleagues have made great progress in answering these questions using the scientific method, reliable measurement tools, and a good working model of the human brain. They have developed elegant explanations and have tested their hypotheses. Armed with those findings, they have devised practical solutions (e.g., therapies for amputees that can help relieve phantom limb pain). Basically, they have been good researchers.

Are we good researchers? I think we are good engineers, but we could improve as researchers by:

  • Using theoretical models. We tend to apply the “whatever works” principle without identifying the formal models or theories that can explain our results. We often use the term “model” not in the theoretical sense, but to describe techniques or solutions, many of which we discovered either by accident or guided by personal expectations about what should work (i.e., naive theories).
  • Better understanding the principles of measurement. Our understanding of measurement and research methods needs improvement. This will lead to better measurement tools and better tests of our formal theories. Anyone can create a questionnaire, but is it a valid and reliable indicator of the variable of interest? How do you know?

I also appreciated the fact that Professor Ramachandran delivered a traditional lecture, albeit with PowerPoint slides, to a very large classroom of IT professionals and he did not pull any punches. He used words like “sagittal” and “gyrus.” As I looked around the room I recognized the classic “Crap! I didn’t read the chapter.” and “Is this going to be on the test?” looks on some faces. On others, I saw the, “Is he kidding me with this? What does this have to do with anything?” look. We could all benefit from auditing some classes on our campuses taught by master teachers. Ramachandran reminded us who’s in charge and why faculty deserve our respect.


I am sitting in a large conference room waiting for the start of the EDUCAUSE 2008 General Session that will kick off the first big day of the annual meeting. In thinking about my strategy for the conference this year, I would like to learn more about the following:

  • Learning space design, both formal and informal. In addition to building the new Maxwell faculty-staff development center and its experimental learning spaces, we need to focus on improving our classroom infrastucture and the informal spaces where teaching and learning takes place. I would like to learn more about how others are meeting these challenges, how they support the professional development that unleashes the power of these spaces, and how they are assessing the impact of environmental variables on learners.
  • Mobile teaching and learning. We have been talking about this with respect to laptop computing for a long time, but it’s hard to use an iPhone without thinking that such devices will change everything. I am interested in finding out more about all things mobile, how we can better leverage our laptops both in and out of the classroom, and how we can begin to explore applications of next generation devices.
  • Instructional multimedia content management. Whether it’s live lecture capture, iTunesU, the multitude of Web 2.0 applications that support easy content creation and sharing, or simple narration over PowerPoint, we have an urgent need to effectively manage instructional multimedia and support local authoring of content by our students and faculty. I want to learn how others are meeting this need, how they selected the commercial and open source tools in their toolboxes, and how they went about planning around this issue.
  • Strategic planning, organization, and leadership that is both innovative and supports innovation across campus. We are building a new, collaborative division at WSU that has the potential to be a model for the system and beyond. I am looking for examples of innovative structures, practices, and services that might guide us as we rethink how we support our own campus community.
  • Supporting collaboration across the enterprise. In all that we do, we will be working together differently. We have a number of applications in place already (e.g., SharePoint) that can support this. How are others using such tools and are there other applications and practices that we might spin up at WSU?

I hope I can make a dent in this in two days.


I was inspired to blog tonight by Rachel Happe’s latest post on The Social Organization, which I just learned about from one of Lawrence Liu’s tweets. I started following Lawrence on Twitter yesterday. I saw his tweet on my NetVibes homepage as I finished my bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. So, let’s review. I am writing something that I would probably have never written based on several seconds of very minimal social contact with two people I have never met, contact mediated by simple tools that allowed all this to happen in seconds while I was happily eating my ice cream. For me, that’s a successful application of social computing.

Rachel’s post related to the difference between social networking tools and computer-supported collaborative work tools or groupware. If you ask people why they use groupware like SharePoint, Domino, ThinkTank, and WebEx, the easy answer is, “to accomplish group work and increase productivity.” When you ask people why they use tools like Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace, the easy answer is, “to socialize.” As Rachel describes, these two broad goals share a set of common processes that can be facilitated by tools from both categories. Also, the boundary between these categories is getting blurrier by the day.

Of course, the motivation to socialize is very complex and I am going to focus on just one aspect of it here. Outside of improving productivity and finding the love of your life, why do we seek the company of other people? Leon Festinger (1954) had some ideas about this that he developed into his Social Comparison Theory. Although subsequent research has indicated that things are much more complex than Festinger theorized, the basic principles of social comparison have held up and have implications for online social networking.

Festinger argued that the only way we can evaluate our own abilities in the absence of objective standards is to compare ourselves with others. Am I a good eLearning Director? Do I have a good understanding of new and emerging technologies? I ask myself these questions every day. I try to answer them by finding others with whom to compare. Who do I choose? Festinger held that we sometimes choose people or groups that are clearly worse than us. This downward social comparison is quick and reassuring (e.g., “At least I know more than that guy”). However, if all we did was compare downward, we would never improve. Festinger suggested that human beings are motivated by a unidirectional drive upward. We want to improve our abilities, so we must evaluate ourselves against others who are better than us – not light years better, but just a little bit better. This way, we gain some sense that we are improving. Of course, those people with whom we compare are improving right along with us, so we may end up comparing ourselves with the same person for quite awhile, locked in a friendly and mutually beneficial game of leapfrog.

That’s one reason why applications like Twitter are so valuable and so different from other workplace collaboration tools. They appeal to different motives and satisfy different, but equally important, social needs. Second, the people with whom I compare myself are often not working for Winona State (no offense WSU colleagues). Of the top five most influential people on your Twitter list, how many work inside your company or institution? Of those on your list from within your organization, are you following them for social comparison purposes or for other reasons? I think we purposely pick people who don’t work inside our organizations in hopes of finding new partners, new ideas, and new standards of comparison that will challenge us to move upward. Facebook and Twitter, as open, free, accessible tools are more appealing for social networking than enterprise collaboration systems like SharePoint that are currently more difficult for external friends and colleagues to access.

Finally, both of these implications suggest that using Facebook for enterprise collaboration purposes is probably not such a great idea. I am guessing that this is not even an issue in the corporate world, but it is in higher education as faculty and administrators take their first steps into the great Facebook abyss. Fortunately for our students, this sort of thing usually happens long after they have left and moved on to something else. In fact, I sometimes think that faculty using tools like Facebook to support exam review sessions signals to the last remaining students that the tool is officially lame. I think there is a lesson here for any organization. As important as social networking and communities of practice are within an organization, people are venturing out into the blogosphere for good reason – reasons that will benefit them and your company. Don’t follow them and don’t let the worlds collide.


Are you afraid of social loafers and free riders? I was having a discussion the other day about creating a shared, online directory of technology training videos. The issue of exploitation came up. The concern was that certain individuals who create a lot of videos would feel exploited by those who were using them without contributing anything themselves. It struck me that this is the same concern raised by faculty when discussing open courseware (OCW) initiatives. They ask, “Why should I contribute my intellectual property freely so that another instructor can just use it without expending any effort?”

I think this is actually a pretty complex psychological response and it wouldn’t hurt to try pulling it apart. It also needs to be interpreted within a larger social and political context, one that is in the midst of dramatic change. What seems irrational today might not seem so crazy five years from now.

What beliefs underlie this faculty concern today? I think there are at least three:

  • Welcome to the Academy. Many faculty identify very strongly with the group, the “Academy.” They see all faculty, especially tenured and tenure-track, as members of this group. There are grueling initiation rituals, well-established norms, and tacit performance expectations, particularly for junior members. The idea that members of the Academy could simply use another member’s syllabus, course materials, and activities versus producing their own is anathema, even if the final product is virtually identical to existing work. Thus, faculty concern over OCW may be largely due to the belief that other members of the Academy may loaf and not pull as hard on the rope. Junior members may be reluctant to use OCW resources for fear of being pegged as a loafer by the very members of the Academy who will grant them tenure and promotion. Of course, faculty who believe that their Academy membership is based on something other than teaching will probably be less concerned about sharing and using OCW resources.
  • Mine, Mine, All Mine. Some faculty believe strongly that their course-related materials and activities are their inventions. For many, the validity of this claim is obscured by the inexcusable morass of half-baked, poorly communicated campus IP policies. In the absence of clear, fair, and reassuring policies, faculty, particularly those who see teaching as their primary contribution to the Academy, cling tightly to their work for fear of being lured by OCW into a decision that might lead to their own obsolescence. Interestingly, the other edge of this sword is the strong belief that the Academy expects course-related materials and activities to be the unique and creative contributions of individual faculty. Thus, some fear that participating in OCW might reveal their “deep dark secret,” one likely shared by everyone who has ever taught a college course, that much of what they do when they teach is neither unique nor their own invention.
  • Pay Me. All faculty members that I know believe that they should be compensated fairly for their time and effort. Some of their concerns about OCW relate to the fact that sharing instructional content with the world may require additional time and effort on their part. They may need to rework their material, obtain copyright clearances, and learn how to use an OCW content management system. The MIT OCW initiative had significant external and internal support. Faculty could literally put their materials in a box and send them to someone else who would do all of the work for them. The concern among some faculty contemplating OCW is that those who will benefit from it and who have the means to support it will free ride. A more extreme form of the “pay me” belief is the notion that certain course materials have significant commercial value. This is probably not a major obstacle for OCW in that faculty pursuing commercial success would not offer this content to the world for free.

Are these beliefs irrational? I think one is and the other two aren’t. I think two will be gone within the next five years, but one will change shape and become stronger as the direct result of faculty use of information technology. More later.


In Stage One of our review of the Winona State University Laptop Program, faculty, staff, and students gathered this spring for several open discussions that helped clarify questions, concerns, and opportunities. After reading the summary of our activities thus far and our plans for the next stages of the review, I found myself reflecting on several memorable moments from the listening sessions.

  • In the midst of a discussion about the potential of laptops in the classroom to distract otherwise attentive students, one faculty member suggested that simply walking around the room can change the social dynamic positively. She lamented that many classrooms do not allow this freedom of movement and wondered whether smarter classroom design would facilitate smarter laptop use. The EDUCAUSE ebook on learning spaces came to mind. I think we have all known for a long time that the answer is a big, “yes.” I am looking forward our upcoming review of both the formal and informal learning spaces on campus.
  • My favorite comment came from a staff member who joked that administrators should thank their lucky stars for the Laptop Program because it allows employees to take their work home with them. She estimated that her laptop is largely responsible for the additional two hours of work per day that she gives to WSU. All joking aside, this is an important and relatively unexamined consequence of mobile, ubiquitous computing in higher education. In our quest to provide 24-7 access to our students, we are also promoting the expectation that employees should be “always on.”
  • In our discussions with student leaders, I was struck by their very thoughtful and knowledgable approach to the issues. They raised all of the tough questions in a respectful and professional manner. They applied business, marketing, and other concepts expertly. Overall, they were excellent collaborative partners in this stage of the review. Reflecting back, I am now struck by just how this struck me. In higher education, I think we tend to underestimate our students’ abilities. Perhaps this stems from the traditional “parent-child” relationship schema that still holds fast for many faculty and administrators. We think we know what’s best for students at times when they don’t. In fact, what appears to be student apathy is probably a lack of understanding due to poor communication on our part. It may also reflect the learned helplessness that often results when exposed to unpredictable and uncontrollable change. I think these listening sessions did more to educate faculty, staff, and administrators than students.  
  • The laptop is one important component of a larger, integrated learning environment. I think just about everyone who attended a listening session understood this. I can’t recall anyone arguing that we should abandon the program and return to shared computer labs or some other, lesser form of ubiquitous computing. If anything, attendees argued that we should be expanding our academic use of laptops and improving the learning environment to better support laptop use. As expected, cost appeared to be of greatest concern to students and will be a major focus of the next stage of the review.


Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services 3.0 is a powerful collaborative application, but can it be used to support social networking? I recently launched two online communities of practice, one using a SharePoint 2007 team site and the other using a Ning social networking site. My top three requirements for an online social network are:

  1. Members must to be able to socialize.
  2. Members must own the network.
  3. Members must  be able to integrate the network with other important tools, information sources, and communication channels.

It’s important to note that Sharepoint was not designed to be a social networking tool and Ning was not designed to support collaborative work within an enterprise. However, Microsoft is incorporating what it considers to be social networking features into SharePoint and I imagine that many SharePoint customers would like to support social networking activities within and across organizational boundaries.

This is especially true for colleges and universities, where informal communities are difficult to establish. It’s not uncommon for people who work in the same building, department, or office to have little knowledge of their colleagues’ interests and areas of expertise. Some institutions are joining their students in using Facebook and MySpace, a risky practice at best. Can SharePoint meet the same needs in a manageable, secure, and serious way? How does it compare to a tool like Ning? The following are just my random, preliminary impressions.

  • Right out of the box, Ning sites offer many more social networking affordances than SharePoint sites. In other words, when you enter a default Ning site, it looks and feels like it should be used for social networking. When you enter a default SharePoint site, it looks and feels like it should be used for file sharing.
  • SharePoint Web parts with social networking features (e.g., discussion forums, RSS viewers, member lists showing Windows Live Messenger status) can be added to the site by someone with Designer access or better. A social networking template could be applied to streamline this process. However, among the default templates delivered by Microsoft, none are designed to support social networking exclusively. A recent addition to the downloadable templates library by Inetium called the Community Kit for SharePoint, is a step in the right direction.
  • Customizing a SharePoint site to support social networking is not as easy as tweaking a pre-configured Ning site. Although I love SharePoint’s complexity, I am also a major geek and most team site members won’t share this love. That means we will either need to modify their sites for them, create great templates that can be used without major modification, or train selected members to be site designers/owners. WSU eLearning is working on a set of video tutorials and we have created, using SharePoint, a virtual community of practice around, “Working Together Differently,” that includes a SharePoint special interest group.
  • Although we are still tinkering with the social networking features in SharePoint 2007, the RSS Viewer is quite useful. The wiki features are limited, but open up opportunities for communication and collaboration that go beyond discussion boards (which are relatively weak). 
  • The average SharePoint “contributor” can’t create the equivalent of a Ning Group. There is no “Create a group” button.
  • The People and Groups lists contain personal profile information and pictures of members, but it’s not easy to expose that information on the main page (e.g., similar to Ning’s Featured Members component). This contributes to the overall impression that a SharePoint team site is not a very social place.
  • SharePoint’s equivalent to Ning’s My Page is called My Site, which exists independent of any team site and is presented in two views: public and private. The private view is very useful. Essentially, all users have their own personal workspace that they can modify as needed. Among other things, the Colleague Tracker Web part lets users access their colleagues’ My Sites quickly and easily. Unfortunately, most of what’s displayed in the public view cannot be changed by the user. The value of fixed parts like Memberships, Sites, and Organizational Hierarchy are apparent only if that information is manged well centrally. If it’s not, the public site can be a very confusing place for visitors.

Look for more observations and a more extensive report (with pictures) later. If anyone is using SharePoint to support social networking, I would love to hear from you.


In the second of two posts inspired by a recent article in the LA Times describing Silicon Valley companies moving to “topless” meetings in which laptops are banned, I try to capture the issues by taking the perspective of a teacher or meeting convener who has looked out over too many groups busily attending to their laptops and cell phones. In the first post, I took the perspective of someone who has endured too many boring, unproductive classes and meetings. It was surprising how easily the two stories could be transposed. What does that mean?

Here is what I imagine goes through the heads of typical teachers and meeting conveners when faced with a room of text messaging, YouTube browsing, Facebook editing, email checking students or employees.

“Look, I don’t mean to be rude and I really do understand how technology has changed our lives, why your laptop is an important tool, and how it can be used to support learning, but if you’re going to sit through this entire meeting with your laptop open, please make sure you:

  • Come to the meeting ready to participate in the scheduled task, discussion, or group activity.
  • Don’t distract anyone, including me with what’s happening on your laptop screen, what’s coming out of your speakers, or your nonverbal responses to that funny story on Web.
  • Don’t ask questions later about what you missed in the meeting, what tasks were assigned to you, or what decisions were made that affect you.

I’ve come to this meeting prepared, I’ve provided you with information and materials ahead of time so that you could prepare yourself, and I’ve made it very clear to you why your participation in this meeting is important for both of us. If you still decide to pay no attention to the meeting activities and check your email instead, then I would ask you to reconsider why you are sitting in this room today. Please don’t insult me by telling me that it’s because you were forced to be here, that you’re a good multi-tasker, or that I just don’t understand technology. If you pretend to “multi-task,” I might not say anything to you, but you should know that you aren’t fooling me.”

“Although I may look like a Luddite who doesn’t come close to matching Solitaire’s level of excitement and I certainly have hosted the occasional boring, unproductive meeting, the truth is that I am trying very hard to engage you and I care very deeply about the work we are all here to accomplish. I am not simply going through the motions and I am not a meeting junky. I see no indication that you’ve prepared for this meeting, that you’re invested in what we’re doing, or that there’s much chance of that changing in the near future. I don’t want to cause a fuss and embarrass you, so I am just going to let you sit there quietly and do whatever it is that you’re doing until the meeting is over. I’m fully capable of conducting this meeting without you and working with those who are interested in participating. If I see some sign that you want to participate, I’ll engage you.”

“You should know that I actually wish things were different. I’m tired of asking you to come to these meetings when you provide so little input. I also appreciate how frustrating it must be for you to leave the meeting feeling that it was such a waste of your time. I would much rather spend the time we have together productively and I’m willing to make a deal with you. I will come to the next meeting fully prepared to engage with you if you promise to:

  • Prepare for our meeting. I can tell immediately when you’re unprepared. Spend some time getting ready for the meeting. Read the meeting materials. Do the homework. If I’ve asked you to do some online discussion before the meeting that would allow us to start our face-to-face work together at a deeper level, then do it. If you aren’t prepared for the meeting, then don’t attend.  
  • Prepare me for our meeting. I’m not a mind reader. If you don’t understand why we’re meeting and what’s expected of you, let me know. Give me some suggestions and feedback. Start participating before the meeting. What do you want to get out of this meeting? What’s the best way to make that happen?
  • Relax about device prohibition. First, I am going to ask you to engage in some activities that will not require a laptop for taking notes and I may even ask you to use a Sharpie, Crayon, or some chalk. Deal with it. Second, set your communication devices to silent or vibrate and don’t worry about incoming calls unless you think they’re really more important than what we’re doing in the meeting. If a potentially important call comes through, don’t answer your phone in the meeting. Ignore it, then politely excuse yourself and call the person back from outside the meeting room. Third, remember that my time is valuable too. If you are not participating in the meeting and have decided that you would rather do something else, don’t distract me or others. Better yet, quitely leave the meeting.
  • Develop your skills. Nothing personal, but your learning/teamwork skills could be better. Becoming a better learner and team member is a matter of continuous improvement. There are all sorts of methods and tools that you can use during meetings to participate effectively. If you need ideas or assistance developing your skills, ask me, your colleagues, or those in your organization who can help you learn. Don’t be afraid to try something new at the next meeting, but please make sure it’s something productive and positive. I don’t so much like the “Devil’s Advocate” method, but if you can use it without deflating the group, go for it. The bottom line is that we have met in this room to work together.

In the grand scheme of things, we have so little time together and it’s so difficult in today’s world to get people to sit down in the same place at the same time. Let’s make the most of it.”

Yours truly,

Ken the Teacher/Convener 

A recent article in the LA Times described Silicon Valley companies moving to “topless” meetings where laptops are banned. Whether it’s a classroom or a conference room, the perception of some teachers and conveners is that people aren’t really present unless they disconnect their devices and give their undivided attention to the meeting. In a two-part post, I will try to describe this situation from the perspective of both a student or employee who has endured too many disorganized and unproductive classes and meetings and as a teacher or convener who has looked out over too many students and attendees engrossed in other things. 

Here is what I imagine goes through the heads of typical students and employees when informed that a particular class or meeting will be topless.

“Look, I don’t mean to be rude and I really do enjoy interacting with people, but if you are going to ask me to stop what I’m doing and put down the tools that I’m using to do the things that are important to me, then please have something interesting to:

  • Tell me that you couldn’t tell me as well via memo, email message, or online post.
  • Show me that you couldn’t show me as well by directing me to a book or online video, podcast, learning module, demonstration, or simulation.
  • Engage in with me that we couldn’t do as well individually.

If any one of these things are true, then I will gladly give you my full attention. If none of these things are true, then I would ask you to reconsider why you have asked me to meet with you. Please don’t insult me by telling me that it’s because you are the boss, that you don’t trust me to read/learn/do things myself, or that you don’t have time to learn how to use the tools that I use every day to coordinate, communicate, and collaborate. If you try to force me to pay attention to you, I might obey and give you what looks like my attention, but you should know that my mind is elsewhere.”

“Although I may look like a device addict and I certainly have read the occasional text message when I should have been paying attention to something else, the truth is that I am not really distracted by my devices. I am simply choosing them instead of you because I don’t understand why I am here. I have no stake in this meeting. I didn’t even know what was on the agenda until I walked in and sat down. So far, you haven’t engaged me in any activity that is meaningful to me and that I couldn’t do outside of this meeting. I don’t want to cause a fuss and embarrass you, so I am just going to sit here quietly and do something else, until it’s clear to me that my presence is important. I am fully capable of giving primary attention to my instant messages while monitoring the stream of activity in this room. If I hear something that sounds interesting or important, I will stop what I am doing and attend to you.”

“You should know that I actually wish things were different. I’m tired of coming to these meetings and getting so little out of them. I also appreciate how frustrating it must be for you to look out over a group of people who don’t seem to be paying attention to anything you’re saying. I would much rather spend the time we have together productively and I’m willing to make a deal with you. I will come to the next meeting fully prepared to engage with you if you promise to:

  • Prepare for our meeting. I can tell immediately when you’re unprepared. Spend some time planning for the meeting. If your plan includes spending over 25% of our time together telling me something, then you are not prepared. If there’s something that we could accomplish before the meeting that would allow us to start our face-to-face work together at a deeper level, then let’s do it. There are some very good tools out there for facilitating this work online. Let’s use them. If you aren’t prepared for the meeting, then cancel it.  
  • Prepare me for our meeting. I am not a meeting addict. I am so tired of attending fruitless meetings and I have no reason to believe that the next one will be any different. You’re dealing with a biased and reluctant participant here. Help me to change. How are we going to spend our time together? What do you hope to accomplish and what’s my role? Help me see that my presence in this meeting will actually be important for both of us.
  • Relax about device prohibition. First, I use my laptop, not paper, to take notes: deal with it. Second, there are messages that I might receive during our time together that are more important than this meeting. Like you, I have a life outside of this room and sometimes it intrudes. I will keep my phone on stun, my audio muted on my laptop, and minimize the intrusions. Third, remember that my time is valuable too. If you are engaging me, I won’t have time to check my email. If you are not engaging me, then I am going to do something that I value. I understand completely that this behavior shouldn’t distract others in the meeting who you might be engaging.
  • Develop your skills. Nothing personal, but your teaching/facilitation skills could be better. Becoming a better meeting facilitator and teacher is a matter of continuous improvement. There are all sorts of methods and tools that you can use during meetings to engage me and support our work together. If you need ideas or assistance developing your skills, reach out to those in your organization who can help you learn. Don’t be afraid to try something new at the next meeting, but please make sure it’s not just that warm, fuzzy stuff you learned at your last leadership workshop. I like socializing and team-building, but the bottom line is that we have met in this room to work together.

In the grand scheme of things, we have so little time together and it’s so difficult in today’s world to get people to sit down in the same place at the same time. Let’s make the most of it.”

Yours truly,

Ken the Student/Employee