Getting Students to think Innovatively about the Cloud

We have been slowly but surely integrating cloud computing into our curriculum and as we go through this process, I have noticed a few things.  First of all, students are having a hard time thinking “outside of the box” when it comes to the cloud.  Sure, we can show them the business scenarios where cloud makes sense, but those are decidedly “in the box.”  While this is OK, I believe that the true potential of cloud computing lies in its undiscovered uses and not in the appropriate business scenarios.

We have been using the Microsoft Imagine Cup as a way to get students to make the switch from “appropriate” thinking as it relates to cloud computing to “innovative” thinking about the cloud.  The Imagine Cup challenges students to come up with innovative solutions to the world’s biggest problems and our students are increasingly including cloud computing as part of their solutions.

The Imagine Cup projects that we have seen are encouraging evidence that our efforts to get students to think innovatively about the cloud.  However,  I have noticed that they generally focus on using the cloud for storage and not for processing.

This makes me wonder if we are adequately informing students about the processing side of cloud computing.  Another possible explanation is that students are having a difficult time breaking out of the mental model of processing that is done in a client/server architecture.  This could possibly explain their reluctance to consider cloud computing for processing rather than just storage.

This is an interesting topic  that I plan on investigating further in the coming weeks.  In my opinion, it also has great value as producing students that can think innovatively about any technology will be much more valuable in the workplace than those that follow the same old paradigms.  I will keep you int he loop.  Additionally, if anyone has any insights on this topic, please leave a comment!

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Social Entrepreneurship, Student Recruitment, and the Imagine Cup

What do these three concepts have to do with each other? Well it might be obvious that the Imagine Cup may be used as a tool for student recruitment in MIS, computer science, and IT programs. However, what does social entrepreneurship have to do with all this? Heck, for that matter what is social entrepreneurship? Well, just indulge me a bit and I will do my best to tie the three together.

First of all, let’s talk social entrepreneurship. The concept of social entrepreneurship is basically the same as the entrepreneurship that you are familiar with, with one notable difference. Social entreperneurs use all of the same tools as regular entrepreneurs, but they use those tools to create social change instead of for gaining profit.

The businesses that these social entrepreneurs create are called social enterprises. Social enterprises deal with many challenges. Two of the most pressing of these problems are that social enterprises generally have to carry out their missions with inconsistent funding (often under funding) and often with an all-volunteer work force. This means that social enterprises have to constantly engage in innovation in order remain effective.

Technology is one tool that social enterprises use to assist with this innovation. However, many social entrepreneurs are not technologists. In fact, they generally come from areas such as the sciences, sociology, political science, and other non-technological areas. This isn’t surprising because if a person has a passion for, let’s say enviormental issues, they might not go running to an information systems or computer science program as a major.

However, if you look at many of the entries in the Imagine Cup, they all deal with the same issues as social entrepreneurs. They also deal with these issues using technology. So if you think about it, since the Imagine Cup is focused on finding solutions to the world’s biggest problems, it is essentially a competition in social entrepreneurship. Furthermore, since knowledge of technology is becoming more and more necessary for social enterprises to survive, why not use the Imagine Cup as a tool to increase student enrollment in computer science, MIS and IT programs?

It makes perfect sense when you think about it. Students in the non-technical fields will get the technical knowledge that they will need to make their social enterprises more effective and efficient, the technical programs will get increased enrollment (which is a concern for those programs), and the Imagine Cup gets a shot of multi-disciplinary participation that will only make the entries better (see my post on successful Imagine Cup entries).

It also makes for a pretty compelling case to sell Imagine Cup to the administration of a program or college. Since student enrollment is, in one sense the measure of the viability of a program, any way that it can be increased is something that an administrator might listen to. Anyway, I would like to hear your thoughts on the subject if you have any!

The H-2-O Mobile Water Testing Application

I wrote a few days ago promising that I would let you know about the efforts of one of my teams competing in the Microsoft Imagine Cup.  Well, here it is in press release form (without giving away too much of the details)!

Little Rock, AR – Access to safe drinking water is a global issue.  In fact, less than 1% of the world’s water is considered safe for drinking  and 3.6 million people die each year from waterborne diseases.  The issue takes on even more importance in a disaster situation such as after Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti.  Many water sources once thought to be safe can become contaminated because of broken water lines, chemical spills, or other reasons.

Since the human body can survive much longer without food than it can without water, getting safe drinking water is one of the primary concerns of emergency responders.  A team of students from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock have created an innovative application to help emergency responders in this effort by using mobile pones to collect, analyze, and communicate water testing data so that safe water sources can be identified and resources can be allocated more effectively to those areas where the water is not safe.  The H-2-O Mobile Water Laboratory is the combination of a Windows Phone 7 smartphone, a portable microscope, a software application that resides on the mobile phone, data storage on Windows Azure Storage and SQL Azure, the cloud-based storage offerings from Microsoft.

 

The H-2-O Mobile Water Testing Lab

The H-2-O Mobile Water Testing Lab capturing an image of a sample

The H-2-O Mobile Water Testing Laboratory works by allowing emergency responders to easily collect and interpret the results of various water tests and to communicate them out to emergency responders.  For example, an emergency responder could use the application first to interpret the results of the tests of chemical properties of a water source such as Ph and nitrite levels, to identify malicious bacteria and parasites that may be present in the source through microscopic examination, and then geo-tag and communicate those results out to the response agencies so that they can get resources out to the areas where the water is unsafe.

The students chose to write a mobile application for many reasons.  One reason that mobility was chosen is because of its wide adoption.  Over 80% of the world’s population has access to cell phone coverage, and new technologies are only going to increase this number.  This means that the application has the ability to be used almost anywhere there is a disaster situation. Another reason for mobility was the capabilities that Windows Phone 7 mobile devices possess.  The students tie many of these capabilities (camera, phone, data communication, GPS, and processing) into a single platform through their innovative software design.

This isn’t just your typical contest entry.  The students are extremely serious about making an impact with this application.  They have already secured some funding in the form of a UALR Sustainability Research Grant and are applying to other funding sources to support the development of the application.  They have also worked with organizations such as Lifewater International to get technical assistance with the water testing aspects of the application and are seeking to partner with organizations that can provide better microscopic technology for the application.  Finally, they have applied for a patent on the H-2-O Mobile Water Testing Lab and formed a Limited Liability Corporation in an effort to bring this technology to market.

I wish the team much success as they compete in the Microsoft Imagine Cup competition this year!

Imagine Cup as a Vehichle for Social Entrepreneurship

I was speaking with a colleague of mine the other day about a paper we are sending off to a conference.  The colleague that I am speaking of is really into this notion of social entrepreneurship.  What is social entrepreneurship (we’re going to call it SE from here on out, OK?) , you ask?  Well it is when a person leverages their entrepreneurial tools to create a venture that is focused on solving some problem facing society.   Now the goal of most entrepreneurs is to generate a profit, good old dollars and cents.  The social entrepreneur is much different.  The goal of a SE venture is to generate social capital and effectuate social change.

My colleague has been very involved with the concept of SE for a while now and I am aware of some schools of business and of public service that have been working to get it into their curriculum.  That is when I had the idea.  Why not use the Imagine Cup as a way to integrate SE into the curriculum?

What does the Imagine Cup have to do with SE?  Well solving social problems is what the Imagine Cup is all about!  According to the Imagine Cup’s U.S. site, “It’s all about solving today’s toughest issues on a global level and in your own backyard.”  Now of course, there’s a catch.  You have to do it using Microsoft technologies (well, at least for the Software Design competition).  However, when you think about it, aren’t many of us using those technologies anyway?  Coming from a college of business MIS department, I know that is the case for me as a faculty member.  It was also the case when I was a student.

So you can leverage technologies that you are already working with in the framework of what is essentially a SE competition!  The contest is structured so that it fits well with the typical semester structure of most schools and it has discrete project deliverables that can be integrated into the coursework of many different types of courses from digital media to systems analysis.  Check out the different competitions and rules at www.imaginecup.us if you are in the United States or www.imaginecup.com for other places in this ever shrinking world.

Now this idea is still in its infancy, and it needs to be given some thought.  However, I thought that I would toss it out here to see if anyone that reads my blog has any thoughts on the subject.  If you do, please share!

 

Microsoft Game Day

We held our annual Microsoft Game Day event today on Campus and it was a great success!  We hold the event every year to expose students to all of the great careers that are related to IT.  In fact, 87% of all new jobs will be IT related.  This doesn’t mean that they are IT jobs, but rather that they require the use of IT.

Because of this, we open the event up to everyone on campus, regardless of major.  We lure them in with the games, and then we get to tell them about how taking some MIS courses in addition to their major courses could open up many more job opportunities to them than it they had not taken any technology courses.

It also served as the finale Imagine Cup mixers.   The winners of the  local Imagine Cup competition that we were holding on campus were announced and we were even able to gain more interest in the competition.

Read more about the event here and take a look at some of the photos and videos below!

Exciting News and Furthering the Case for Academic Partnerships with Industry

Well, you can add one point to the tally for those folks that say MIS needs to be relevant to industry.  It was announced today that UALR has received some substantial grants from Microsoft!  I had been holding off posting about this until the press release came out.

 

Microsoft Contributes $3.5 Million In-Kind to UALR College of Business

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Feb. 1, 2011) – UALR’s College of Business has received three significant in-kind software contributions from Microsoft Corp., including operating systems and the cutting edge Azure Cloud technology. The gifts are valued at $3.5 million.

“Microsoft recognizes the value of education in training the business leaders of tomorrow and is
proud to contribute its technology to your outstanding educational program,” Dr. Bradley K.
Jensen, principal academic relationship manager at Microsoft Corp., told Business
Dean Anthony F. Chelte.

Most of the $3.5 million is for students and faculty to use its enterprise software for a year. Also, the company offered Azure software access and storage for management information systems (MIS) curriculum and research over the next year, valued at $15,000 to include the access fee, data storage fees, and utilization fees.

Microsoft additionally donated Client Access Licenses for the MIS programs to use for a year.
This software donation is currently valued at $52,000.

Microsoft intends to renew these licenses for the College of Business annually for the
foreseeable future, Jensen said.

“The Microsoft partnership that our management information systems faculty has developed
significantly enhances our ability to offer our students a high quality, focused, and relevant
business education,” Chelte said. “Without this level of support, we would not be able to
provide this type of high-level technology exposure to our students, which certainly gives them
an advantage when applying for jobs.

“My faculty and I are grateful to Dr. Jensen and Microsoft for enabling our grads to have an even-more valued degree.”

 

I am really proud of this because it shows what can result from developing partnerships with industry.  How do you do this?  Well, in general, you have to show industry that you can provide something that benefits them first.  Once you do that, then it will be in their best interest to provide resources to continue the partnership.

Sounds simple, right?  The problem is that for industry to buy into a program, that program has to be selling something.  And this is where most IS programs fall woefully short in my opinion.  So that leads us to the next question.  How do I sell my program to industry partners so they buy in?  I will give you some suggestions that have worked for my colleague and I as we developed our industry partnerships.

  1. Participate in student competitions such as the Microsoft Imagine Cup or any other student competition.  Your students are the product of your program.  You need to find every way you can to showcase how good they are as that will reflect directly on your program.
  2. Engage industry to help provide student projects for your program.  Most organizations have more projects and problems than they can handle and they are generally very happy to get free labor.  Our MIS capstone course has accomplished this with great success.  It was difficult at first, but now we have people knocking down our door to work with our students.  This will further showcase the quality of student that you have, possibly result in higher placement rates that will strengthen your program, and also deepen the ties that you have with industry.
  3. Engage in research that is relevant to industry.  Now I am not saying that you shouldn’t wax theoretical from time to time, but if you get too many people with their heads in the clouds and out of touch with the problems of industry, they will stop paying attention to you.  Find out what problems that industry is having and work to solve them.  You might find that they will be willing participants in your research, which could result in you being much more productive from that prospective.

There are other ways as well, but these are the ones that we have found to be the most effective.  Now I will not lead you down a primrose path.  This takes a lot of work!  However, if you do the work to make your program visible to industry partners and do it right, the rewards are well worth it for both your program and your students.

Imagine Cup Mixers

You may know from my last post that we had a few Imagine Cup mixers on our campus.  The mixers were designed to get students interested about the Imagine Cup and to help students with great ideas find the students with the technical knowledge to make them happen and vice versa.

Students mingling with faculty at our Imagine Cup mixer event

Students discussing project ideas with other students and faculty.

All in all, we had about 7-10 new student teams come up and express interest in participating in this year’s competition.  Some of the students had some really great ideas! In fact, one student with a background in finance showed up with an idea to advance investment knowledge in developing countries and we were able to match him with a student that had programming knowledge.

That is what these mixers are all about.  Techies don’t have a corner on the “saving the world” market.  Good ideas can come from anywhere and from anyone.  The Imagine Cup is a great way to showcase them and I am looking forward to working with these students to bring them to reality.

Students discussing their projects

Students discussing their projects

 

Gearing up again for Imagine Cup

I am about to meet with one of my Imagine Cup teams in a few minutes and decided to reflect on some of the things that we are doing related to Imagine Cup here at my university.  The big news as of late was that Microsoft has put forth a $25,000 prize for the winning academic department of this year’s U.S. Imagine Cup!  I think that this was an absolute brilliant move on the part of Microsoft to generate faculty interest in the competition and, as those that read my blog know, faculty involvement equates to stronger teams.

It is no real surprise why Microsoft is doing this.  It is pretty common knowledge that the U.S. has not fared well on the global Imagine Cup stage.  This year, however, the global finals are in New York, so there is a real interest in having a strong showing by the U.S. contingent.  Why is this the case?  Well, in my opinion, there are a lot of reasons.  The prize money isn’t enough to stimulate the interests of American students, for one.  $8,000 doesn’t move the needle on many student’s interest meters, especially in light of the work that is involved (in addition to their coursework) and the fact that the prize money could potentially be split four ways.  The lack of faculty incentives is another (although I have made the case that you can generate your own incentives in previous posts).

It seems, however, that Microsoft has addressed at least one of these issues with this prize.  I know that it has stimulated more interest on our campus, especially amongst the non-tenured faculty.  Someone once told me that in the battle to get tenured, your publications were your sword and your grants are your shield.  While $25,000 is not a huge grant (especially when compared to the grants obtained by faculty in the engineering disciplines), it is significant enough to make a difference in the quest for tenure.  Because of this, we have decided to hold a few Imagine Cup mixers ahead of a local Imagine Cup competition as a way to stimulate student interest and to discover any untapped innovative resources on our campus.

In these mixers, we will bring students from all majors across the university together so that they can form teams and submit a round 1 project submission to the local competition.  The round 1 submissions will then be judged and prizes will be awarded to the best ideas.  Hopefully, the students will then select a mentor and continue on to the actual Imagine Cup competition.

It seems like a good idea, but we will have to see if it works. I will let you know the results in the event that you might want to try it yourselves!

Driving Creativity

I was looking around the blogosphere today and ran across this excellent post on driving creativity by Mark Suster.  Mark has been an entrepreneur two times and has now transitioned into the VC arena.  I thought that this would be an excellent read for those of you that are looking to find that creative “spark” for your Imagine Cup projects or any other endeavor that you are working on.

Here is the executive summary directly from Mark’s blog:

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: This is a long post, so I put an executive summary here if you want to get the point without reading all the detail. If you plan to read the post you can skip the summary if you want.

  • Almost all business success relies on creativity. This applies equally to VCs, startups & big company executives
  • Despite the importance of creativity, there seems to be almost no focus on teaching it, encouraging it, training at it & incorporating it into our daily routines. The need for creativity extends well beyond product design.
  • Many people are visual thinkers. Therefore to drive creativity people need to do visual brainstorming
  • You need to find what works for you to put yourself in that environment and learn how to do “self talk,” learn how to create visual charts, learn how to test & iterate ideas and the learn how to effectively communicate results.
  • For me I can only do this by myself. I think team sessions are better for testing ideas than for original thought, but that’s me. Solitude & creativity go hand-in-hand.
  • I use tools to invoke my creatieve self.  One example is driving, which has an actual physiological reason it makes you creative. The key is channeling what you learn when you drive onto paper for retention purposes so you have to write it down soon afterward
  • One of the books that first made me aware of the “creative brain” was “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards.  It’s a book about creating art but shows how an artist’s mind gets “into the zone,” how creativity can be invoked, and why looking at what you create in a different way than the rational mind would conceive is an important part of creativity.  She literally encourages you to draw things upside down.
  • Other ways I drive creativity are time pressure, showers & occasionally wine. All are known creativity drivers and are covered in the book mentioned above.  For others they swear by music.  I personally find music more distracting than helpful.
  • Adding structure to creativity is not an oxymoron. It’s how you codify your ideas
  • Like anything, creativity takes practice.  There’s no such thing as “not being a creative person.”  Some people are more creative than others but it’s within us all.  You just have to dedicate yourself to a wanting to tap your creative juices.
  • I apply visual thinking for nearly everything I do: preparing for important phone calls (I imagine my opening lines, I imagine the responses), writing keynote presentations, deciding whether or not to invest in a company, preparing for board meetings – you name it.  These are all creative processes.
  • Visualization is a well known technique in professional sports where the difference between winning & losing is often psychological more than physical.  If it can work for them, it can work for you.

While this gives you the basic idea of the post, I would suggest that you read Mark’s entire blog at http://techcrunch.com/2011/01/17/how-i-use-visualization-to-drive-creativity/.  I hope that it helps you to drive your own creativity.