SmartSite, students and the wireless campus--more from Siegel's interview

Pete Siegel, the new vice provost of Information and Educational Technology and chief information officer for UC Davis, sat down for an hour-long interview shortly after he started his new job in August. The main interview appears in the autumn 2006 IT Times. In this online-only adjunct he talks about blogs, offers advice to faculty reluctant to use SmartSite, discusses his priorities for wireless coverage on campus, and reports what he learned during his first talks with people on campus.

Why he blogs--and doesn't use a university program to do it

How do you decide what to write about in your blog (

One thing that motivates me is people I interact with, at a conference or the office. Or people who read the blog say, "Hey, here's something you ought to be writing about."

And there are sometimes issues I'm worrying about or mulling over, and one way to get my thinking clear is to get it out into the blog. You're getting the information organized, without it being an official, formal document. The goal is to be thoughtful, not formal.

And get the ideas out on the Internet, and start getting feedback from people.

When you were at Illinois, you didn't host your blog on the Illinois servers. Do you host it off-site to give it a little more detachment from the official function of your job?

It helped make the point that it was separate from the official function, but that wasn't the goal. My initial goal was to play around with the technologies out there, like our faculty and students are. I tried a variety of blog tools. They all work differently.

Partly I was trying to get a sense of what's different when you're working with a public domain or free tool, compared to how it would work on campus. Campuses support these tools much more effectively. You just can't have the kind of loss of service that one has to deal with in this environment.

On the other hand, there are so many really cool, innovative things out there, the campuses can't agilely respond to all of them.

By the time blogs fully commoditize, where everyone knows exactly what they need to look like, what all the features are, then maybe blogs won't be popular anymore. The Web was the wild west for a while. There were so many different choices, the standards weren't really there, and it was somewhat complicated for people who wanted to do sophisticated things. Now there's a whole set of toolkits out there that make life a lot easier for people. Blogs are in that transition.

Someone explained to me at one point, when I said, "Gee, should we do an assessment, and then choose a small number of blogs to support"--this was at a national meeting--and he said, "Oh, you IT people are all the same, what you want to do is control it. We want there to be 50 or 100 different tools out there, and we want them all to be different, so that the faculty really have innovation to work with."

I appreciate his point of view, but there are issues like privacy, FERPA regulations (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) and other things where, especially where you've got students using these things, you want to make sure faculty understands the issues.

So, that was part of my learning experience. It was really worthwhile. It gave me some appreciation for that innovation vs. reliability balance that's important to our community.

Advice to faculty who'd just as soon skip SmartSite

What's your advice to a Davis faculty member who's reluctant to use an online course management system like SmartSite?

First, I'd say they're in the driver's seat. They're the experts on teaching. But they also know that students learn with different styles. And this technology may help some students learn most effectively.

I'm a reader type. But many students learn more effectively using different types of media, technology or access. So there is some benefit to providing different types of access.

Also, if you look at the SmartSite strategy and the whole open-source software world, maybe it's all right for some faculty not to use it, but they could also say, "Here's what I need"--to tell both IET and the community at large, "Can you develop the kinds of things that will make this an effective and comfortable set of tools for me to use?"

This type of technology is not one size fits all. But because it's a framework for adding tools contributed by people around the world, it's going to be effective. Just as the library is effective not because it has one particular book, but because it provides a mechanism for bringing in a rich range of resources over a long time.

A wireless strategy for the campus

Would you eventually like to see the whole campus covered with wireless access?

The significant collaboration spaces on campus need to be covered well. I would probably rather see those areas rock solid with the highest performance that fits the campus need, in terms of multimedia and other things, than to have every office, which also has a wire jack, get covered with wireless technology.

I would look for those natural collaboration sites, making sure those have exemplary capabilities, and then it's really a dialogue with the campus on the investment for the rest of the spaces.

To have facilities with moderate speeds, where you can't see a high-resolution movie on your computer because the network's too slow, won't make people feel better. What will make them feel better is them saying, "OK, I understand these collaboration sites. If I'm in one, I'm going to have outstanding service."

That brings me to another general point. Not everything needs to be t he highest cost service. But for everything we do, we need to establish a sense of excellence, and make sure we're doing that.

What does it mean to have chief information officer as part of your title?

The notion is to keep both the advice and the focus for collaboration on information, not just on technology. So, while information technology and educational technology are the core, we are going to create a set of collaborations that ensure that we are getting the right information. And make sure that we deliver to the right people.

'Students tell you what they really do'

We're doing this interview in late August, and you've officially been on the job less than a week. Have you had a chance to talk to people around campus? What are they telling you about technology on campus, and have you heard anything that surprises you?

I've just got started having the conversations. I'm really eager to have more of an opportunity to talk with the students. They provide information very efficiently, they tell you what they really do, what they really depend on.

There's nothing yet that surprises me. People seem quite pleased with the technology they have, but they want more. So it clearly identifies a challenge, which is identifying which aspects of the "more"--the investment--are going to provide the greatest value.

There is a strong sense of collegiality, that there isn't enough money for us all to wander off in different directions. So there's a pent-up demand from the community to sit together with a variety of individuals. I think I can play a role as an honest, neutral broker in making sure that people sit together and come up with a set of priorities and help move the investments forward.

In terms of learning, research and collaboration, there is a strong sense that people want ubiquitous access to all of their services wherever they go.

And there 's a very strong awareness that issues like security are really everybody's job. I don't want to be known as the security CIO, but if everybody's on board, if they know it's important, it means it doesn't just become my job, or the job of the great security team here, but it becomes something that's just part of what we do. So that we can talk about the cool uses of technology that assume things like security are well handled.

The campus is pursuing a deal to provide security software free to any campus user. And then there's the PowerGrep software, which is good for searching for things like Social Security numbers and bank account numbers, and make sure they're off the computer. Why fund that centrally, as opposed to saying, "OK, everyone go get this"?

These tools are so critical for all users to have, not only for their own safety and privacy, but to protect their colleagues. This kind of central approach lowers the barrier to the use of the tools and shows that the campus feels they are an essential public good.

We should be careful not to set policy willy-nilly through software. But in this case, we are indeed responding to state law and to a growing expectation of effective and safe practices among our leaders, funding agencies, and the public we serve.