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November 4, 2002

Tech Watch

By John Fritz, Director of New Media Learning and Development

To help get ready for PeopleSoft training this winter, the Office of Information Technology recently conducted "desk interviews" with 15 UMBC staff whose duties include payroll preparation for their department. We wanted to understand how they do their jobs now and how they learn new technology. We also administered a "self assessment" to all 90 payroll preparers -- results and the 15 interview transcripts are available on the Delta Project's Blackboard "community" site. What we found surprised us and changed our assumptions about technology training at UMBC generally.

*First, a lot of people are already using technology in very creative ways.

*Second, many people rely on each other for informal support.

*Third, workshops can be a catalyst for developing self-support strategies.

This last point surprised us because so many people said they missed having formal, scheduled workshops. In the past, OIT found that workshop attendance was inconsistent, so we tended to move toward developing more convenient, online solutions (see below). But based on the Delta interviews and survey results, we decided to give workshops another shot and get the word out early and often. We also tried to focus on giving people a solid conceptual overview of a technical topic that could enhance individual support.

Starting in September, OIT re-instituted mini workshops for faculty and staff on such topics as Windows 2000, Corporate Time Calendar, Blackboard and MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Through October, 113 people attended, and many future workshops have filled up completely. This week, we are also announcing the Winter (January) training schedule and are currently working on the Spring semester schedule. For more information and to register online, see

While we're pleased with the demand, we also realize there are limits to a steady supply of face-to-face workshops. We may just be tapping temporary pent up demand we created by suspending workshops. But like a lot of colleges and universities, there likely aren't enough trainers or IT support staff -- something the annual Campus Computing Project has shown for years. Also, our workshop times may not be convenient or users may not realize they need to know more until they're under the gun. When you're in a hurry to create an Excel pivot table, the last thing you want to do is make an appointment-or find out a workshop covered it last month. But how do you also help nearly 12,000 students, many of whom may be completing technology-based assignments UMBC's Assured Access to Computing Initiative was designed to support?

As much as we may want them, face-to-face workshops or one-on-one consulting just don't scale well as a training solution for so many users. To help, OIT has also been trying to develop "just-in-time" online solutions that people can use when it's convenient for them. Peppered throughout the OIT Web site, online video-based materials like the FinWeb tutorials or recently added UMBC Blackboard video helpsheets can help users feel like they're in a workshop demo or tutorial.

Online videos do require that the user have high bandwidth or streaming media plug-ins like Quicktime or Real Player, but we decided to rely on the campus' robust network, assuming most people would need help when they're doing their jobs. Online videos also require more time and technical expertise to develop on OIT's part, which is why we've tended to focus them on UMBC-specific computing topics that aren't commercially available anywhere else. The only problem with online training is that using the Web itself has limitations. While you can rewind these tutorials, you can't really ask a follow up question for clarification.

To try to incorporate the richness of human interaction with the reach of online solutions, OIT is currently exploring how to deliver blended or hybrid training environments. Blended environments use technology to supplement face-to-face learning, whereas hybrid models generally replace some of the face-to-face meetings altogether. Faculty and students have been using blended or hybrid learning environments in academic classes for years. The University of Wisconsin's Hybrid Center is a good example, while the University of Colorado, Boulder has an interesting blended training approach.

It's still a work in progress, but many OIT workshops now have corresponding Blackboard community sites that include all workshop handouts, a pre- and post-workshop technology "self-assessment," and a discussion board where users can share tips with each other. To see OIT's training workshop Blackboard sites, just login to Blackboard and search for OIT Training: in the Organizations tab.

Ultimately, we hope these discussion boards or related e-mail listserves can supplement or mirror the informal support networks that exist on campus already. We also hope students can take advantage of this kind of online technology training that OIT currently doesn't have the staff to provide in a face-to-face setting. If you have questions or suggestions about OIT's training topics or delivery methods, please send e-mail to

Posted by dwinds1 at November 4, 2002 12:00 AM