Inside CREN's TechTalks: Q&A with TechTalk Anchor Howard Strauss

Since 1997, the Corporation for Research and Educational Networking (CREN) has been offering a series of TechTalks on the Web, intended especially for people who need to keep pace with information technology changes affecting higher education. Here, Daryl Nardick interviews Howard Strauss, manager of Academic Applications at Princeton University and technology anchor for TechTalks, to gain insight into the objectives and operation of these unique Web casts.

Q: I know that CREN’s TechTalks explore information technology issues impacting higher education.

What were your objectives in establishing these TechTalks and whom do they serve?

A: The CREN TechTalks are bi-weekly, live audio Web casts designed for everyone on campus who grapples with IT decision making—at both the practical and strategic levels. The idea behind TechTalks was to offer an hour during which experts are asked probing questions about the emerging technologies that will affect higher education most. It’s easily accessible and covers problems and issues that will have considerable impact on campuses everywhere. Throughout the Web cast, listeners can e-mail in questions that are normally addressed live—or afterward via e-mail if there isn’t enough time on the air.

Q: CREN’s Web casts are done as audio on the Web—do the TechTalks ever use video?

A: No, because the TechTalks are not presentations. They are focused conversations. We decided to keep the Web casting technology simple—the only software needed to listen is a Web browser, which everyone has. Participation is open to everyone at no cost at www.cren.net—visitors just click on the TechTalks icon and listen in.

Q: How do you choose the topics and experts you present?

A: I don’t make all of the selections myself—actually, anyone can suggest topics for future TechTalks and many people do. Most of the suggestions are from CREN members; some come from listeners. The CREN membership finally votes on an edited list of suggestions which results in the next year’s schedule.

As for our experts, CREN staff recruits them from both member and nonmember institutions. You may have heard some of them before because they tend to be articulate people who are passionate about their work and are sought after as presenters at the conferences you are most likely to attend.

Q: How do you focus the questions of a TechTalk?

A: Every TechTalk is different; but there are a few things you can count on. We ask the strategic and practical questions that you’d ask of experts in their field. The questions draw out information that is compelling and directed at problems that higher education staff and faculty are facing today and in the near future.

The TechTalks always start with a few introductory questions from me to set the context and to explain the overall topic. Then there is an in-depth discussion between us, followed by questions from me and from our Web audience that explore further or help make more sense of what we have discussed. Finally, we ask the experts what steps colleges and universities should take now to take advantage of the particular technology we are discussing. On rare but important occasions the answer is for most of us to wait—if technology is not yet ready for prime time.

Q: Do TechTalks have corporate sponsors—and if so, d'es this create a problem in terms of how you present your topics?

A: We often do have sponsors to cover the cost of a TechTalk, but our sponsors exercise no influence over what questions we ask or who we choose as experts. You may hear a quick thank you to a sponsor at the beginning and end of a TechTalk, but that’s it. We won’t present commercials or pitches for products.

Q: Don’t you find that interruptions in the workplace make it difficult for listeners to participate in Web casts?

A: In my role as the TechTalk Technology Anchor, I hang a hotel-style tag on my door that tells people I am in the midst of a TechTalk. Based upon the effectiveness of that sign, we’re now offering TechTalk listeners an official “Do not disturb. I’m listening to a CREN TechTalk” sign that you can hang on your doorknob. It also has the TechTalk schedule on it—you can order one or print one out from the CREN Web site.

Q: Are the TechTalks archived? Can you listen to one, once it’s over?

A: Yes, absolutely—all the TechTalks have been archived as audio as well as transcribed to text. This is a treasure trove of information you can use anytime. We’ve been doing TechTalks since September of 1997 and have all 73 topics archived. For example, you can still listen to Help Desk Strategies done by expert Russ Vaught (Penn State) in June of 1998 and you can read and search every word of every question and answer in the transcribed Web cast. And Russ’s Web references are also still there and relevant if you need help with your help desk.

Q: Lots of organizations are offering Web casts now—is there anything particularly different about the TechTalks?

A: TechTalks focus on both the strategic and practical information technology needs of higher education. While practical information is often available from other sources, the strategic thinking is not. TechTalks are also much more than just Web casts. Every TechTalk includes a custom-built Web site that is a niche portal for that topic. And, as we’ve mentioned, all the TechTalks are archived, transcribed, and searchable on every word, both spoken and misspoken. TechTalks are aimed at decision makers—those people needing not only timely information, but also the insight of experts to make the right decisions about the purchase and use of information technology.

Q: The TechTalks seem very unrehearsed and open to surprises—are you ever actually surprised by the way a TechTalk progresses?

A: Well, the opening and closing remarks of TechTalks are tightly scripted to make sure we don’t leave out anything critical. While we know in broad terms what the middle fifty minutes will be, they do tend to be very spontaneous and unpredictable. Listeners’ e-mail can bring up topics never anticipated, and listeners will sometimes answer questions that have stumped our experts. The immediacy and uncontrollable nature of a live Web cast makes TechTalks great entertainment as well as an efficient way to keep up with information technology.

Fall 2001 CREN TechTalk Calendar
9/20 Content Delivery Networks: How They Work and How They’re Used
10/04 Securing the Network: Emerging Technologies
10/18 Video Over IP Networks: Where, When, How and Why?
10/29 PDAs: Where Are They and How Do We Support Them? Part I
11/01 PDAs: Where Are They and How Do We Support Them? Part II
11/15 The Smart Classroom: What D'es it Look Like Today?
11/29 Software Licensing Strategies and Approaches
12/13 Building a Directory: What Are the Essentials?
 

Howard Strauss is the manager of Academic Applications at Princeton University; howard@princeton.edu.

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