Subversive technologies: how to get what you want from IT services


This blog is written by (mostly) technologists, some of whom have
academic backgrounds; our intended audience is faculty members. There
are many avenues at Princeton for faculty to ask questions or make
requests of the IT department, and a few instances were we at OIT try to
provide answers to more general questions (for examples, see the lists
of OIT blogs below.)

Recently, I’ve begun to read a special-interest blog from The Chronicle of Higher Education that takes a different approach. This particular blog, Prof Hacker,
is written mostly by academics early in their tenure-track careers, who
are also heavily invested in using technology to help them get ahead
professionally, and to help them cope with administrative tasks. Their
audience is other faculty members.

The blog is often illuminating, showing how inventive tech-savvy
professors can be when faced with tasks that don’t have an immediate, or
immediately apparent solution as part of their campus’s IT structure.
Other times, posts tell of exploration using common solutions available
to all, to solve problems specific to academic life, from organization
to sharing to communication, to business uses such as collecting or
assessing student assignments.

The post I’m writing about was written by Ryan Cordell, a frequent contributor to Prof Hacker, and an as. Its title, Responding to Your Institution’s Technological Choices (an Open Forum),
didn’t quite prepare me for the reactions to the post. Cordell
describes himself in a new job, in a new institution, with a different
set of enterprise solutions for common technologies than those used at
his old job. These included the learning management system, calendaring,
email, and other similar packages that are usually adopted at an
institutional level. Cordell describes his efforts to continue using
alternative solutions to these business needs he’d already become
familiar with in his previous job. After some creative thinking on his
part, Cordell paused to think about why he was doing everything he could
to preserve technologies that weren’t common in his current working

“Soon, however, I stopped planning subversion long enough
to ask myself: “Why the contrarian reaction?” I didn’t know much about
either Zimbra or Moodle, and I couldn’t say with confidence that either
was less effective than the products I was used to. True, I had a
certain investment in the platforms I’d been using, but was that
investment enough to justify me immediately distancing myself from my
new institution?. . .  I learned, for example, that Zimbra makes it
very easy to propose and create meetings with other Zimbra users. . .
Given that the majority of the meetings I’ll be scheduling from now on
will be with local colleagues who use Zimbra, it makes good sense for
me to embrace this feature. After a bit of experimentation, I’ve also
found that Moodle can do most–if not all–of the things that Sakai did
for my classes. And, of course, Moodle hooks into my school’s other
systems, such as course rolls, which my personal installation of
WordPress could not have done.”

In saying this, Cordell takes a
pretty moderate stance: the institutional choices are usually made for
the benefit of the larger community, however, even we at OIT understand that
sometimes other tools will better suit the needs of a given task. The
comments to Cordell’s post, however, did not share his view — they were
a delighted litany of how a faculty member might bypass all of the tools provided by
an IT department, and strike out on one’s own.

A sample of the comments include these statements:

have circumvented my university’s tech system, and I’ve done this at
more than one university. (Ahem!) At my current institution, when I
came here last fall, I was unable to get access to their course
management system by the time classes started. By the time I had
access, I didn’t have the time or the inclination to set up course
shells in that system. Prior to having access to the CMS, I placed my
course content on blogs. . . . . “

Another faculty member boasts:

“I don’t so much circumvent the university as run my
own system (mail and web server) in parallel with it. It’s worked fine
for the last decade. . . . The latest direct conflict is in
supercomputing, where the university is trying to direct resources away
from laboratory – based clusters towards their own megaclusters, which
are constantly down. The kind of computing my group does can’t easily
tolerate frequent unscheduled interruptions. My own cluster has had
exactly one unscheduled down period in two years . . .  Survival, IMO,
requires at least some degree of autonomy from the u’s IT

while another asks:

“First of all, who’s at an institution where the IT is progressive enough to meet faculty, staff and student needs?”

This faculty member uses both institutional tools and ones he prefers:

deciding whether to use the default institutional system or do my own
thing, I start with the task, not a predetermined preference. So I use
the institutional LMS . . .  for classes where it does what I need,
even if I might have aesthetic or other preferences for something else.
Where I need something more flexible or open, I build a course in a
wiki . . . I sometimes use Powerpoint, with which the students are
familiar, but also use Prezi, Diigo Webslides and other presentation
tools, including the chalkboard – all driven by what will get the job
done best. I think the point is to educate ourselves about the tools
available. If there is a significant educational or practical advantage
in the non-institutional options, and privacy and security concerns
can be properly managed, then we should use them.”

In the midst of all this discussion, an IT profession has his or her say:

someone working in information security in higher ed, I would just
like to gently remind the faculty reading this that there are actually
reasons for many of the decisions that your institution makes. . . .
Before you start circumventing and coming up with toolsets, at least
check with campus IT to figure out why things are the way they are.
Most of us are happy to help if there’s a legitimate need, but there
are often considerations that the end user just doesn’t think of.”

From my perspective, as someone who offers various services to the Princeton community, including our LMS (Blackboard), various blog services, and other tools designed to make it easy for faculty members and their students to do what they need to do to accomplish course goals, talk like this can be a bit daunting.

How does IT at Princeton meet your needs as an academic?

Would you like help using other tools in a secure environment?

Can we help by exploring new technologies for you?

We don’t mind safe subversion in using many of the various tools available on the web–in fact this blog will often suggest using such tools when they offer flexibility, productivity and convenience beyond the secure enterprise solutions already offered at Princeton

We don’t know what you need unless we hear from you.

Let’s be subversive together.

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