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Davenport U Takes a Collaborative Approach to IT Support

At Davenport University, central IT is using social learning tools to tap the tech expertise of its own students, faculty and staff, cutting back on help desk requests and helping to create a culture of mutual support.

When faculty and staff at Davenport University have a tech question, they often turn to each other for help. And while that kind of social learning is beneficial, the 11-campus and online institution based in Grand Rapids, MI wanted a way for individual interactions to reach the greater community.

"A lot of screen captures were being pasted into Word docs and e-mailed," recalled CIO Brian Miller. "There were some screen recording tools that people were deploying. Somebody might call and ask, 'Hey, how do I invite 10 people to an appointment in the calendaring software?' I could record my screen and send it to them. It's an interaction between you and me, but it has no power to reach more people."

While learning management systems, lecture capture tools, and even sites like YouTube offer some of the features Davenport was looking for — such as the ability to post supporting documents, ask questions, hold threaded discussions, capture analytics, generate content, and deploy easily to the Web — the school wanted a Web-based solution that would consolidate all of those capabilities in one place. Plus, the software needed to be easy to use so that anybody could create content and post it for others to access.

Crowdsourced Learning
In March 2011 the university turned to Bloomfire, which has gained a foothold as a knowledge management system in companies such as Whole Foods Market, Re/Max, Comcast, and Etsy, along with several institutions of higher education: the University of North Florida, MIT, Georgia Tech, and St. Luke's College in Iowa, among others.

Bloomfire's service, which goes by the same name as the company, combines the ability to create and post content; share, search, and browse content; post questions to the community and have members provide answers; personalize feeds to let a person "follow" another user or members of a group; make user recommendations; and monitor data about site and resource usage.

"If you're a subject-matter expert in Microsoft Excel, you don't have to be on the IT training team to deploy video that says, 'Here's how I do pivot tables with my financial documents,'" Miller explained. "If you're the finance person, by all means, get out there and push out that video."

Now, the site maintains about 1,300 pieces of user-generated content — including 269 videos, 12 training series, 300 comments, PowerPoint sessions, documents, spreadsheets, and other resources.

Getting Started
Miller and his team spent some "significant IT time" in getting "INsite" — the university's branded name for the Bloomfire service — integrated with the school's identity management tools. As a result, users can access the service based on their roles within the university as full-time employees.

"After that, it was hands off" for IT, Miller added. Administration of content is handled by functional experts across the university. "We don't get in the way. They don't have to call us for assistance. Everybody loves our help desk; but when we don't have to deploy help desk resources to fix things that people should be able to do themselves, that's a win for us. In this case, it's nice and easy to use and it just works."

To help users become familiar with the use of Bloomfire, IT populated the service with videos it had already created, such as tips and tricks for using Google Apps; sessions about campus mobile applications; and training clips on how to use components of a highly complex ERP package.

But for the formal introduction in fall 2011, taking place during an all-hands meeting that kicks off the academic year, the team cherry-picked "pilot content authors": people who had experience in front of the camera and had engaging stories to tell. IT set them up with video production experts to record videos specifically for a new change initiative being rolled out by campus administration.

"We had well known people from across the university at various levels get in front of the camera and talk about specific cultural values. Then we played those at an all-staff meeting," Miller noted. "That let people see what [the program] looks like. It breaks down the fear that this is going to be some highly complex piece of software they have to learn. You've seeded the online community with quality content you want everybody to listen to and check out."

Now people just create their own training sessions with the webcam recording features built into the program. Users simply log in to the site; the camera on their computer "activates"; and the recording can begin.

Getting IT "Out of the Way"
Users access INsite through a customized portal page with featured content and recent and popular posts, questions and video series. The latter are collections of videos created to address a given topic. Staff can filter results by type of resource, subject category and tags. They can also choose to "follow" specific contributors, which is how functional areas within the university are staying on top of current department activities.

The service has been well adopted within Davenport, reported Miller. Recently, for example, the university has been posting content into INsite to help staff prepare for the goal-setting process. "We've got 584 full-time staff, and there are some goal-setting videos that have that much traffic on them. People are going in there to figure out, 'How am I supposed to write those Smart goals again?'"

But what most amazes Miller, he said, is the cultural impact of the social learning platform that provides connections across geographic boundaries.

"If you look at our organization, we are spread out across the state with significant numbers of students and staff in multiple locations. Without having to deploy all kinds of specialized software, we can leverage the Web for learning instead of just e-mail," Miller said.

One example: A couple of years ago, Davenport began a "virtual in-seat learning" (VISL) program that allows students to participate in higher-level courses at other campuses by connecting synchronously via webcam and videoconferencing software. But the institution was finding that VISL "works really well in some places and not so well in other places," Miller explained. "We would hear from Saginaw that they were having all sorts of trouble with instructors not standing in front of cameras. Students in the remote locations would see the whiteboard, but they wouldn't see the instructor."

However, Davenport's Holland campus was having "fantastic success," Miller continued. To help share their skills, the Holland faculty used Bloomfire to record and post a series of videos on best practices for VISL. This grassroots effort became a "really popular video series," he recalled.

Miller is quick to credit users for the benefits of the social learning system. "People would start thanking me for it, but IT had nothing to do with this wonderful success. I told them, 'Go thank Linda in Holland.' They just used these tools exactly the way they were meant to be used, to roll out learning socially on the other side of the state without any big roadshow or training event. They were able to put this stuff up there."

As a result, student surveys are showing growing satisfaction with VISL from multiple locations. And, said Miller, "I can personally guarantee you that our faculty are feeling much more confident about their ability to deliver class materials this way, which was the goal of those training videos."

Miller now is an advocate for social learning. "When it's top of mind, you can take action. When somebody else needs an answer, they can go out and look for it, which is pretty nice," he declared. "The best tool is the one where you don't need IT to use it. You just need us to get it working. Once it's working you just need us to get out of the way."

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