S1:E27 Ben Hambelton – Skunkworks of IT Part 1

August 9, 2021 |  Data, News
29 min


Ben Hambleton, from Skunkworks of IT, joins us to talk about the evolution of IT from the 1970’s to 2010’s and how improving tech was used to improve teaching. Part 1 of a 2 part interview.

Tyler Jacobson  0:01

Welcome to LabChats, a podcast from the team at LabStats. I’m Tyler Jacobson, your host for today’s episode. Each week, we’ll sit down with technology leaders in higher education to get the latest buzz and insights while we discuss current events, trends, problems and solutions. Now, let’s get into it.

Joining us today we have Ben Hambelton, is that…did I pronounce that right? 

Ben Hambelton  0:24

You did. 

Tyler Jacobson  0:25  

Okay. Ben Hamilton, with us, who is going to share with us a little bit more of a historical and vision perspective of higher education and IT. Ben, do you want to take a quick minute and give your background and where you’re at today?

Ben Hambelton  0:45

Well, thank you, Tyler. I appreciate the opportunity to visit with you. Where do I start? I guess, we’re only talking about…who I used to be right? Rather than who I am now. I started at Boise State University in 1975. My graduate work was focused on instructional design. And so I was interested in course design, pedagogy, those kinds of things. And I came from a department that also trained managers of educational media services, which was what we call the academic IT side of things. There wasn’t an “IT” at that point, it was an AV kind of element. I had worked for the university department there in designing a couple of management courses, having to do with managing AV services. And so I ended up with a job doing that. But my love and my desire was for instructional design, I ended up spending 36 years at Boise State, saw lots of changes, ended up as an Assistant Vice President and Director of Academic Technologies. [I] started out with a department of five, we ended up with a department of 20 full-time employees in our own building, and included a satellite uplink microwave connections and lots of other technologies that we acquired over the years as we moved it forward. So that’s kind of where I’m at. 

Tyler Jacobson  2:14

Excellent. So one of the things that I wanted to talk about really quickly, up front is: technology changes and extremely rapid pace. And people claim to like technology, but they hate change. So how do you as somebody on campus that is driving the change through technology, how do you kind of reconcile and bring people that are apprehensive along for the ride when it comes to new tack or new processes?

Ben Hambelton  2:48

Well, Tyler, that’s kind of the theme of some of the remarks I wanted to make today is how that process worked for us. And I appreciate what you’re saying about the rapid change in technology. But you need to go back to 1975. And that period through ’85, ’89, ’90s, that technology was not as rapid a turnover as it is today. And the kind of culture that our faculty were coming from was not infused with technology, in the same way as it is today. And, and so yeah, people have some resistance for change, but I think the change is happening more rapidly all around them. And I mean, look what COVID did for us, right? In terms of promoting distance learning and teleconferencing and online instruction and so forth. We didn’t have a COVID. So the first set of years that we worked on, was evolving an audio-visual service into teleconferencing, telecommunications have a variety of natures, and dealing with things like VHS or Betamax. You know, what, what video format are we going to? Some of your listeners may not know either one. 

Tyler Jacobson  4:12

We had beta. We chose wrong (laughs). So yeah, I’m familiar with that. 

Ben Hambelton  4:19

So you know, we had those kinds of kinds of things. And we did learn a little bit about faculty and because of my love for instructional design and what I was charged to do in terms of instructional outcomes, I began to see that there was real differences in faculty in terms of their willingness to adopt technology and willingness to look at course redesign that would incorporate technological tools as they became became available. So I think that that was an evolving process. It certainly accelerated in the last half of my career, because the state of technology accelerated exponentially as it became much more digital based, and we had lots more tools coming available at a much more rapid pace. And so I think the things we did early on help set a cultural paradigm on our campus for dealing with it and accepting it, and utilizing it better. And I think what I’d like to do today is talk a little bit about how we got there. How did we, how did we set that paradigm? 

Tyler Jacobson  5:36

I would absolutely love to talk. So if you have ideas and thoughts, I’m just gonna give you a free rein to go for it. I do have a couple of questions that I may jump in with, so. 

Ben Hambelton  5:47

Please do feel free. I think one of the things that was kind of key for us and and I know, this is not something that’s going to happen at every institution. But I had been involved with some professionals at other schools, as we were looking at the fact that in the 1970s, early 80s, the whole notion of faculty development was built around the idea of enhancing their expertise in their discipline. You’re going to be a better teacher the more you know about your subject. And so faculty development was centered on sabbatical leaves for additional study for field experiences for defined research projects. And the fact was that the majority of faculty on campus, mainstream faculty, had little or no formal training in teaching. Pedagogical principles, learning theories, instructional design principles, were foreign topics for them. And we found that the majority of faculty weren’t really interested in it, either.

They felt that their ability to teach was going to be based on how they learned. And they were successful in a lecture demonstration, kind of environment. If they were in a lab oriented discipline, then there was that kind of peace. But beyond looking at different models of instruction, looking at engagement, it wasn’t there in many ways. Some faculty even had the notion that failure for students to learn was because they were not properly academically prepared to study. And it was their job to weed them out. As opposed to saying, “My job is to help every student learn this discipline, and the subject. And there’s ways I can make that happen.”

Tyler Jacobson  7:50

So just to interject a little bit when I was in school, there were the weed out classes, and they didn’t really support those classes, because if you couldn’t cut it, it’s best to find out early, and then you don’t have student loan debt, and they haven’t wasted their time and you haven’t wasted your time. When did that start changing? 

Ben Hambelton  8:09

I think that began to change when people began to realize that most everyone is prepared to learn, given the right kind of instructional model, and giving the right kinds of experiences. And I think, you know, always there was faculty on every campus, certainly on ours, that their focus was student learning. I want to excite my students about my subject, about my discipline, I want them to master it and learn it. And if they’re not getting it, I need to figure out another way to do it. But quite honestly, that wasn’t mainstream, kind of viewing. of that. People were generally more focused on their discipline than they were on teaching and learning outcomes. A high failure rate was often viewed as evidence that I’m a rigorous teacher giving good content out there. And the fact that these students aren’t getting it means they’re not ready for it. Not that I’m an inadequate teacher. 

Tyler Jacobson  9:14

So how do you even start to approach that with them? Because they’re not coming to you saying, “Hey, help me teach,”. Quite the opposite. They feel as though they know their subject matter, therefore their teaching is adequate. How do you even start to open up their idea that there could be a different way?

Ben Hambelton  9:34

Exactly. And I think what we began to discover over time, was that they were much more amenable to learning about different ways of teaching and instructional design approaches, models of instruction and so forth. When it was embedded in something they needed to learn. They wanted to learn. So if there was a piece of technology, that for one reason or another, they needed to incorporate in their teaching, they would tolerate…and that’s a strong term, they would accept and utilize the instructional design principles that were embedded in that training. 

Tyler Jacobson  10:13

So they weren’t…it wasn’t as much that they were learning how to teach it was learning how to use the tools. And the learning to teach came along with it.

Ben Hambelton  10:22

It came along with it in particular in the sense of: “How is this best used in your teaching? What are your objectives? What are the learning outcomes you’re after? How can this technology make it more effective or more efficient for you?” And when you begin that kind of analysis, you’re doing course redesign. You begin to think more profoundly about the outcomes that you’re looking for, and the kind of learning experiences that are going to help students get there. And when you begin thinking in that pattern, then all of a sudden, you’re willing to do a lot more to help teachers interact. I’ll give you a little snapshot of what I mean. When we had reached the point where now we’re working with digital technology online, computer-based instruction kind of thing. And students, they had an opportunity to interact with students individually offline, out of class, (when I say offline, I mean out of class). And one of the faculty members said that a student hadn’t responded to the assignments and hadn’t joined some of the discussion groups for some time. And so he messaged me and said, “Hey, what’s up, what’s going on?” And he said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’ve had a little tragedy in my family, and I’ve gotten distracted by it, I’ll try and get back on it.” And the instructor wrote back and said, “Hey, no problem. If there’s anything I can do to help, I’m going to extend the deadline on this.” And the student wrote back and said, “Thank you so much for caring.” And the professor turned to the group and said, this was a training group, “I have always cared. I’ve never had the tools to express that care and to make it work in the lives of students.” 

Tyler Jacobson  12:16

That’s pretty powerful. 

Ben Hambelton  12:17

That’s very powerful. And to me, that was what we were trying to kind of achieve in all of the introduction for technologies is to empower faculty to do a more effective job and to see the options they had for teaching to be more effective. And part of that was because we had a leadership that commissioned us to do it. And I think you know a little bit about that story. But I think this would be an appropriate time to tell it because the rest of the story is based on that kind of thing.

Tyler Jacobson  12:51

Now, I’d love to jump right into that.

Ben Hambelton  12:54

So as I mentioned, and didn’t finish, I was interacting with colleagues from several universities while I was at Utah State before I came to Boise State about putting together a federal grant to create a new organization called the Northern Rockies Consortium for Higher Education. And what it was focused on was providing grant money, incentives and consultation for member schools that wanted to put a new kind of faculty development program in. A faculty development program aimed at helping them be better teachers, not better scholars. Okay. And so this acronym was called NRCHE. And we thought early on that one of the best ways to move this organization forward would be to have an advisory board of academic vice presidents and so I asked my academic Vice President, Dr. Richard Bullington, if he would be on the advisory board of this new organization. And he came to his position as academic Vice President, as a dean of education in another university. And so he was insightful into that notion of teaching faculty to teach, if you will. And so he was intrigued and he said, Yes, he would do that. And he went down. He went to our first meeting held at Bear Lake. Down here on the border of Idaho and Utah. This organization kind of encompassed Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming, Northern Rockies. We got the grant, and we set up the organization. We had about 17-20 member institutions to start with. And he liked what he heard. And on the way back, we were riding in the car together, and he said, “You know, in World War Two, I was a fighter pilot.” And