VCU: The Long Goodbye (part one)
I’ll be leaving VCU and starting a new job at Middlebury College as of February 15.1
Turns out I’ve been working at VCU since November of 2013.2 That’s a long time for me. I tend to move around a lot more frequently or at least change jobs within the institution. I’ve been working with Matt and Jeff to make sure we’ve got things under control for my departure and it’s been bitter sweet. There is a lot of work out there. It represents a lot of effort with a lot of people. Given my memory gets filled up with other things, I thought I’d take this opportunity to document some things about my time at VCU.
This is going to be fairly long and rambling.3 Despite the length, I’m still going to omit huge portions and only tell things from my perspective. I’m also going to focus on the happy stuff. All stories have sad parts but rehashing them here won’t solve any of the issues or make anyone happier. So consider this the Disney version.
I came to VCU to work with Jon Becker and Gardner Campbell. I had been the Director for Instructional Technology at Henrico County Public Schools. My supervisor4 there had suddenly died and I watched most of what we’d worked so hard to do disappear with a speed that was hard to imagine. I was pretty depressed and wanted to move on to something different.
I can’t recall how I saw the position. I knew Jon and Gardner through the Internet and a few conferences. Likely one of them may have posted it or informed me somehow. But I saw the job and applied.
At that time I came in under the title of Associate Director/Online Learning Innovation Specialist. That’s pretty vague but I was reporting to Jon. My cover letter when I applied for this job shows some of my hopes and it is pretty over the top. My motto with cover letters is that I want to let them know what they’re getting.
“The Associate Director/Online Learning Innovation Specialist is primarily an architect who works collaboratively to design and build effective, innovative online learning environments.”
I’ve thought about this phrase from the job description quite a bit. An architect must look at the big picture without losing sight of the details. An architect must consider energy efficiency while building a work of art, design for the future while respecting the past, and understand the interwoven elements of people, material, and use that define a structure.
An architect is both an artist and a scientist. This blending of art and science, of community and academia, of technology and humanity is a key element in VCU’s Quest for Distinction and it must be the focus of the Associate Director of Online Learning Innovation.
The Old English word for architect is heahcræftiga — “high-crafter.” A high-crafter of online spaces is practicing his or her art in Gibson’s “consensual hallucination” of “unthinkable complexity” in a time of significant flux in both technology and educational paradigms.
But, really. How awesome is that?
The potential to change lives, to change education, to achieve truly wondrous things is at our fingertips. It is what I intend to do.
I am determined to change the way the world sees education but that isn’t something one does alone. There are paths to find and paths to make. I want to work with people who are as passionate as I am about creating this change — people who want to create “transcendent moments of awe” and hold them up as beacons to guide others.
It is fairly easy to write these things; it is another thing to do them. When you look at my work (http://tomwoodward.us), you will see the effort and energy I have put into changing how people understand education. You will see this is far more than a job for me. I continue to focus my energy on changing what people think is possible, what they define as good, and how we fully leverage the power and potential that new technologies make available.
It was an exciting time to be joining the group. VCU had recently hired Gardner Campbell and made him some flavor of Senior Vice Provost in charge of many things.5 I’d really liked a number of things I’d seen from Gardner online and had even remixed one of his talks as part of a DS106 assignment a few years earlier.6 Our group was working on the fourth floor of a new building at 1000 Floyd Ave. right across from the library.
The ALT Lab
Early on Gardner combined the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence with Online to create the Academic Learning Transformation (ALT) Lab. My position changed to Associate Director for Learning Innovation about that time. Molly Ransone was hired to do the video work. David Croteau and Lisa Phipps were the faculty liaisons for the online group.7
At the start, Gardner was the Dean of University College. That group contains VCU’s first year writing courses and they were focusing on multimodal composition and student portfolios. That got us started with our WordPress multisite installation around June of 2014. We started off running the site on WPEngine but started getting performance issues when we hit around 5,000 or so sites.8 That was a stressful time. We couldn’t shard9 the database or WPEngine would stop supporting us but things were frequently slowing to a crawl and too frequently crashing the server completely.
At one point, I got really frustrated because someone on the WPEngine side kept responding to Twitter messages to them with “blah blah blah -EZ!” or something like that. At the time I could not figure out why they would say something was easy/EZ when they were repeatedly failing to do it. You, dear reader, see that this is a person’s initials and is one of those things people do when they share an account. I did not. I’ll blame it on emotion. I took each problem fairly personally and there was no down time. I lived and breathed this site for a number of years.
Around December of 2015 we put out a call for proposals and moved the site to Reclaim Hosting. The database was broken into 256 sub-databases and life has been good ever since. It always helps to work with people who have done this kind of thing before. Turns out that tons of authors writing is a very different beast than tons of people reading.
RamPages has continued to grow but not at the initial rates. We lost a lot of momentum as a couple of leadership changes went into play. People weren’t sure that RamPages would continue to exist and at the same time VCU’s central IT was shutting down their WordPress installation. Many people didn’t know the difference and we were constantly battling confusion on that end. I’ve fought these rumors for the last 6 years or so. It was fitting that one of the first messages Jeff got as he took over my position was “I heard a rumor that rampages is going away . . . ”
It’s crazy to see just how big and complex RamPages is regardless of growth rate. RamPages has 384 plugins and 196 themes. The majority of our 136 github repositories are custom plugins and themes for RamPages. There are 36,341 blogs & 34,140 users as of Feb. 1st. It’s more complex than it should be but I think it’s well worth considering that with the desire you can handle quite a bit of complexity. It shouldn’t be an excuse. Our goal was always to make it possible for people to do what they want and need. I think we’ve done that. We didn’t install every plugin or theme anyone wanted but we’ve always met people’s needs. I felt that if we didn’t offer more choices and more possibilities than wordpress.com or squarespace then what was the point? We’ve managed this complexity for enough years with enough people for me to say it can work.
For many years I was the sole support for the service at VCU and it was not the entirety of my job. I did everything from faculty and student support, to custom themes/plugins, to faculty consultations on how to use it in teaching. It was crazy at times but I enjoyed it. I say that not entirely to brag but to point out that these things are quite possible without huge investments in personnel. Looking at my email support log, I’ve got over 7,000 emails. The fact that I didn’t start logging them until 2016 and my reliability on remembering to categorize them is fairly poor means the actual number is far higher. I can say our response time for support requests averaged under two hours and that’s with weekends included.
Rampages remains a major portfolio component for multiple departments. 7 or so groups use it that way now that I’m aware of. And that is one of the difficult things with something this large and self-service. You don’t know all the pieces or what all the people are doing. I keep pretty on top of it but I’m always finding new things or forgetting something I was involved with because so many new things have happened since then. I tried to remember to tag things in pinboard when I’d help with them or come across something new and interesting. Here’s an incomplete list of just the lab sites on RamPages. There are 37 in there and I’m confident we could easily double that if I looked harder. I also just tried to tag things that used RamPages in case I ever had to defend it. Here are 200+ sites that I thought were worth remembering for one reason or another. Those sites serve a variety of needs and are everything from self-service sites we did nothing to help to full-fledged custom builds that tooks hours of collaborative work. They represent courses, grants, projects, departments, portfolios . . . just about anything you could use a webpage for. We even briefly had someone trying to run a bee keeping business from one of the sites.10
Also interesting to note that I was the DMCA takedown person for the site as well. We had under 10 requests in the entire time the site has been up. They were mainly the result of faculty putting up PDFs for course readings. We also had one request we denied with the support of the Provost. That was a company requesting we take down a student project critical of the sexism in their ads. It was a great feeling to turn that down.
Mark Luetke was someone who helped me up my game considerably. He worked with me briefly before around 2015 moving on to another job in Austin TX. He got me using Scotchbox for local development and Advanced Custom Fields as well. He probably told me about changing the wp-config file so it would show the errors. It’s amazing how big a difference a few tips like this make.
When Jeff and Matt came on board around May of 2017 things became much better. Having more than one person working on the site meant I had people to talk to and think with. The quality of what I was (now “we were”) making increased enormously. We took on a lot more work and I was able to take more time to learn more things. I stress that you can do this with one person because you can. I further stress that multiple good people will make things exponentially better. Invest in people rather than trying to buy innovation from some company. Look for people with diverse backgrounds. I really loved working with these guys and sharing an office was a great experience. You can see our office project wall as we left it when the COVID stuff started below.
Strategically, I think RamPages fits in an interesting space with the LMS, the enterprise WordPress multisite (1 theme, a few plugins) on one end and a domain of one’s own project on the other (which we didn’t have). It gave us as builders enough consistency and control to help people in an economical fashion and still had the range of options necessary to really do what 99% of people wanted.
We also created building patterns that gave us enough internal consistency to understand, collaborate on, or handoff projects but without ending up being restricted by that consistency. We could undertake a large number of custom building project by using a consistent starter theme and leveraging ACF for customizing data entry. You could have something as different looking as the Footprints on the James site and the ALT Lab site built in the same theme and using ACF but doing it in very different ways. The ability to have consistency on the construction end but not imposing it on the end site was a goal that I think we achieved. In the end, we could build custom sites in very short amounts of time that really answered people’s needs.
I was always amused by our “patterns” list. It was a mix of warnings and guidance we’d developed as we’d worked on a large number of projects and kept seeing certain things come up again and again.
- Work from the data backwards. – Simple and boring but so many projects would have been so much better if people had better understood what it was they wanted at the end. Backwards design applies to all kinds of projects not just instructional design.
- Degrees to Kevin Bacon/Telephone – You’ve all played the game telephone? Familiar with degrees to Kevin Bacon? The concept here is that the further you are from the main decision maker (Kevin Bacon) the worse the project would be. Sending graduate assistants as the go between on projects is a major warning sign. Inevitably, like in telephone, messages became garbled and frustration and time to completion increased.
- Angry your Ferrari goes too fast – This is when you’d build a project to do what someone asked and they’d be upset it did what they asked. Like wanting a site for conversation and then being unhappy there were so many comments. That kind of a thing.
- No one cares what you had for breakfast – Another common issue was the belief that if it was on the Internet it’d be swarmed with readers instantly. We could generally calm these fears by talking through how much money and effort is spent to get readers for a site and to encourage them to think through how hard it was to get students to read this kind of content even when they were being graded.
- It’s a trap – Sometimes projects are just traps. They sound awesome and then things are slowly undone until they’re unrecognizable. Other times the project never ends and you’re working on things based on occasional emails years later. Some come back to life after being dead for a year or more. Watch out for traps.
In the end, what I think we achieved in our small group was a place in the institution that said yes to things. We wanted to be a place where things happened and problems were solved. We wanted to do that quickly and we wanted to do it well. That sounds easy but was harder to achieve than one unfamiliar with large institutions might think. Part of that was getting the right people together. Part of it was being allowed to say yes. Part of it was not trying to make this something that would grow forever in all directions. I don’t think you can scale things like this past a certain point. I think you lose what makes them work because you have to change how the group works once you exceed a certain number of people. You can still do good work but it’s different work and you consider different things. What was meant to be innovative has to be rethought in terms of enterprise and those are not the same things. They can’t be the same things. You can’t enterprise innovation.
It feels like there needs to be a group pushing boundaries, trying things, doing things quickly (but thoughtfully). That work needs to be considered and as the edge of things moves forward the work that’s been done can be merged into the standard enterprise in various ways. I guess that’s pretty standard thinking but I can’t understand why it doesn’t happen more. We seem to apply enterprise rules to people who should be focused on innovation and we expect innovation of people who are focused on enterprise applications.
1 When I started writing this post that date was in the future.
2 I learned that in the email they wrote announcing I was leaving. I’m not so good at time. I’d have guessed I’d been here 5 or 6 years.
3 If you want high prose, this is not where you should be reading anyway.
4 I never liked the word boss. It tends to imply that I will obey that person in way that’s above and beyond my nature. You can supervise me but I’ve never responded well to be “bossed.”
5 I’ve never been good at titles.
6 Check out the comments. Those were fun times.
7 Lots of things happened here that I wish I could have prevented or found alternatives for but done is done and Disney is Disney. My apologies for everyone who had a rough time during this.
8 Or maybe 10k? I don’t know. It probably doesn’t matter but I’m writing this stuff down because my memory for certain things is so bad. It’s a shame that I didn’t write it down better at the time but high drama rarely leads to good blogging.
9 Break that db into pieces so the load could be better distributed. It’s a fun word.
10 We did have to stop that. I think that’s the only site I had to ask someone to shut down in the entire time I’ve been here.
11 Full disclosure: I did do some basic and logo programming as a very young child.