Faculty IT Choices: Walled Garden v the Wild West

I work in IT in a university environment, and one of the byproducts of this is that I get a lot of questions. Some want help with their email or printer. Some want me to predict the future so they can know timing for buying products or stocks. Some people want to vent their cosmic frustration at the pace of change, and how this impacts their personal lives.

At this point in my career, my ability to help with specific technical problems is diminishing, though I will valiantly try for my wife and parents. If I were great at predicting the future, I’d be rich, retired and contributing more to the community. But in each of these situations I can listen and attempt to refer to sources that can be more helpful. While I have no direct control over the cosmos’ plot to frustrate you through technology, I am attempting to help out with this on a small scale at Miami.

Diffusion of Innovations

Roger's diffusion of innovation curve

Schools don’t just hand out PhDs left and right. There is rigor, effort, and time involved. Faculty are bright people, especially in their own field. Some love technology, some use it as a tool, and some avoid it like it would give them leprosy. It’s a bell shaped curve, with the majority just wanting to use it as a tool. Over the past couple of years, there has been a pattern that has emerged to me that the great middle majority of faculty are put off by the sheer volume of technical change and possibilities.

Out of gas!

This isn’t solely in a university setting, and it’s not solely in the realm of technology. Too many choices leads to spending a lot of precious and finite cognitive energy on things that may not matter. This can lead to anxiety and less happiness overall. You can only think about so many things, and then you’re out of juice. If you waste your mental energy thinking about the best possible paper plates out of the 40+ options that are out there, you probably won’t get to think about something else that may be more critical. So, where any choice will probably be OK, or at worst will be short lived, especially where you can pick again, then just make a quick decision and feel good about it. 

Let’s get back to IT at a university.

Unless you are teaching in technology or are in the technology innovators category, chances are you need or want to use technology to achieve some outcome like learning objectives, a report with graphs using specific data, etc. If you are busy keeping up with or contributing to the specific changes in your field, how do you have the time to keep up with the tidal flow of technology choices? Chances are you use what you’re used to, what your peers are using, or what you hear about from students from other classes.

The signal to noise ratio is pretty high on technology choices. I must confess that it’s tough even for me, and staying abreast of trends is part of my life’s work. Don’t tell anyone, but I don’t know what to do with Google +. I have an account, but I don’t have any more energy to give to social networks. Facebook is exhausting and annoying to me, but it’s a great way to have perpetual virtual class reunions and to share photos of our kids with a lot of interested people. I’m invested; my crowd is invested. As long as the annoyances of Facebook are less than the energy to change, then I’m a Facebook user. Yes, this is the technology equivalent of Sansabelt slacks, a camp shirt, and some beige Rockports (sorry Dad!), but I am OK with this.

Enough about me. Let’s talk about you.

The essence of what I’ve distilled from my conversations with faculty over the past year or two is as follows:

  1. Lower the threshold for the technophobic to try technology, but don’t expect much
  2. Provide a couple of well-supported options for the large majority who are comfortable using–don’t hate or love– technology
  3. Give the innovators room to explore, but make sure they know the regulatory boundaries so as not to expose them or the institution to excessive liability

Walled Garden: a curated, manicured experience

My attempt to do this is a walled garden strategy. Let’s have a curated approach where there are a couple of ways to accomplish something. You can talk to IT staff or peers and explain what you’re trying to do, and we can give you a couple of options, with pros and cons, to try to see if it fits your needs. We can give you rich support with these options to get you started and while you use them. Maybe a couple of choices that fit the masses, but not the pantheon of possibilities. You are safe as long as you are here. Maybe a rose will prick your finger now and again, but mostly you will be delighted as we weed, tend, and cater to you. Oh, but don’t think that the walled garden is a time capsule or vacuum. It’s living and dynamic. Things will have to leave to make room for those newfangled innovations from the Wild Westerners below. We will add and remove things with as little disruption and as much buffer as possible, but there will always be some activity going on.

Welcome to the Wild West

Ah, but gardens are for sissies who want to have tea parties. You are no mere user of commonplace technology and you sure don’t like boundaries. You define the bleeding edge of technology. If it’s not beta–not the comfy 3 year old Google style betas, but real RAW betas that are still fluid from nightly builds– then you probably aren’t interested.


You want the Wild West, not some spoon-fed thing from the out of touch bureaucrats from IT-land. You are waiting for me to try to stop you with my two primary weapons of inertia: policy and process. You are ready to bravely pick up the standard of academic freedom.

Wait! I don’t want to stop you. Have at it.

Here my job is to make sure you know about FERPA (student privacy), HIPPA (patient privacy), ITAR/EAR (export control regulations), etc. Go crazy! But don’t incur liability for the university or yourself. Some of these things can land you in jail and cause reputational damage to your institution. Nobody wants that!

Oh, just so you know: in the Wild West there is very little support, but lots of encouragement! You are likely to try a lot of things and quit a lot of things, which is fantastic, and the way innovation should work. It’s just too costly for us to keep up with you and the rest of the innovators with rich support. We’re keeping that Walled Garden up.

But don’t AT ALL mistake the inability to give you copious support with lack of interest. At some level we in IT are geeks too and wish we had more time to experiment. The walled garden is nice and necessary, but sometimes boring. We may want to help as time allows, but the walled garden is our first priority, so we may have to leave you hanging to take care of that. We’re sad too.

We also have a fundamental need to keep an eye on the Wild West. As time progresses, today’s Wild West innovation will need to be in the Walled Garden, so we need to understand how things will scale and need to be supported. Also, at some point and time, you may want to find your way back to the walled garden to rest. We can help guide you back.

My role as an IT leader is to create an organizational culture that richly supports and serves as a guide to academic and research needs of the faculty and the business needs of the staff, but also facilitates the innovators and help to bring some of their solutions back to the walled garden so as to create a dynamic environment that captures the best part of innovation without getting caught in an inefficient churn.

You can reduce your cognitive demand on the vast array of technology choices by being in the walled garden and save your energy for your classes or research, or you can be a pioneer with the associated wagon ruts. I need to be able to work with you either way, but the choice is yours. But it’s easy to change your mind, so don’t think about it too much!

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