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I found this demonstration of an emerging robotics technology that promises to bring assisted walking to the wheelchair bound.  It’s an inspiring glimpse of an interdisciplinary engineering effort that provides an exoskeleton to support rehabilitation efforts of parapaligics . The technology was featured in this techcrunch fundraising campaign for the pending clinical trials. The technology is an adaptation of the HAL exoskeleton used by military forces to help them carry heavy loads (around 200 pounds) for extended periods of time. For someone who’s had a family member stuck in a wheelchair for an extended period of time, this is very encouraging for our future, particularly as the average age of the global population continues to increase and life expectancy increases in many nations.

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I just had one of our Cambodian students stop by my office to share some green mung bean pudding that his mom made.  It’s delicious! I love the incredible students’ diversity at BYU Hawaii and their willingness to share their cultures, time, and talents with us faculty members.

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During my investigations tonight on Facebook games and applications, I came across a humanitarian effort by Zynga, the maker of some of the most popular and highest revenue generating Facebook games available today. Zynga’s business model, as I understand it is built on freemium principles.  Players can participate in the game for free, but making significant progress in the game will either require an enormous investment in time or players can purchase premium points or items to accelerate their progress or customize their game experience in a way that is worth sharing with their friends. Thus, Zynga makes money by encouraging its users to give out collectively large sums of money in very small increments.

Zynga.org features a story of how this payment processing, social gaming platform is being used to raise money to build / fund schools and other recovery efforts following Haiti’s January 2010 earthquake.  In an explanatory video, a Zynga employee boasts that Zynga was the first private company to donate over 1 million dollars to the Haiti relief effort. This money was raised by inviting game players to purchase limited edition, premium in-game products 100% of the proceeds for which would be directed towards efforts in Haiti.  The approach is similar to the breast cancer fundraising efforts that visibly occur in retail stores annually in the US.  Vendors market special “pink ribbon” editions of their products and consumers buy them with the expectation that some of the revenues from those products will fund breast cancer research.  What I think is interesting about Zynga’s efforts is that 1) many if not most of these donations appear to be very small, yet they add up very quickly; 2) players get to advertise their charitable contributions through the same channel that they broadcast their  game progress in; 3) the effort required to make a donation has been brought to almost zero by incorporating the fundraising into an existing payment platform.

 

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This semester, I am teaching a course that introduces information systems concepts to business students. We’ve been talking this week about systems development, the processes through which information systems are designed, implemented, and maintained within an organization.  The textbook we’re using presents an interesting group activity that I thought would be a good class exercise, so I announced on Monday that this would be our focus for Wednesday’s class. In short, it basically asks the students to apply the concepts they’re learning to develop a Facebook application for a river rafting tour guide company described in the textbook.

In reviewing the assignment yesterday, I realized I needed to learn more about Facebook applications if I was going to be able to effectively guide my students during Wednesday’s class. I’ve only tested a handful of applications, and these have largely been the one-time-use variety like friend wheel.  I felt I needed some better exposure if we were going to be discussing the topic in class.  So after putting the kids to bed, I hopped onto Facebook and started exploring. I started adding applications and games to my Facebook account.  Now, if nothing else, I’ve grown somewhat proficient at building houses (Social City), harvesting crops (Farmville), learning to read fake old English “knight speak” (knights of camelot) and chopping down trees on the frontier (Frontierville).  I’ve also learned that a number of my friends have travelled much more extensively than I have (TripAdvisor).

In each of these applications, I see developers putting in a lot of thought as to how to either keep the player on the screen or to motivate them to come back repeatedly. Setting timers that constrain / limit users progress within the application and penalizing users for inactivity (i.e., your plants wilt in Farmville if not tended to daily).  I’ve noticed some apps focus  a lot on sharing your progress with your friends, prompting users to post updates about their game to their profile at least once per session.  This latter point can serve as a good discussion in class about being viral vs. being spammy. I was also somewhat frustrated by the degree of similarity across many of the games.  The “gameboards” for many games  / apps looks very similar.  There seems to be no end to the thematizations we can put on “Sim City” like applications which allow us to maximize the utility of different segments of our gameboard.  In planning a “Let’s go rafting” app in class tomorrow, I’m wondering whether the students will follow the examples of the game apps or the travel apps, and how much creativity they’re willing to “risk”.  I’ll post my results here tomorrow (Wednesday).

My experience tonight has given me some more to think about in terms of what is it that makes an application “social.” Much like e-business applications often succeed better when we don’t simply try to automate / webify an existing process without accounting for the unique characteristics afforded by web technologies. I think the same argument could be applied with developers of “social networking applications.” Developers should have a compelling reason to design something “social” and not just because Facebook is simply another distribution channel”

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Ever since I began work at BYU Hawaii almost a year ago, I’ve been hearing about and thinking a lot about the mandate we have from our board of trustees to teach more students, teach them better, and lower the total cost per student here at the university. Although on the surface, this seems like a restatement of the “do more with less” adage common in business management, particularly during times of economic recession, I think there’s more significance in this challenge than simply saving money without completely gutting the educational experience our students receive. I think it’s a challenge to lay a foundation for growth and scalability.

Currently BYUH serves about 2,500 students from 70 countries. In comparison, the BYU Provo campus has an enrollment of approximately 30,000 students from 115 countries. BYU Idaho has an enrollment of approximately 11,000 students from about 57 countries. For each of these institutions, the international student percentages are in the minority.  For BYU Idaho, the percentage is 3%. The LDS Business College has an enrollment of 1,600 students with almost 4% from outside the United States. 6% of BYU Provo students are currently from outside of the United States. For BYU Hawaii, international students make up 43% of the student body. That means roughly 1,100 students from BYUH, 330 students from BYUI, 60 students from LDSBC, and 1,800 students at BYU are from outside the United States — a rough total of 3,290 international students enrolled in Church-sponsored universities / colleges.

I have not done the analysis to see whether each of these schools are attracting international students from the same countries or target areas, but I think two conclusions based on this data are worth mentioning here: 1) the enrollment demographics at Church sponsored universities are not reflective of the overall Church demographic trends (with membership outside the United States making up just over 50 percent of membership). 2) BYU Hawaii (based on percentages) is closer to that statistic than the three other Church sponsored college / universities. Even though BYU Provo technically has more international students enrolled than BYU Hawaii, I think the percentage of international students is significant in terms of the way it shapes our academic culture, our community, and our educational environment. And I believe that, if we are going to see a significant increase in enrollment at Church sponsored institutions of “higher education,” much of that is going to happen here.  I think because of both organizational inertia as well as the demographics of the region surrounding the other three Church schools, transforming those universities into international communities is going to be much harder than growing Brigham Young University Hawaii.

In terms of Growing BYU Hawaii, our current administration has talked a lot about and is making great efforts to increase enrollments at the university (by about 5000 students or so) so as to make the administration of the university cost effective in a way that offsets the fixed costs of running a university in Hawaii.  Although that’s an important subject, that isn’t the focus of this post.  I think much of the intent behind the charge to find a way to both increase the quality of the educational experience here and to teach more students more cost effectively is that if we can figure out how to do that, we will have found a way to extend the blessings of a BYU Hawaii education to tens of thousands of additional students (primarily international students). I think we can do it, and I don’t think we have to bring them all here to Laie, Hawaii to do so. I believe that communication technologies are gradually allowing us to increase the richness of the educational experience across time and distance to such a degree that many BYU Hawaii students will not need to live full time “on-campus” for us to achieve this goal and for them to benefit from a Church-sponsored university education.

While I enthusiastically support the efforts being taken by my friends in the BYU Hawaii Online division to create online courses that can benefit students in our target area, I think we can and should explore additional avenues that may allow us to help more people learn without significantly increasing the costs of providing this educational experience.  My personal thoughts and efforts are focused on the following challenges: 1) the English language barrier is one of the most significant obstacles I’ve seen for educating more international students. I am often challenged to adequately communicate with students who have had multiple semesters of in-class English language training.  Reaching out to those with less instruction in the English language living outside the United States is a formidable challenge for me. 2) many nations lack the technological infrastructure that “developed” nations “enjoy.” High-speed internet is not universally available to carry live video interactions across oceans and continents.  Power is often not consistently available. A generation gap often exists between desktop and mobile computing devices here and in many countries.

So what is to be done? How do we bring BYU Hawaii to more international students despite these challenges? In thinking about these questions, I’ve had a passage of scripture come to mind.  A revelation give through Joseph Smith the prophet to an early Mormon Church leader, Thomas Marsh states:

62 Therefore, go ye into all the world; and unto whatsoever place ye cannot go ye shall send, that the testimony may go from you into all the world unto every creature. (Doctrine and Covenants 112:62).

The part of this passage that keeps coming back to me is this, “and unto whatsoever place ye cannot go ye shall send.” Another related passage from The Book of Mormon states the following:

7 Why should I desire that I were an angel, that I could speak unto all the ends of the earth? 8 For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true. (Alma 29:7-8).
In an attempt to apply these teachings to my educational efforts, I am planning to assign my students in the coming term to each teach what they are learning in class to at least one person in their home state or country who can benefit from knowing these things. This teaching should be ongoing throughout the term and should be done in the native language of the individual’s being taught whenever possible. They will need to report back to me throughout the course as to the progress of the teaching/learning experience. I’m still trying to figure out how to grade such an assignment, and this doesn’t immediately translate into enrolled students for the university, but it does get us moving in the direction of educating more students.
Now for the technological challenges.  I’m going to need more help from my students on this one, because they are much more familiar with the communication tools being used by individuals in their home country  / community.  I think initially I will leave it up to the enrolled student to select the tool(s) for communicating with and teaching their friends in hopes that it will give me a better feel for what is possible in what countries. I’m not trying to build infrastructure / donate hardware.  For now, I’ll leave those efforts to others and will focus on working with the existing tools, whether it be high speed web access, email, text messaging, social networking applications, video conferencing, online videos, cell phones, voice mail, postal mail, etc.  I have a hunch that mobile technology will ultimately play a key role in all of this, but I’m still figuring out how.
If you have any thoughts, questions, or suggestions on these rough ideas, please share them with me.  I look forward to your feedback.

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There’s been a lot of activity on the web discussing Google Buzz, it’s latest foray into social networking.  Much of what I’ve read seems to be questioning whether this poses any kind of threat to Twitter or Facebook.  Personally, I think FB and Twitter are secondary considerations here. I hope this development is taking us closer to an open platform of status updates, much like we enjoy with email today.

One of the features I like about Buzz (though I think they should have made it a bit more obvious) is the ability to mute posts.  Much like moving things out of my inbox once I’ve categorized them and put something on my todo list, I think a major failing with FB and twitter is it’s hard to figure out the info bits that have already been processed. Hopefully we’ll see more progress on this end as well.

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