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Good Morning, All,

    The article below was from this week's eChronicle, and I thought it 
might be of interest to others on this list following the discussion 
here a couple of weeks ago that Bryan Fleming raised on 10/15.  Bryan's 
question was whether we have a "primer of technical resources available 
on campus", specifically for IT support staff.  We in ETS have been 
looking at ways to do that, especially now that we have redirected some 
effort to the ETS web page (thanks, Jonathan!).  But Nick's point on 
10/16 was that we have a wealth of information on IT-Discuss but no easy 
way to access it.

    As this article points out, other schools are wrestling with this 
issue. 

    So, would mining IT-Discuss archives to seed a Wiki be a feasible 
way to start something like this for UVM? 





*Colleges Try 'Crowdsourcing' Help Desks to Save Money*
The tech expert at the other end of the line could be you
Colleges to Try 'Crowdsourcing' Their IT Help Desks 1

Ben Weller for The Chronicle
By Jeffrey R. Young

At Indiana University at Bloomington, good help is not hard to find, but 
it's pricey. Questions to the 24-hour tech-support help desk cost the 
institution about $11.41 per phone call and $9.39 per e-mail 
message---and last year the help desk handled more than 150,000 inquiries.

All that advice adds up, and at peak times some in need of it are left 
waiting. So, in a few weeks, the university will try something 
different: letting computer users answer one another's questions.

Information-technology people call this "crowdsourcing," a buzzword that 
puts a positive spin on leaving the job of writing and editing to 
volunteers rather than hired experts. The idea is to open a Web site 
where students and professors can post their IT woes and share their 
solutions. College officials tell me they hope it will grow into a 
self-service support center for colleges nationwide---a kind of 
Wikipedia for campus computer problems.

After all, professors and students everywhere suffer from the same 
digital headaches: glitches in Blackboard's online grade book, corrupted 
Microsoft Word files on the day a term paper is due, problems checking 
college e-mail messages on their iPhones, and the like.

The new database---being discussed by leaders at a handful of 
universities---will let users rate the quality of answers and highlight 
which contributors are the most reliable. Anybody, not just Al the IT 
Guy, can play the part of techno-wizard.

Even talking about such a change represents a cultural shift for many IT 
departments, which were once the unchallenged technical experts on 
campuses. These days many more professors and students are savvy enough 
to work their way through problems on their own, and even to offer 
solutions the sanctioned experts haven't thought of.

In some ways campus tech-support leaders themselves are crying "uncle" 
as the variety of gadgets and software packages that students and 
professors bring to the campus grows beyond what any college can 
support. When I asked Sue Workman, associate vice president for 
information technology at Indiana, one thing that students might 
contribute to the new Web site, one of the first things she mentioned 
was a video-game console. "A student might say, 'My Xbox gave me this 
error; what can I do?' Or, 'My Xbox quit working; anybody know where I 
can take it to get it fixed?' It might not be highly technical, but just 
something that we probably wouldn't spend money on maintaining."

But can the it-takes-a-village approach that built Wikipedia work for 
the narrower world of technical documentation? Will busy professors and 
students bother to contribute? If they do, will their answers be accurate?

And even if such a system is workable and promises cost savings in the 
long run, who will pay for the initial development?

I'll put those questions in the queue for now, with the promise to get 
back to them in the order they were received. First, a few caveats:

No one is talking about hanging up on old-fashioned telephone support. 
Because technology has become so crucial to teaching, research, and 
managing colleges, an IT-support hot line is bound to remain as long as 
there are phones on campuses. The new system would supplement, rather 
than replace, the existing model.

And many colleges already have well-stocked databases of 
technical-support documentation online. Indiana has something called the 
Knowledge Base, with more than 15,000 articles on just about any 
technology installed on the campus (even one on connecting an Xbox to 
the campus network). Until now, though, only help-desk employees could 
add or revise articles, which means the resource is expensive to 
maintain and not always up-to-the-minute.

Though anyone can search the Knowledge Base (it gets about 18 million 
hits a year), the primary audience is help-desk staff members, who use 
it as a reference library when they answer calls. The new idea is that 
the expert at the other end of the line---or Web site---could be you.

*A Crusader for Crowds*

Dewitt A. Latimer is among the most vocal proponents of the crowdsourced 
model of college technical support. He's chief technology officer at the 
University of Notre Dame, where the help desk is open only from 8 a.m. 
to 5 p.m. "But our students don't stop learning at 5 o'clock, and the 
faculty don't stop teaching at 5 o'clock," he told me recently. And, 
unlike Indiana, Notre Dame does not have an online database of advice, 
even for internal use.

A couple of years ago Mr. Latimer attended a college-technology 
conference and had one of those aha! moments. The keynote speaker was 
Barry Libert, a co-author of We Are Smarter Than Me: How to Unleash the 
Power of Crowds in Your Business, who talked about how companies like 
Amazon.com were tapping into user recommendations to increase sales. "I 
was sitting there in the audience," Mr. Latimer said, "and I thought, 
This concept was very applicable to the higher-education space---it just 
needed somebody to recognize it and run with it."

Since then he's been running with it. He helped organize a session that 
drew a standing-room-only crowd at last year's national conference of 
Educause, the education-technology group, and began talk of forming a 
consortium to build a national IT-support database. That conversation 
will continue at a discussion session scheduled for this week at an 
Educause meeting in Denver.

Mr. Latimer also made the case, along with three other colleagues, in a 
bulletin published in April by the Educause Center for Applied Research. 
"While the private sector has quickly caught on to the power of 
crowdsourcing, higher education has not yet recognized those benefits as 
fully," they wrote.

The key to making the database work, he argues, is getting a big enough 
audience by attracting a large number of college partners. To nudge 
students and professors into action, he proposes that each participating 
college hold monthly contests in which the most-frequent contributors 
win a free iPod or some other geeky goodie.

As for accuracy, Mr. Latimer argues that Wikipedia has proved remarkably 
reliable for most types of articles, and that its contributors quickly 
weed out most faulty information.

That's an area that still concerns Ms. Workman, though. "My motto is, 
Bad information is worse than no information," she told me. She said 
that when possible, published items in Indiana's new open database will 
be reviewed by staff members. Contributions that check out will be given 
a seal of approval. Other entries will be 'Use at your own risk.'

What does the help desk think of the new service? "It's a love-hate 
thing," said Al Joco, a user-support specialist at Indiana, who said he 
has seen plenty of errors on Wikipedia and doesn't want technical 
answers from "some random yahoo." The expert-approved Knowledge Base 
should remain separate from the crowdsourced one, he recommended.

He perked up when I told him that several college-support staffs might 
contribute to a shared database, though. "The more people that 
contribute to a knowledge base," he said, "the better."

*
Who Pays?*

Early this year, the talks that started at Educause nearly led to the 
creation of a consortium to make a national help desk a reality. 
Negotiators even had a name for the project: "Hosted Integrated 
Knowledge Environment Project," or Hike. But the economy was in the tank.

Now nothing is certain. Notre Dame and some of the other universities 
participating in the talks said they could no longer afford the 
membership fees needed to run the consortium, or the staff time to 
develop the software to make the database work. Even the name has been 
scrapped, in hopes of finding something catchier.

Mr. Latimer still believes that a help desk that involves users is the 
only way colleges can hope to keep up with demand for support as budgets 
shrink.

Lately he's tried to reach officials of Yahoo, which offers a popular 
service called Yahoo Answers, with the same tools to manage 
user-generated questions and answers that the colleges were thinking of 
building themselves. It would be a "win win" situation, he says, if 
Yahoo would let colleges set up sections of that service, on which the 
company could sell advertisements.

So far, no answer from Yahoo.