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 I said, “Wow, really?” And he said, “Yeah,” and he said, “I want to tell you about an organization that really helped us in the war. It was a thing called SkunkWorks.” And I looked at him. I’d never heard that term. I said, “SkunkWorks?” And he said, “Yeah, yeah,” he said, “I want you to be our SkunkWorks.” Well, I didn’t know whether he was about to be critical of me, (laughs) or, just what, but he went on to explain that the Germans had come forward with a jet fighter plane, the first jet fighter plane. And the Allies were terribly concerned that it would create dominance in the air power during the war. And so the military went to Lockheed Martin, who is building bombers and other planes for the military. And said, “We need a jet fighter pilot plane. It has to have these specs and we need it right away.” And so the company formed a secret organization that was commissioned to do this. They were given carte blanche for assembling their team. They were given organization… well I’d say freedom, and in terms of the bureaucracy, and the normal organizational protocols, they could operate outside of that, in this mission. They were to deliver a jet plane, the first to come out of the United States, out of the Allies really, in 180 days or less. And…

Tyler Jacobson  16:37


Ben Hambelton  16:39

And so they ended up in operation in a building off the campus of Lockheed Martin, next to an old deserted brewery, and it stunk like heck. And it reminded them of a current comic strip at the time called Lil’ Abner, and Lil’ Abner characters operated a secret still. And among the secret ingredients were dead skunks. And they call their operation the SkunkWorks. And so the members of this Lockheed Martin team that were putting this together and they got the plane out in 143 days, I understand. That they prototyped and got this out in secret. A part of the organization but not part of the organization, you know, to be able to operate outside of the normal boundaries and protocols and bureaucracy of the organization. They called it SkunkWorks. And that name held for a long time. And the story of that after the war was the impetus for a lot of major corporations to create SkunkWork organizations to bring about innovations in their industries. I had never heard about it, but he told me the story. And he said, that’s what I want you and your organization to do, is to bring about innovation and teaching in our campus. And I will be there for you. You just tell me when this is a SkunkWorks project, and I’ll see what I can do to support you.

Tyler Jacobson  18:13

That’s a lot of power. So what did you do from there? Like, if you’re given, as you put it carte blanche, where do you start to prioritize what needs to happen? And how do you build your team? Because you’re probably going to need a very different skill set and a different mentality for that type of a team. Where did you start?

Ben Hambelton  18:35

Yeah, well, initially, we simply started with evolving the organization. It was originally a V supports us service out of the College of Education. So we moved to make it as a university wide organization, at first in the library, and then as a separate organization. The first area that we began to move into was telecommunications. We began looking at how we can use telecommunications technology in the late 70s, early 80s to deliver education to off-campus audiences. So we started with microwave. There was a program called ITFS. It’s a reserved frequency for short distance microwave, point to point communications. And you know, we had places at Hewlett Packard and Micron Technologies and and, you know, the air base and public libraries and in public schools where teachers could come right after school in their school setting and take classes from the university. So that was kind of where we started with the telecommunication we got to a cable channel and began offering classes into the home. We started using Idaho public television, their microwave connections to the three campuses, the major campuses, Idaho State and University of Idaho and Boise State to share classes back and forth. We began teaching…the whole thing we came to be known as Boise State’s Knowledge Network. And we experimented with radio. We also began teaching, the State Department of Education came to us and said, “We like what you’re doing. But there are some small rural schools in Idaho where the students are handicapped, because there’s not enough students to warrant the expense for advanced mathematics and foreign languages. And so getting into some of the top schools, they are really disadvantaged. What can you do to help us?” So we began teaching Spanish over public broadcasting, we began teaching Advanced Math over it using master teachers from the Boise district to teach to these smaller schools.

Tyler Jacobson  20:53

And you did that through…was that through the public television? 

Ben Hambelton  20:57

It is. It was through public television. 

Tyler Jacobson  20:59

I actually watched a few of those classes. And it was quite entertaining because it was in a presentable, relatable way. And it was interesting, because the presentation was good. And then when it came time for me to learn those in school, I was like, “I’ve already done that.” Because I grew up in a household where we only…public television was one of the staples, because it’s one of the three channels we had. And so by default, I got to watch some of those programs. So I find it fascinating that you were involved in that and to learn some of the behind the scenes of how math came to public television. So…yeah…fascinating.

Ben Hambelton  21:38

It worked really well. It was one-way video, two-way audio, with classrooms set up in these small schools. And they taught and they bussed in students from the Boise schools. And they taught a class in front of them. And we captured it on camera with multiple cameras and the microphones. And it was kind of state of the art at the time, in terms of video capture and delivery. And our instructors became celebrities. They got stopped in the grocery store. It was fun. So that’s where we started. 

Tyler Jacobson  22:14


Ben Hambelton  22:15

But one of the things that we found with all of that telecommunication applications, is it didn’t make a lot of difference on campus in changing the culture. We had individual innovative, early adopter faculty involved in these things, and not a lot of things of their own initiative. But in the parlance of today’s social media, they were not influencers. The mainstream faculty didn’t identify with them. “That’s not me. I’m not doing that. I’m not going in front of a camera and, and teaching that way.” And so we began thinking, “Okay, yeah, we’re doing a lot of good things. We’re building a lot of bridges, but we’re not changing the practice for the majority of the classrooms and our campus.” Fortunately, all of that began to coalesce about the time digital technology started coming along. And I became acquainted with Dr. Rogers theory of the diffusion of innovation. And, and in his theory, he postulated and then prove through research that I think still says is to this day is solid, that innovation diffuses through an audience over time, as various groups adopt it, and there are early adopters and middle adopters, and late adopters, and laggards. And, each of those groups have different characteristics. And different things appeal to them, and their adoption is dependent on different factors. And so you need to know who your target market is and what their characteristics are. And you need to get strategies aimed at those. And you need the right kind of, he called it “necessary and sufficient conditions”. What kind of environment are they operating in? What are the necessary and sufficient conditions to make them want to do this? And third, what kind of reward recognition and community can you build? And he suggested you really had to have a critical mass of people adopting before it really diffuses [and] takes off, [and] gains momentum. So we had to figure out how we are going to get to that critical mass of people willing to adopt what are the sufficient necessary conditions and who exactly is our audience and what are their characteristics. And we really began seriously thinking about those things and trying to put them together. And it became very clear very quickly that I certainly didn’t have a staff with sufficient number of skills and experiences to do that by ourselves. And so one of the first things we did was propose a grant to the State Department of Education, uh, to the State Board of Education. That was our institutions’ boss, I had been collaborating and sharing thoughts and ideas with my colleagues at the University of Idaho and at Idaho State. And one of the big things that the board was concerned about at those days is that these institutions seem to always be competing, never collaborating, right? And, so he said, “Well, here’s a way we could collaborate on bringing about the training materials needed to train faculty to use these technologies,  and to embed in the instructional design things that we need.”

So we talked about the fact that there was a real chasm between the early adopters and the middle and late adopters, in terms of adoption of innovation. And so we came up with a “bridging the chasm” grant proposal that would fund us to go out and gather the best thinking, the best training materials then available from institutions all over, including our own people, and put together these training materials for our faculty. And then as we thought about it, we said, “You know, really, why are they going to do that to us?” These media and academic technology specialists. So we went to my vice president, and I said, “I got a SkunkWorks project for you.” I told him about it. And he said, “Oh, perfect. That’s exactly what we need. They need to hear us, the vice presidents and the presidents wanting to collaborate. They’ll give us the money.” And, so they propose the grant, to bridge the chasm, by having these training materials and stuff developed for all three institutions. And I’m quite honestly, I was terribly proud of the end result of that. It was fabulous. But even more important was the strategic importance of what took place there. I’d like to say, we thought this out, but we didn’t (laughs). It was purely practical, you know, who’s gonna get the money? The VPS are gonna get the money, not us. Once they got the money, and this was this collaborative, multi-institutional project, by golly, it needed to succeed, right? We need