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
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
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
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.
2001 CREN TechTalk Calendar
||Content Delivery Networks:
How They Work and How They’re Used
||Securing the Network:
||Video Over IP Networks:
Where, When, How and Why?
||PDAs: Where Are They
and How Do We Support Them? Part I
||PDAs: Where Are They
and How Do We Support Them? Part II
||The Smart Classroom:
What D'es it Look Like Today?
Strategies and Approaches
||Building a Directory:
What Are the Essentials?
Howard Strauss is the manager of Academic Applications at Princeton University;