Let’s Build More “Learning” into Even Basic IT Tools

In the past year, I’ve become a big fan and user of what University of Michigan members of the Sakai Project called WorkTools, which then became Course Tools the Next Generation (CTNG), and now is CTools. For those of you who have not experienced the nifty tools that are coming out of that project, I find it easiest to explain to people that it is “sort of like Yahoo! Groups, but without the ads.”

Lately, I’ve been wondering if maybe that tool and some of our other IT tools on campus shouldn’t have more advertisements built into them. By “advertisements” I mean “ads” that could provide regular learning experiences for users in how to become better, more efficient, and safer users. Not something like “This e-mail communication has been brought to you by the Diet Cola Company of America” inserted as a footer in each message your e-mail server transmits or receives. Well, I do mean the “inserted as a footer” (or header) part, but my suggested “educational messages” would read something like, “If you think you detect a security or privacy breach in University of XYZ online data, notify security@syz.edu, and do not tell anyone else.”

Some people take to virtual collaborative worksites really well, others don’t. I do. I had become such a fan of WorkTools since I first learned of it at the NLII conference in New Orleans in January of 2003, that when it became CTNG and then CTools, and the issue of migrating current user groups to the new system came up, it was discovered that I “owned” more virtual worksites than any other single campus user. (How it was that I had to travel to New Orleans to learn of it, even though it is based on the same physical campus as I am, is an interesting and very typical story of academia.)

If you don’t know about virtual worksites, you should. The basic elements of them are management of members, a Web site for archiving e-mail messages, a location on the Web site for sharing documents, possibly a threaded discussion area, member lists and info, and of course an integrated e-mail list for worksite members. Add-ons can include task assignments, calendars, and even live chat windows. All of the above are available in CTools, which is a University of Michigan version of the open source software that the Sakai Project is developing and includes both courseware and collaborative working site functionality.

It was my habit, when proselytizing about virtual collaborative worksites, of describing CTools as “sort of like Yahoo! Groups, but without the ads” that got me to thinking: “Why don’t IT staff build more repetitive, random or targeted, advertisements into such information technology tools—to serve the purpose of user education about functionality as well as security and privacy issues?”

In Yahoo! Groups, which is probably the leader at the moment in terms of “free” access to such groups, users “pay” for using the system by putting up with advertisements. These show up in the various Web-based windows, as well as via insertions to the body of any messages sent to the entire group. Yahoo! Groups are very popular, and very useful.

So, why not put our own public service advertising messages on the Web interface and inside each message? Messages like: “Have you updated your anti-virus software recently?” Some people would object, of course, but the fact is that such messages carry both educational content that is good for the users and learners, and operational content that is good for the institution. And, after all, the IT folk create and operate those IT tools. We ought to have some pretty significant say about building into them things that make our jobs easier and might save our colleges and universities money.

Plus, some tools already do have such things built into them—system-wide user alerts, for example. I manage more than 50 e-mail discussion lists, and regularly use the feature that Lyris builds into its software that lets the list administrator insert header and footer information. On some lists, I even already do what are in fact advertisements for my employer-association’s conferences and publications. What I am proposing is not a much larger step in that direction than the currently-often-included how to subscribe and unsubscribe information that is already in every message handled by most sophisticated e-mail servers.

Where could such advertisements go? Well:

• As part of the log-on to wired and wireless networks, every time a user logs in;
• Every time a user accesses the ERP to pay a bill or check on your account status;
• Every time a student or instructor signs into the main courseware system to check class assignments or to make them;
• Every time a staffer checks the latest job postings;
• Such messages could even be inserted as headers and/or footers in every single message transmitted by the institution’s e-mail server.

Is it worth the aggravation? Well, I wrote last week about the junior computer science major at the University of Michigan who found a breach in Wolverine Access, with which students access their personal data, and who because he was experienced, knew that the right thing to do was to tell no one anything about it after first notifying the proper campus officials. What if he had been an English major who had a lot of online friends, and he had told a bunch of them by e-mail instead of doing the right thing? Wouldn’t it be nice that every time English majors use a campus-wide system they get a pop-up message that says: “If you think you detect a security or privacy breach in University of XYZ online data, notify security@syz.edu, and do not tell anyone else.”

When I suggested last week that students should be required to take a basic course on information technology use, I also recognized that the intra-institutional hurdles to such a required course would be huge. I think it would be a lot easier to start using what we already have control over but currently underutilize to accomplish that educational purpose.

After all, we build these tools, we maintain them, and in many instances we have a “customer” base that is essentially captive. Some people will complain, but it may well be the same people who tolerate ads to use some of their alternative and “free” e-mail identities. And, you may know the story of how to boil a frog . . . slowly. We should think about taking what we already do and incrementally building into it the messages we need our users to internalize, as a part of the evolution of the IT tools themselves. If we do it slowly, then, like the frog that d'esn’t jump out of the pot, our users won’t notice that we’re training them to be responsible users. But we will.

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