Category Archives: Internet

A Different Approach for Higher Education Websites

thumbby Hap Aziz

Having worked extensively in the corporate sector as well as in higher education, I often find myself comparing how certain tasks are accomplished, which particular business practices are similar or dissimilar, or what criteria influences strategic decisions at the leadership level between the two functional verticals. While many of the operational components are common across the corporate sector and higher education, the operational practices are often 180 degrees apart in terms of management and strategic decision making. Coming from a strictly corporate perspective, the differences may seem antithetical to success. All too often, institutions struggle with their web strategies, and the result is that their internal communities do not realize any of the benefits of a modern web implementation, or worse, the communities suffer from an unacceptably poor implementation.

My particular interest in this topic is that an institution’s website should be yet another tool to foster student engagement–with the institution, of course, but (through integration in the learning ecosystem) with content areas of interest as well. Yes, the website should be an extended instrument of learning, technology, and play! First, however, institutions need to get the basics in order (and perhaps in a subsequent blog entry I’ll address the utilization of websites for teaching and learning). It only takes a moderate amount of experience in higher education to see that there are considerations having to do with decentralized decision-mailing that require a complex collaborative model to push institutional initiatives forward. And in the long run, that’s almost 100 percent irrelevant to building a successful web presence in the higher education space and to winning a battle for student mindshare being played out in virtual space.

In the corporate sector, effective websites are usually built and managed by a single functional area specifically tasked with website development and ownership, often within the context of marketing leadership. In any event, the key components of effective website development are all handled by the single functional area:

  • Content
  • Visual (and Audio) Presentation
  • Functionality
  • Architecture and Usability
  • Search Engine Optimization and Digital Reach

In a higher education institutional setting, rather than group these components together and “hand the keys over” to a single group, the responsibility can be divided across functional areas, with some overlap and collaboration where appropriate. For example:

  • Content – may be handled by a publications office in collaboration with the specific departments contributing content for their respective web areas. Content is primarily textual information along with graphic images, photographs, or video segments that meet particular criteria.
  • Visual (and Audio) Presentation – could be the responsibility of institutional marketing, making sure the maintain brand fidelity. Content elements provided by publications or individual departments must adhere to established presentation standards.
  • Functionality – should facilitated by IT, though IT should not define and impose functional constraints on the website. All other groups may desire particular functionality in service of area goals (for example, publications may desire a particular content-approval workflow, in which case IT should be able to identify and implement the most suitable content management system to meet the need).
  • Architecture and Usability – is a design concern that goes beyond typical marketing functionality, and the expertise may be located in any of a number of areas within an institution such as a design department or computer science department in which usabilit and human-computer-interface issues are considered. Architecture and Usability will provide acceptable parameters within which website presentation exist.
  • SEO and Digital Reach – can be directed out of a business program in which digital marketing is a component of the curriculum, or the institution’s marketing group may manage this component provided the specific skill set is represented on staff. There will be communication between this group and publications in order to ensure that website content is optimized for search engine performance.

The benefit to establishing this decentralized model (and this is just one example) of website management is that the separate areas will be able to go about their business independently (for the most part), only having to coordinate at certain points in the website implementation and management lifecycle. Additionally, all groups do not need to participate in all meetings, which tends to reduce frustration with the overall process and friction with each other.

While the model is fairly straightforward in print, the groundwork and internal institutional communications required to ensure that it is and will remain sustainable can be significant. This is where institutional governance comes in, and there must be buy-in and commitment to the outcomes produced during a collaborative planning phase.

Having worked directly for a number of institutions over the years, I understand that this is not a simple process, and individual ideas regarding website ownership can run deep. The conversations need to be open, and the process to settle upon a model needs to be transparent. Don’t hesitate to call in a trusted advisor, but do resolve to set a reasonable timeframe for discussions. Taking too much time can be a costly mistake, because the “competition” continues to move forward. It is important to recognize that your students are often the quickest to identify your competition, and students can be the most unforgiving critics if they perceive other institutions to be meeting needs that their own institution is not. You only get to lose that mindshare battle once.

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Filed under colleges and universities, communication, Hap Aziz, higher education, higher education institutions, Internet, strategic planning, website

The Future of Shopping

Today’s topic on Fox 35 Good Day Orlando was “The Future of Shopping.” It was a quick look at how technology is changing the way we shop, and what retailers are doing to motivate people to look away from the Internet long enough to come into an actual shop location. Technologies such as holography, 3D printing, and even good old bluetooth connectivity to your cell phone are all part of the story.

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Filed under 3D printing, future technology, Hap Aziz, holograms, Internet, mobile technologies, Science Fiction, shopping, smartphones, technology

Making the Connection between Millenial Students and Online Education

by Hap Aziz

Earlier this week I attended a conference (for our Ellucian CIOs), and one of the sessions that greatly interested me was “Millienial Behaviors and Higher Educations Focus Group Results” presented by Richard Sweeney, the university librarian for the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Mr. Sweeney’s session was actually in two segments: he first discussed what the research has revealed about Millennial students, and then a group of 13 college and university students were brought onstage as a live focus group. He asked the group several questions (the answers the students gave to some of which were quite surprising), and then for about the last 15 minutes of the session, the students fielded questions from the audience.

Millennial students were defined as those now going to school that were born between 1980 and 2000 – aged ranging fr0m 12 to 32 years old. In a study* comparing Millennial medical students to Generation X medical students, the Millennials were found to be more warm and outgoing, more abstract than concrete, more adaptive and mature, more dutiful, more socially bold and adventuresome, more sensitive and sentimental, more self-doubting and worried, more open to change and experimenting, and more organized and self disciplined. One of the key findings of the study is that Millennials “have greater needs to belong to social groups and to share with others, stronger team instincts and tighter peer bonds, and greater needs to achieve and succeed” (p. 574). The implications are fuzzy when it comes to online learning. Must these social groups be face to face, or will online social networks provide the requisite connectivity between the individuals?

In either case, as educators we need to optimize the social characteristics of the online experience in order to facilitate the Millenials’ feelings of belonging and abilities to bond with their peers. Another datapoint** shared by Mr. Sweeney is that for Millennials, “interaction and a sense of community are the key requests of those born digital when it comes to online learning, as surveys indicate” (p. 248). If we look at examples of online interaction such as participation in Xbox Live or the Playstation Network, we see that it can be quite compelling. Millions of recurring users subscribing to a pay-for-play model is a strong indicator of success in this case.

Having the student focus group allowed us to ask a sample of Millennial students about their perceptions, and one of the questions was whether or not they liked the online mode of learning. Without exception, all the student panelists expressed the sentiment that their online courses were not engaging, with consensus that online courses were not effective as an avenue for learning. I wanted to dig deeper in this direction, hoping to draw a distinction between online courses and online learning. I asked the students whether or not they were comfortable going online to learn about anything, say for a hobby interest or particular need they may have had at some point in time. Again, there was unanimous agreement–this time to express that going online to learn things was something that the students did regularly. The content that they were able to access for the personal needs was much more engaging than was the content developed for their online courses.

The answer to this question certainly requires further study, but it reinforces an intuition that I (and many educators) have had for quite some time: while online content developed for the general consumer (in a highly mind-share competitive environment) captures attention and brings users back repeatedly, online courses are often bland and uninspiring, and the reasons for their use may vary, but the quality of engagement of the overall online course experience is not among those reasons. This doesn’t surprise me, as I sample online courses developed for and within the current breed of learning management systems. There is a cookie-cutter feel to the content, and while there is greater integration of multimedia materials, these elements are episodic within the courses rather than integrated in a way that provides a true interactive experience to engage the learner.

Is this an artifact of the “mass production” of online courses? Perhaps, but there is little reason for this to be the operational model. A decade ago, designers discussed the power of the World Wide Web based in the ability for the “mass customization” of content. Yet when we examine online courses as currently developed, we see the presentation of an experience that is the same for each and every student within the same course. Every student progresses through the same discussion forums in the same sequence, answering the same prompts. Every student completes the same assignments, usually in the same calendar-driven sequence. Every student listens to the same podcasts, flips through the same PowerPoint slides, and watches the same video clips assigned by their instructors.

The important question to answer now becomes one of transformation. How do we as educators infuse online courses with the level of interactivity that will actually engage our students? (Hint: Think computer games, but think “small” at the same time.)


*Nichole J Borges et al.  “Comparing Millennial and Generation X Medical Students at One Medical School.  Academic Medicine;  81.6 (2006): 571-576
**Pauley, John and Urs Gasser. Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives.  New York: Basic Books,  2008


Filed under computer games, education, education course content, education technology, face-to-face instruction, games, gamification, Hap Aziz, higher education, Internet, Learning Management Systems, Millennial students, online education

Legacy Systems and the Anchors that Work Against Change

by Hap Aziz

Back in October, 1995, a small computer company called Be, Inc. (founded by former Apple executives), released a new computer into the marketplace. This machine was called the BeBox, and from 1995 to 1997, less than 2000 of these computers were produced for developers. The BeBox had a lot of unique features going for it such as dual CPUs, built-in MIDI ports, and something called a GeekPort that allowed hardware experimenters both digital and analog access directly to the system bus. One of my personal favorite features of the BeBox was the pair of “Blinkenlight” stacks on both sides of the front bezel. Functioning like a graphic equalizer, they depicted the real-time load of each of the CPUs in the machine.

But as exciting as the hardware was to computer geeks like me, the real revolution was in the Be Operating System, or the BeOS, as it was called. Written specifically to run on the BeBox hardware, BeOS was optimized for digital media applications, and it actually took full advantage of modern computer hardware with its capabilities of symmetric multiprocessing, true preemptive multitasking, and a 64-bit journaling file system (which for practical purposes meant you could shut off power at any time without going through a shut-down process, and when you turned the machine back on, you would find that your open files were still intact).

BeOS was able to accomplish all sorts of things that Windows, the Mac OS, and Linux could not by shedding nearly all of the legacy “baggage” that the other operating systems continued to carry. The Be team was free to rethink the underlying software systems paradigm at the very deepest levels, and the results were truly astounding to those that saw the BeBox in operation.

The moral of the story is that the greatest transformation is possible when we rethink processes and technologies that have been in place for years, decades, and even generations. This is significant when we think of education, because the majority of our education systems are indeed legacy systems, designed and implemented to facilitate processes that were put into practice over a century ago. Even our “modern” Student Information Systems and Learning Management Systems are limited by the “legacy anchor,” and as a result, we see little true transformation in the teaching and learning space. Education timelines are based on year “blocks” of content, and each block is targeted to a particular age group of student (why is every student of approximately the same age grouped in the same grade?). The foundation of the classroom experience is still the lecture, and with online courses we work to “fit the lecture” into an asynchronous mode. Assessment and evaluation processes are, well, pretty much the same as they have been, only with more variation in execution. Schools and institutions of learning are hardly any different than they were in the 1700s–a group of students go to a building where they meet in a room and work with a single instructor. Even in the online environment, we build virtual analogs to the physical world: a group of students go to a URL where they meet in discussion forums and still work with a single instructor.

What would true transformation look like, given the technologies that are available now? How would we write a new, legacy-free education operating system for the 21st century? Those are two very big questions that could spawn a series of lengthy discussions (and, frankly, I need to write a book about it), but I have a few principles that I would offer up:

  • Education should be non-linear from the perspective of time spent on task. That is to say, a concept such as “4th Grade Mathematics” where all 9 year old children are expected to learn the same content over the same amount of time should go away. Little Julie may master fractions and long division in three months while little Stanley may take half a year. At the same time, little Stanley might be happily absorbing 18th century American literature, while little Julie is still working on more basic reading comprehension skills.
  • Places of education should be built to meet specific learner needs rather than be built around the same specifications of classroom space, administration space, cafeterias, gymnasiums, and so on. Why does every elementary school look like every other elementary school, and not just across stretches of geography, but across time as well? The elementary school I attended in the 1960s would function with little modification for my daughter who is in elementary school now. Surely learners (at any age group) are not a monolithic group with singular needs, yet we build places of education as though they are.
  • Education should offer multiple pathways forward rather than a single path that results in matriculation to the “next grade” or failure and repetition of the previous grade. In the world of computer game design, multiple pathways forward is commonplace, allowing players with various skills to progress according to his or her particular strengths–and in making progress, the player is often able to “circle back” and solve particular challenges that he or she was unable to complete earlier in the game. In the same way, a learner may bypass a particularly challenging content area, yet come back with greater skills acquired in a different “track” better able to solve the original challenge.
  • In fact, the idea of “grade levels” is in many respects antithetical to the concept of the lifelong learner. Why measure start points and end points as set dates on a calendar? Rather, education milestones should be set and achieved on a skills-mastery framework, and this process is ongoing for the true lifelong learner. The ramifications of this would be profound on a social level (the singular graduation moment may no longer exist), but from the perspective of personal growth and fulfillment, the benefits could be tremendous, and there will certainly be just as many–if not more–opportunities for celebrations of achievement.

Ultimately, bringing significant transformative change to the education-industrial complex will require rethinking of almost every segment of the teaching and learning process, including the manner in which we engage technologies to support that process. Being willing to discard our legacy baggage will be extremely difficult for many. Yet doing so will be the only way in which we might remix our 21st century technologies of smart devices, mobile connectivity, social media, the Internet, and more into an educational system that meets the diverse needs of our 21st century learners.

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Filed under children, colleges and universities, computer games, creativity, education, education technology, effective practices, emerging technologies, face-to-face instruction, future technology, games, Hap Aziz, higher education, Internet, Learning Management Systems, learning outcomes, legacy systems, online education, smartphones, social media, Student Information System, tablets, technology, virtual college

The Horizon Report: Digital Media Literacy Challenges in Higher Education

by Martin LaGrow

The Horizon Report 2012 Higher Education Edition has been released, and it describes emerging technologies likely to have an impact over the next five years in higher education (Johnson, L., Adams, S., and Cummins, M. (2012).The NMC Horizon Report: 2012 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas:The New Media Consortium). The report describes in detail dizzying prospects for the incorporation of everything from mobile apps to the Internet of Things, a development of networking made possible by the emergence of IPv6 for virtually unlimited connections that just wasn’t possible with the address space of IPv4. However, in addition to the exciting new opportunities that emerging technologies provide, new challenges arise for higher education as well. The Horizon Report outlines five of them. Institutions of higher learning would do well to evaluate their readiness for the inevitable approach of new learning models based on these challenges! The focus of this article is addressing one of these identified challenges, namely “Digital media literacy continues in its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession.”

But what is digital media literacy, and why is it important? According to Laura Gurak, it is “…the ability to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, and analyze information using digital technology. It involves a working knowledge of current high-technology, and an understanding of how it can be used. Further, digital literacy involves a consciousness of the technological forces that affect culture and human behavior” (Gurak, Laura (2001). Cyberliteracy. New Haven: Yale University Press). In other words, the Horizon Report is telling us that all professionals must not only be able to apply digital technology and data to their profession, they must also be aware of the implications of using that technology and data in their particular context.

For students coming out of high school and entering higher education, most are already winning half of the battle. It seems that either the current generation of youth was designed for the technology revolution, or vice versa. For most students, it will not be a challenge for them to adapt to mobile apps, incorporate tablets into their learning, or even to embrace kinesthetic tools and gaming platforms utilized in academic environments. They practically demand it! Ease of adoption for the current generation is not an issue. For these students, collaborative learning and continuous interaction with peers is already a strength. So what’s the problem? What challenges impede digital media literacy in higher education? The answer is threefold.

Firstly, the student who has already learned to embrace digital media as a venue for communication has not necessarily learned discernment. University libraries, onetime bastions of peer reviewed, thoroughly researched papers are left by the wayside in favor of readily accessible Internet sources, some of questionable veracity. The peer review has been replaced by anonymous user reviews and “thumbs up” while credibility takes a backseat to convenience.  Rules of appropriateness in what constitutes good data seemingly stands on shifting ground when there is no monitoring of online content submitted. Higher education can embrace the challenge by doubling efforts both to provide access to scholarly content and training students to recognize acceptable material.

Secondly, the “nontraditional” returning students will find themselves in a world that may be foreign to them, as they find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide. The average student age in the U.S. has been climbing steadily in recent years. At both Harvard and Notre Dame the average age as of 2009 was 27. The University of Phoenix, which offers both online and traditional degree programs, has an average student age of 35-37. On a larger scale, 38% of all college students are now 25 or older, according to a recent U.S Census Bureau report ( Many of these students are returning to college because they recognize the world has changed and they feel left behind. Already behind the curve, they are insecure about their limited proficiency and intimidated by a younger generation that has already embraced it. Just as with English and math skills, institutions of higher learning must develop a plan to identify those with emergent (or nonexistent) digital media literacy and bring them up to speed. Opportunities to develop and expand those skills should be identified and built into curricular areas.

Finally, instructors themselves must embrace the responsibility to lead their students (not follow them) into the digital age, whether they are teaching World History or Web Design.  Institutionally, this can be addressed proactively through hiring policies and retroactively through professional development. The Horizon Report speaks to the pervasiveness and infusion of digital media into all professions. The classroom environment must reflect this reality to adequately prepare students for their chosen vocation. Higher education knows a new kind of learner is entering the classroom. You may be surprised just how immersed this student is (take PBS’s quiz for an eye-opening look: While colleges prepare for the contingent of students bringing digital media savvy to the classroom, greater attention should be placed on the digital media outcomes for all students leaving the classroom and entering a highly connected workforce.


Filed under colleges and universities, digital media literacy, education, education technology, emerging technologies, higher education, Internet, Martin LaGrow

SOPA, PIPA and their Effect on the Intersection of Education and the Internet

by Hap Aziz

There is a lot of buzz right now about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA: H.R. 3261) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA: S. 968) that are making their way through the legislative process, and tomorrow morning (about 7:45 am Eastern time) I will be on Fox 35 News in Orlando to discuss the implications in general. Congress will pick up the debate again when it reconvenes in 2012; in the meantime, this is a good opportunity to examine what effects the legislation may have on Internet use in education. The potential impact for educators is great, as the bills if passed into law would deal directly with the use and distribution of copyrighted material over websites–including institutional and faculty run sites.

First of all, what are the two bills? The first one originated from the Senate, which is PIPA, and it’s intent is to give the U.S. government and content copyright holders more legal tools to help prevent access to “rogue websites dedicated to infringing or counterfeit goods,” especially those sites registered and operating outside of the country. It defines infringement as the distribution of illegal copies, counterfeit goods, or anti-DRM technology (which can be used to circumvent copyright protections). SOPA is very similar in its intent, but it is much broader in terms of implementation and consequences; SOPA can additionally target companies that provide Internet connectivity and force the rerouting of what is currently secure traffic between users and websites.

The most vocal supporters of SOPA/PIPA have been the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, while vocal opponents include companies that are based on Internet activity, including Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and eBay. It’s interesting to note that over the past two years, the supporters have outspent the opponents by about 10-to-1 in terms of lobbying dollars in front of Congress.

While researching information for this blog entry, I came across quite a few video clips that explain the bills and their potential ramifications, and perhaps it is significant that nearly all the clips that are out there are produced by opponents or present the case that passage of the legislation would have an overall detrimental effect. The following clip appears to offer a fairly straightforward interpretation of the bills (it was produced before SOPA was introduced, but there is supplemental narration at the end directed at some of the SOPA consideration. It is worth viewing to gain some contextual understanding of the issue.

PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

What would passage of SOPA/PIPA mean to the education community? Clearly, modern teaching and learning environments make extensive use of web-based content from a variety of sources and through a variety channels. While much of the content is licensed from publishers with appropriate accommodations for academic uses, a good deal of content may reside on websites that do not have the proper copyright permissions for every image, audio, or video clip to which they provide access. These sites are vulnerable to a forced shut-down order issued by the U.S. Attorney General’s office, and the Internet Service Provider (ISP) hosting the offending website would have to comply within five days.

Quite a few educators associated with projects such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare project, the Internet Archive, Creative Commons, Harvard University, and Stanford University, for example, are concerned about the legislation, and they have been involved in pointing out how SOPA/PIPA could adversely effect technology innovation in the teaching and learning environment. In a signed letter to Chairman Lamar Smith and Ranking Member John Conyers of the House Committee on the Judiciary, the interested parties state:

These bills would undermine this framework and chill the creation of educational content. Sites that host or use user-generated content could be required to monitor their site for infringing material, and could potentially have their domain name blocked by the government if content owners thought that infringement was occurring on that site. This represents an entirely new legal power given to content owners to control the flow of content online and to shape the very foundation of the Internet. Indeed, it could lead to entire sites becoming unavailable due to the behavior of a tiny minority of confused or malicious users.

These concerns are significant, and clearly they are not merely the expressions of uninformed and unsubstantiated fears (for the full copy of the letter, click here). There are many opponents of SOPA/PIPA representing both the education and commercial spaces, and these people standing against passage have been very vocal in their opposition. We do not have much longer to wait until 2012 to see whether Congress is listening, and how it will weigh out the arguments pro and con.

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Filed under colleges and universities, Congress, copyright, education, Internet, technology, U.S. government