S1:E28 Ben Hambelton – Skunkworks Part 2

August 16, 2021 |  Data, News
31 min

We finish the conversation with Ben Hambelton sharing his experiences around working outside of normal channels to drive the progress of IT resources on campus.


We finish the conversation with Ben Hambelton sharing his experiences around working outside of normal channels to drive the progress of IT resources on campus.

Tyler Jacobson  0:00

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.

Today, we’re bringing you part two of our conversation with Ben Hambelton, where we are discussing their SkunkWorks projects. And today, we’re going to begin digging a little more in depth about how to bring individual department leaders on board when a new IT initiative is implemented. So hopefully, if you’ve heard the first part of the conversation, this is going to pick up right where we left off. And we thank Ben again for joining us.

Ben Hambelton  0:49

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, these new technologies, and to embed in the instructional design things 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 from 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 President’s wanting to collaborate, they’ll give us the money.” And, and so they did, they proposed the grant, to bridge the chasm, by having these training materials and stuff developed for all three institutions. And quite honestly, I was terribly proud of that. 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 needed to train faculty. We needed people to use these training materials. And they needed to publicize this collaborative effort that they were doing, to politically gain, you know, credence with the board and with their constituencies. So right away, we had this buy-in from top management, if you will, from top leadership of the institution, on developing training materials aimed at helping faculty understand and learn how and when to use the digital technologies that were coming.

And so then we were posed with the problem of: “How do we get somebody to volunteer for this stuff?” Training, right? We’re gonna get some people that simply because the academic VP is pushing it, and the deans are pushing it…that’s going to be helpful. But we need this kind of critical mass. How do we do that?

So we spend some time talking with deans and department heads about: “What is the curriculum area that needs most attention? What’s a ‘high need’ kind of area?” And what we came up with is the general education core. The core curriculum, as it was referred to in those days, was problematic. It was problematic in this way. A lot of the faculty didn’t want to teach that introductory class to their discipline. They were interested in the advanced classes, they were interested in the graduate courses and the upper division courses. And so adjunct faculty would often be called upon to teach the introductory courses and sometimes they didn’t do it in ways that the Dean’s appreciated. Particularly because these core classes were also feeders for new majors. If an introductory class sparked an interest in a student, they might major in the class. And the more majors you got, the more money you got, the more faculty you got. I mean, it was an important feeder element. But yet the faculty were not terribly interested in teaching it. And so there was a bottleneck, they didn’t have enough sections. Some departments didn’t even have a core class for these general education requirements. So they said, that’s our biggest issue. And so we ended up with a program called “Core Online” at Boise State. And the idea was to take a group of faculty, a cohort of faculty, so they would work together. In fact, what we asked for is in each department that wanted to do this, and we got them to apply to do this, this is amazing. We got them to apply, to have a team of maybe an adjunct faculty and a couple of senior faculty come together to design a course, for a new course, to be their general education course, that would incorporate online components, and that they would learn how to use those technologies, and make a much more effective course, and they could teach more students. And it would be in the image that the department wanted to present to students for this class. It was genius.

We had this, these groups of faculty, and we had, you know, maybe, maybe 5, 6, 7 different teams going at the same time. They would learn how to examine their course, they would learn about technology and how at that time it was useful, what kinds of things they could do with it, and where that might work out. And that they would then together, come up with learning experiences, and assignments, and so forth, and then share it with the larger group, and they get ideas from each other. And the other thing that happened is they began developing ownership in this. They came into it as “Yeah, we’re going to be consultants. We’re going to design this class, and somebody else is going to teach it.” And we also did kind of a graduated model, the first step was to create a web presence for their class. The next step was to add some interactive components, a discussion board, a messaging, component kind of thing. And then we just kind of continued to move it more towards core online. And these faculty members came and said, “You know, this is…we don’t know if we’re doing this, right. And if we’re doing it good or not, we need to teach a section of this and compare the outcomes to the non-online sections. And of course, they weren’t fully online, it needs time. We went through this iteration. And it was beautiful. I mean, it was exactly what we needed. And they would prove the outcomes, or go back to the drawing board, rework it a little bit, and then the next semester, teach it again, and administer the same tests to their face to face versus their hybrid, moving towards full online kind, of course.

It was very visible, there were a lot of people involved in it. Other departments began applying to do the same thing. And we had the building of a core of faculty that were prepared to make use of the technology and begin to change that culture. 

Tyler Jacobson  8:50

Well, and you established a vision. And like you said, it’s almost like the old bait and switch where you’re like, “Oh, we just want you to consult and we just want you to help build it. And then once they get invested enough, they become an advocate of it, and they want to stay involved, which means that “Who’s going to teach this project that I’ve designed better than me?” And so suddenly, you have the people that initially refused to teach the class now demanding that no one else do so. I think that is a very exciting result. 

Ben Hambelton  9:24

Yeah. And not only that happened, but people that were skeptical of how the technology was going to be in any way beneficial and were not willing to take the risk of doing it in their own class. But I’m designing this class somebody else is going to teach, right? I’ve reduced the risk, the personal risk kind of thing. And as they went through the training, they began to see no, gosh, these are tools that are actually valuable.

Tyler Jacobson  9:56

So that base set of people, was that something where your vice president said, “Hey, there’s a project I need you to do?”, or did you just go out and find the people that were already semi-passionate, semi-interested? Like, was it an assignment? Or was it a volunteer scenario?

Ben Hambelton  10:13

The way it operated, once we came up with the idea of this core online that this is a curriculum, we had a lot of Deans, and a lot of department heads really behind it, because they were anxious to fix the problem with the core curriculum, and make a better theater course for their for their discipline. And, so they were excited about it. And they went to their faculty and said, “I need some people who are willing to do this, They’ll give you the training, they’ll give you the support, you’ll come together, you’ll design this class, we’ll have it in the books, somebody can teach it after you’ve got it designed,” and so forth. And many of the mainstream faculty, some of them are junior faculty, they’re looking for tenure. Gosh, the Vice President got money for this. The dean’s all excited about it. This is going to benefit my career. I’m in, count me in. Yeah.

Tyler Jacobson  11:09

Well, sorry to cut you off there. But that seems like a fascinating like…using the SkunkWorks analogy: they needed a plane, nobody was going to question. The end result. However, it sounded like you had people that were not interested in advancing the technology in these ways until you were able to present it in a way that was solving their key problems. So identifying their key problem first, was critical, because then people were invested. And when they got the end product, they were not only invested, but they were personally invested. And it’s just a recipe for absolute success. 

Ben Hambelton  11:50

Right on. That’s it exactly. And in that process, another key component that Rogers talked about that we encountered than anticipated to some degree, but we encountered was this enabling environment, if you will, this, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions? Well, classroom technology needed to be different from the standard classroom, right? There really needed to be an installed computer, there needed to be a projector, there needed to be internet connection, there needed to be an infrastructure that was reliable. These were people that were still not technology…what…hungry kinds of folks, they needed to know what’s going to be reliable, that’s going to be there, it’s going to work for them. We also had a limited capacity to roll that out. This is where deans again stepped in and offered some money to do this, so that there were classes there. The algorithm, if you will, the protocols for scheduling those rooms had to change. So it gave priority to the teams that were going to use the technology rather than just occupy the room. And so, again, the SkunkWorks were operating outside of the normal bureaucracy, if you will, of how things would have normally been done. And the other thing that they worried a great deal about and kept saying, “Well, I don’t think we ought to add this to the class, because if it doesn’t work in front of my students, I’m a jerk, I don’t want to look that way.” You know. And so harkening back to our audio-visual days where we had student AV projectionists, this would come in and operate the projectors for the faculty that were using 16 millimeter films…see how far back I go?

We trained a bunch of students to be “student technology assistants”. STAs. And we told [them] every time you teach this class, you’ll be assigned an STA who will be there through the entire class with you, and help with any technology that’s there. Because we knew that our text couldn’t be in all those places at once. Right? 

Tyler Jacobson  14:10

Well, even though you’ve been out of it for a while, that program still exists, because that’s actually something one of my cousin’s does, as his job is, he’s on the Idaho Falls campus. And he is the student representative that is there to make sure that all of the digital equipment is set up for the transmitted classes. So that’s still something that’s in effect. 

Ben Hambelton  14:40

Yeah. And, and of course, after we got the initial grant to develop the training materials, which was part of that necessary conditions, that enabling environment, in other words, you’ve….you got to feel confident, [that] you know how to do this stuff. Then every institution went its own way, but we shared back and forth of what we were doing. I don’t, I don’t know about the other campuses, I don’t even remember whether they also tackle the core curriculum or not. But that’s what we did at Boise State. But STA is…yeah, that was a pretty familiar kind of thing that happened. The other interesting thing, Tyler, is that once we started doing that, the STAs would come back and complain that they didn’t have anything to do. And they were tired of sitting through these classes for which they weren’t getting any credit (laughs), although they were getting paid.

A lot of the faculty develop the competencies to do it without the STAs. And we would approach them and say, we’ve got several classes that need an STAs. We don’t quite have enough, are you comfortable? “Yes, we are comfortable.” And, so the amount of STAs that we needed to deploy reduced, but there was a perceived barrier: “I’m not even going to try this without somebody there to help me.” 

Tyler Jacobson  16:00

They wanted a safety net. 

Ben Hambelton  16:02

Yep. Exactly. And, and so that was part of it. I think the other thing that was a part of it, that helped continue the momentum, the critical mass of adoption among mainstream faculty, was the recognition that this brought. The faculty that were in this were recognized, they were rewarded. They got an extra stipend for the extra work in collaborating and designing these classes. They got a personal computer, so they could work offline with it. And we had several follow-on projects that can kind of continue that pace. But it really did begin to change the actual culture of the institution. We began to see academic leaders, but faculty as well coming in and saying, “Hey, we need this.”, in the way of the technology. Now part of that was because of things we did to foster that on campus. Part of it was the greater culture they were in was now being infused with the technology and people were more comfortable with it. And more willing to see it as a positive thing. But we had faculty come to us and say, “I want to give team projects where they’re going to produce a media. A video or a multimedia presentation, but they don’t have the technology and the knowledge how to do that, what can you do?” So we created studio D, not studio C…

Tyler Jacobson  17:47  

It’s a very, very different thing…(laughs).

Ben Hambelton  17:51

It was “Studio Digital”. That’s where students could come use computers with help to create these digital multimedia assignments that the faculty were giving them. And that spread. We had a couple of those on campuses. Another thing that their course designs called for was this collaborative work on even papers or presentations. And so we had a project called “Team Spot”, where we took…we had in four years most of the instructional buildings, tables and chairs where kids could wait for their next class. And while we would run internet, and power, and computer connectors and a monitor to a few of those tables, and so they could connect their computers, they could have a big screen, and they can collaborate there and foyers and the Student Union [building]. We had a bunch of these in the library, which were previously study rooms, they were now team spots, with technology-enabled collaborative tools. Just a number of these kinds of things emerged not by our vision, but by the course design requirements, when they began to see that these tools were really useful. And to me, that was the power of it. And I think there’s some lessons even for today. I’ve been out of the workplace for a while. So it may not be relevant, but it just seems to me that this notion of understanding: “What [is] the likelihood of adoption of a new innovation, a new idea, a new way of doing things, a new behavior? What does my population look like? What are their characteristics? How do I need to address them? And what are the necessary and sufficient conditions? What are the barriers I need to remove? What are the resources I need to put into place to make it easy for them and reassuring for them to adopt it? And what kind of recognition, reward, and benefit?”

Rogers talked about the decision to adopt is affected by a number of factors, things like: assurance that this is going to work, and it̵