All posts in Professional Roles

The Methods Behind Moodle Madness: A TLT Expert Contextualizes Bethel’s Technology Choices

by Matt Putz

I have a confession to make. I have some patterns in my work-life for getting things done, and I like them. Maybe “like” is not strong enough. I like them a lot. I’m deeply connected to them. All right, fine – I’m obsessed with some of them. They took a lot to develop, they work well for me, and so please don’t make me change them. People who study how other people get complex things done call these developed behavior patterns “workflows.” I REALLY like my workflows. The trouble with my obsession is that I don’t live and work in a vacuum, and my workflows are connected to other people’s workflows, which I do not control at all. Sometimes someone imposes a change from outside of my system that requires me to change my workflow whether I want to or not, and on my worst days it makes me want to tear my hair out.

Take software upgrades. Occasionally I long for the good old days when I got to decide when I was going to plop my 16-floppy-disk Windows 95 install set into my three-and-a-half-inch disk drive and get my Windows 3.1 environment upgraded. (Actually, “replaced.” Back then, nothing really upgraded in the sense we would use the word today.) If I liked Windows 3.1 and didn’t want to switch, there was nobody making me. Windows 3.1 would run happily along on my computer for the next ten years (or so I thought), and there wasn’t yet anybody lurking who was going to create a virus that could scare me into applying a “security patch.” I had nothing but the carrots of lovely new functionality beckoning, and I could upgrade this year, next year, or never. (Right about now some of you want to get into the conversation about whether Windows 95 was EVER a good idea, but let’s stay on track.)

Now, I’ve got a mini computer in my pocket (AKA my phone) that reminds me every ten minutes that it automagically updated another one of the ten zillion apps I seemingly can’t live without. It also reminds me fifteen more apps need to be updated but can’t be without my explicit permission to allow them access to all sorts of information on my phone that is evidently important enough to ask me about but hasn’t yet become functionally important enough to get me to figure out just exactly what I’m giving the keys away to. It’s a dilemma. And then the update changes that one app that I use all the time and now I don’t know how to use it anymore, and BLAMMO. Somebody messed with my stuff (or moved my cheese, if that bit works for you).

It’s even worse when that app is web-based, like Gmail or Google Drive. Those are the sorts of apps that don’t even ask you if you want to update because they don’t live on your device at all. You go to bed one night and they’re one way, and you wake up in the morning and they’ve changed. Many of us who truly enjoy developing systems to deal with complex but repetitive tasks live in quiet, constant fear that those software features that are central to our workflows will just quietly go away some evening, leaving us stranded in You-Can’t-Get-There-From-Here-Anymore Land, also known as Now-Go-Do-More-Work-Than-You-Expected-To-Today Land. Nuts.

Can you identify with that?

In Teaching and Learning Technology, we work really hard to not do that to you any more than we absolutely have to, because we get just as irritated when that stuff happens to us.  It may not always appear so, but we are deeply concerned about that kind of stress, concerned to the point that we spend hours each month discussing how to assure the decisions we make cause you as little stress as possible.

The Challenge of Moodle

Take Moodle for instance. Moodle is a web-based application, meaning it lives on a web server, which is just a computer that “serves” all of the “clients” (our laptops and phones and desktops and tablets) that come asking it to do things for them, and people generally access it through some sort of a web browser like Chrome or Firefox or Safari. Gmail and Google Drive are also web applications, but the big difference between them and Moodle is that we at Bethel don’t control the web servers they run on or the code that determines how they operate. Google owns and takes care of all of that. We use those applications with Google’s permission. Moodle, on the other hand, is completely under our control. The software itself is open-source, and while a discourse on open-source software is beyond the scope of this writing, it essentially means that we have the right to use it pretty much however we like for no charge. One of the big reasons we moved away from Blackboard in 2010-2011 was because we were paying a lot of money every year to Blackboard, Inc. to use software that we had no control over, and we were frankly tired of both the quality (low) and pace (high) of change in that product. We wanted to make sure that we would have more control not only over what the Bethel community experienced, but also the pace at which that experience changed.

Having complete control of your own Learning Management System is a bit like Spider Man’s curse: With Great Strength Comes Great Responsibility. It means we have a wonderful opportunity to make this thing work the way we want it to. But it also means we don’t get to blame SomeCompany, Inc. for the problems we encounter. To people who like tweaking software, all that flexibility looks really interesting and fun. But I’m sure that bug zappers look interesting and fun to moths as well, so how do we go about making decisions about Moodle in such a way that our value of not introducing change for change’s sake and driving people unnecessarily crazy doesn’t get undermined by the tempting flexibility inherent in our technology?


First, we have to be careful about where we put (“host”) it. We value hosting Moodle in an environment that is as reliable as we can possibly afford (so our users can have the best experience possible), that uses our expert technical staff in the most effective way possible, and that gives us control over things we actually need to be able to control. In 2010, that environment was an external company that claimed to be expert at hosting Moodle. After three years of sub-par experiences with that company, including being denied access that we had previously been promised to our own software, we made the difficult decision to move Moodle back to a server hosted on Bethel’s campus where our own staff could manage it more effectively. We hosted it there until this past summer, when we finally moved it to Amazon Web Services, where Amazon staff make sure the hardware runs like it’s supposed to and our staff have full and unfettered access to the software and a whole range of management tools we couldn’t even dream of purchasing or developing ourselves.

So we’ve arrived at the best of both worlds where our staff get to manage the user experience rather than trying to track down broken cables, but it took a while for us to figure out where Moodle lives best. And every time we had to make a hosting change, it required a tremendous amount of coordination to make sure that everybody at Bethel experienced very little downtime. Even after the move to AWS this fall, we experienced a number of teething troubles. But we’re confident it was worth it, and we have high hopes that we’ve landed on a long-term hosting arrangement. Because of this, we may even be able to realize the dream of not needing any downtime for future upgrades.


Speaking of upgrades, we also have to be thoughtful about how we keep our Moodle instance up to date and supportable. Every six months, the folks at put out a major update, and they put out another 10 or so smaller updates in between those, which are mostly small bug fixes and security updates. This is a great example of how we have to balance the need to stay in sync with the rest of the world, but still do it in such a way that it causes as little pain as possible to the Bethel community.

We could choose to never upgrade our system, which would result in a very stable set of workflows for our community but which would also eventually leave us vulnerable to security problems and would not allow us to take advantage of changes in the system that have the potential to significantly change the educational experience for the better. On the other end of the spectrum, we could upgrade every time an update came out (and Moodle officially recommends that we do so), but that would constant workflow changes for Bethel faculty and students all throughout the year and at least some downtime every time we upgraded. So we compromised and made the decision to do one major upgrade once a year. Bethel never really takes a summer break, because our Seminary, CAPS, and GS never stop and CAS has summer courses, but summertime is still the least chaotic space for work like that, and so that’s when it happens.

We also have to keep in mind that Moodle is software created by (fallible) human beings, and that the best way to guarantee you’ll become a human guinea pig is by deploying software that came off the development line yesterday. So we stay one version behind, meaning that in the summer we install the version that came out the previous December. By that time, that version has had six months of user input from people who are evidently less concerned about being experimented on than we are and most of the major bugs have been worked out of it. It’s also still new enough that it will be kept current until at least the next summer when we upgrade again.


Occasionally Moodle needs to be “fixed,” and we have to find ways to do this that cause the least amount of stress to the Bethel community, near-term (“How long is this going to take???! But don’t take the system down right now; I have class in 20 minutes…”) and long-term (“Did we fix it properly?”). The software is robust, but its implementation is complex, requiring a web application server, a database server, and a file repository to “talk” to each other and with Bethel’s other systems (some of which are in Amazon Web Services, some of which are hosted at Bethel, and some of which live other places) efficiently and effectively.

A great example of the need for a “fix” occurred just this fall when we found that our Moodle instance was simply not serving pages as quickly as it should have been, especially for pages requiring significant resources like gradebook edits. During a two-hour meeting between Teaching and Learning Technology and ITS, we determined the cause was the result of a database locking process meant to doubly guarantee the database was properly replicating and therefore protecting us from data loss in case of a disastrous failure of the Moodle server environment. The “fix” we agreed to involved giving up about one second of data vulnerability (meaning, worst-case, we could lose a maximum of one second of data in an emergency) for a 10-fold increase in speed for our users. That’s a really good compromise.


We also have to be appropriately sensitive to the large number of requests we get each year for changes to Moodle from the Bethel community. Over 8000 unique users logged in to Moodle at Bethel last year, and keeping them all happy requires a careful balancing act between the desire of the relatively few to have an environment that perfectly fits their expectations and the desire of the many for stable workflows. So whenever we get one of these requests, we ask some questions. OK – we ask a LOT of questions.

  • Would the change affect anybody else? (Usually this is a “yes.”)
  • Would the change involve a simple administrative setting change or the addition of additional code? If it involves additional code, does that code fit with how we see the system naturally evolving? Who maintains that code, how are they related to the broader Moodle community, and what are their motivations for continuing to maintain it? What are the chances that we would have to eventually choose between maintaining the code ourselves or dumping the feature? (Neither of those are good options.)

Even though we are able to, we don’t install many third-party add-ons in Moodle because taking things away can be more stressful than not providing them in the first place. We want to be reasonably certain that the major features we provide will be around for years to come so that people can rely on them to be central to their workflows. For instance, our plagiarism-detection system (Turnitin) and our enrollment and course-creation manager (LMB Module) are both third-party products with a long history and a reasonably predictable future, and we depend on that when we recommend their use.

  • Would the change involve an increase in individual freedom in the system? If so, would it allow people to create messes that are out of proportion with the good they might perform with this change? Would it allow people to do things that will make their courses more difficult to maintain in the future?

Moodle is a highly creative environment, with thousands of members of the Bethel community creating content in it every day. We want to encourage creative use of the tool while also keeping people from unknowingly doing things they will regret next month or next year. (For example, it may be that using seventeen different colors of text in your course-site isn’t the most sustainable way to develop a course-site that’s functionally accessible for visually impaired persons!)

  • Finally, coming around full-circle, would this change require faculty or students to unnecessarily learn another workflow, when there is clearly already one available that they are used to and that would work for the requestor as well?

We’re always asking the question, “How would this fix/change/upgrade/move affect over 8000 users?”

Help Us Change Well

Please don’t stop asking us to make changes in Moodle or other academic technology at Bethel that you think would be beneficial or even just fun. We love all of the creativity and ideas present here, and many of the good features and applications that are presently available to students and faculty here exist because someone not on the Teaching and Learning Technology team had a great idea that we were able to implement. Keep it coming.

And when you see announcements start appearing for our summer 2016 upgrade to the next version of Moodle, don’t forget that we started planning for that upgrade in December of 2015 (just a few days ago, in fact) because we want it to be as positive an experience as possible for you AND everybody. Even if some of MY workflows have to change – again.

The Christian Scholar as a Public Intellectual

by Chris Gehrz

Last week my personal blog welcomed its 300,000th visitor. While I started The Pietist Schoolman in June 2011 with very traditional scholarly goals in mind — thinking aloud about research, connecting with other scholars, refining my writing skills through regular practice — it has done much to reshape my vocation as a Christian scholar. Blogging has helped me learn to speak — and listen to — a broader public, to live out what Wheaton historian Tracy McKenzie calls the “dual vocation” of Christian historians: serving both the academy and the church.

Or as my fellow historian-blogger John Fea (Messiah College) argued last month:

evangelical intellectuals and scholars may be missing opportunities to speak to churchgoers on their own terms. This is a largely untapped audience for public intellectuals, but evangelicals will not just listen to anyone.  They are suspicious of secular voices and always will be. They will, however, be more open to listen to someone with evangelical credentials or someone who is one of them. We need more people to be “public intellectuals” in this world.

John does this as well as anyone I know: at his blog, on Twitter, and by contributing op-eds to print and digital media. But through Pietist Schoolman think I’ve been able to extend my work as a researching and teaching historian into a more public sphere, helping a wide array of fellow Christians (and non-Christians, to be sure) to think about faith, history, and higher education. To illustrate the breadth of my audience, I often point out two facts.

  • 20% of my readership lives outside of the United States.

  • Four of the top commenters at my blog are (1) our former colleague Roger Olson, (2) a doctor at the Mayo Clinic who’s also a lay preacher, (3) a member of my congregation, and (4) my mom.

(Truth be told, Mom would comment far more often — but she doesn’t want to embarrass me. Let’s move on…)

Now, blogging as often as I do is a massive time commitment even now that I’ve gone down from 7 times a week to 3-4, and so I rarely expect that I’m going to persuade colleagues that they ought to take this leap. Happy as I was to see our colleague Stina Busman Jost join the blogosphere recently, today let me describe another, easier way that I try to act as a kind of public intellectual. Here too, I’m on the same page as Fea:

When academic historians write and talk about using social media the conversation is always limited by the boundaries of the profession. Social media can help historians network. Social media can help historians share their work. Social media can help historians share resources (usually in the form of links) with other historians. All of this assumes that the people we follow or “friend,” and the people who follow and friend us, are all academic or professional historians.

My approach to social media has been different in the sense that I have not separated my professional life from certain aspects of my personal life. Yes, there should be boundaries between the two and I have tried to keep them.  But people who follow me on Facebook or Twitter will also have to deal with the occasional (or not so occasional) photo of my family, a post on the New York Mets, or the latest fan-boy commentary on Bruce Springsteen.  I tend to approach life in an integrated fashion–perhaps to a fault.

Likewise, I use my Facebook timeline primarily to share two things: (1) links to my blog posts; and (2) pictures of — or funny comments from — my kids. Hopefully, I give people a more fully fleshed-out model of who “academics” are. But at the same time, I have family, friends, former students, and fellow church members occasionally reading what I have to say about Christian colleges, Pietism, World War I, teaching, and other subjects that might otherwise stay within more narrowly academic boundaries.

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One Sunday morning an older member of our congregation leaned over to me before worship and said how much she appreciated seeing me on Facebook in my role as a father — and then proceeded to ask me about a recent blog post of mine, on human sexuality in Christian higher ed.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to start a blog that would supply you with links to share in this way, you could just post links to what’s in your RSS feed. You don’t have to be the creator of content so much as its curator. This is what I primarily do with Twitter and my blog’s Facebook page, where I share links and typically add nothing more than a question, sample quotation, or brief comment.

Just recognize that the conversation doesn’t flow in one direction. Knowing that his Facebook friends and Twitter followers are “conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, evangelical Christians and atheists, academics and aunts and uncles, Mets fans and Yankee fans, and everyone in-between,” Fea celebrates how social media helps him

to see what a diverse group of people are thinking about and how they are responding to the ever-changing world around them. The conversations that happen on social media–either on my sites or the sites of others–fuel my writing and provide me with ideas. Sometimes it is less about posting and more about sitting back and reading the posts of others.

Open access for students, scholarship and publishing

International Open Access Week is coming on October 19-25, 2015. You may have heard this term “Open Access” before but what does it really mean? Why should this matter to you? This 3-minute video quickly clarifies open access:

Open Access 101

Open Access 101

Open access for your students

Open access is an important movement that seeks to ensure access to the scholarly literature your students need for their studies. They may use Google and run into paywalls or they may search library databases and come up empty because we can’t subscribe to the resource they need.

Libraries are working to close this gap locally and internationally. Locally, we communicate with you to make the best purchases we can from the affordable scholarly literature and making that as accessible as possible for your students through reference, instruction and technological services. Internationally, libraries like the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed, provide open access to scientific literature for the whole world including this 16 year old researcher who found a new way to treat cancer. Even though he didn’t know it at the time and initially credited Google for his findings, he realized through his conversation with Director of the NIH, Dr. Francis Collins, the NIH’s Library and movements like Open Access enabled his discovery.

Open access for your research

As the video references, you, as scholars and researchers, run into the same barriers as students do with paywalls and lack of access to scholarly literature. There are certainly effective ways to deal with this through interlibrary loan, colleague relationships at other institutions,  but even these are limited. Even universities and libraries with the largest budgets, like Harvard, cannot afford to purchase access to all the journals their community needs.

There are two major versions of open access that address these problems.

  • Repositories Based on Institution or Discipline (Open Access Green)

This kind of open access is based in an institution like Harvard’s, the University of Minnesota’s, George Fox’s, or at Bethel.

There is also a model of open access based on discipline like the one for physics and other natural sciences,, and the Social Science Research Network.

  • Peer-Reveiwed Journals  (Open Access Gold)

These journals are classified as “gold” because they meet the criteria of being peer-reviewed, freely accessible, available online, and able to be used in further research without restriction. The Directory of Open Access Journals is a stringently-vetted collection of scholarly open access journals organized by language and discipline.

Open access for your publishing

Where can I publish my work?

Once you’ve decided to publish your work you evaluate your options and select a publication that best fits the content of your work and promotion goals. With open access journals, this process remains the same but with particular resources to can help you navigate open access publications. The Directory of Open Access Journals is a great place to start.

Don’t people have to pay to publish?

In the majority of cases the answer is “no.” Some open access journals do charge fees, but the frequency and amount charged varies by discipline. In a 2013 study of 9,000 open access journals in the Directory of Open Access Journals, only 28% charged author fees. The natural sciences like chemistry (43%), physics (48%),  and genetics (77%) are more likely to charge a fee than disciplines like philosophy, history, or literature (all 3%).

Aren’t there concerns about quality or ethical business practices?

Beall’s List of open access publishers attempts to evaluate and identify open access journals and publishers that are “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers.” This list can be helpful but is also a subject to criticism over the criteria, which is publicly available, or the process of appeals to be removed from the list.

What if I do have to pay an author fee?

Sometimes this option can be written into a grant or larger institutions provide a budget to pay these fees. Unfortunately, at Bethel’s size and scale we don’t have that option. However, the Faculty Development or Faculty-Alumni Grants could be one way to get funding to cover these fees.

Further Resources

Hopefully, this post has clarified some of your questions about open access and has opened up some new options or opportunities for you. If you want to know more you can consult me, the Library guide on open access, or a post from this blog last year about a publishing opportunity in Open Access for the Humanities.

Summer Reading & Viewing: Recommendations from the faculty development team

When grading subsides and parts of your brain regain normal functioning, consider engaging faculty development resources you may have missed in the craze of the academic year. The faculty development team suggests these highlights:

Keith Brooks recommends:

  • Leah Fulton and Sam Mulberry’s Interviews with Students of Color (Short and Full Versions) These exit interviews provide great insight to some of the easily-overlooked issues relating to human dynamics. This is relevant in regard to changing demographics nationally and locally, and addresses our ongoing task of being a place that communicates effectively across cultures.

Kathy Nevins recommends:

Jay Rasmussen recommends:

  • Making Thinking Visible & Selected Harvard Thinking Routines Over the last several years a number of faculty have been using selected Harvard Thinking Routines to make thinking visible and to create a culture of thinking. When learners speak, write, or draw their ideas, they deepen their cognition. Thinking routines jump-start and make thinking visible so students can direct and improve their thoughts. This narrated PowerPoint and the related routines provide a good starting point.
  • Grouping for SuccessStrengthening Our Use of Groups & Group Contract Form Group work within the college classroom has the potential of being a powerful learning experience for students. Unfortunately, group work often turns into a less-than-desirable experience for students and professors alike. This video shares how groups can be successfully structured and used within a variety of instructional settings.
  • Using Flow Theory to Promote Engaged Learning Flow Theory, as developed by Mihaly Cskszentmihalyi, explains why humans fully engage in certain activities to the point of being fully absorbed, completely focused, and unaware of passing time. This narrated PowerPoint explores the origins of Mihaly’s research, conditions typically present when flow occurs, and how the theory can be applied to an instructional setting.
  • Power of Formative Assessment & Formative Assessment Strategies The use of formative assessment is one of the most exciting developments in the field of education in recent years. Used effectively, formative assessment has the power to double the speed of student learning. These resources provide an in-depth look at why to use formative assessment, guidelines for providing formative assessment, and specific formative assessment strategies.

April Schmidt recommends:

  • Schedule Like Beethoven: How to organize your workday like a genius One of the gifts of the academic calendar is an opportunity to re-approach our work each year with fresh strategies. This DIY Innovation Studio session is chock-a-block with wisdom from geniuses of history and tips and resources from Bethel profs. for making the most of your work day. Take a strategic, proactive approach to next year’s workdays and equip yourself to maximize efficiency and prevent burnout.

Sara Wyse recommends:

  • Top 21 1/2 Teaching Tips If you are short on time and want a great overview and synthesis of the research literature and what we’ve learned through Learner Perspectives on Instruction, check out the 21 1/2 teaching tips.  From course design to interacting with students, these tips will help energize you when you begin to transition back to thinking about teaching come August.

New Model and Opportunities for Open Access Publishing in the Humanities

The Bethel Libraries joined an international partnership of 33 colleges and universities, including Baylor University, Carleton College, Duke University, Macalester College and the University of Pennsylvania, to support peer-reviewed humanities research through the publishing platform called the Open Library of Humanities (OLH). It seeks to serve Humanities research based on the successful model of the Public Library of Science (PLOS) series of journals for the Natural and Life Sciences.

Bethel Supports the Open Library of Humanities

Dr. Martin Paul Eve, one of the founders and academic project directors of the OLH, welcomed Bethel:

I am delighted to welcome Bethel to the OLH Library Partnership Subsidy group. The response we’ve had so far has been brilliant and reflects the hunger among institutions for new models for open access that may work better in the humanities disciplines. With the help of institutions like Bethel, we will make this a reality.

Our very own Rhonda Gilbraith explains why it is important to us:

We are pleased and honored to play a small role in supporting efforts like these to provide high quality open access resources to the scholarly community.

Here is a preview of upcoming themes from the 2015 Calls for Papers :

  • May 1st – Teaching and Learning in Antiquity
  • May 1st – Religious Subcultures in Unexpected Places
  • May 25th – Healing Gods, Heroes and Rituals in the Graeco-Roman World
  • August 1 – American Literature and Transnational Marketplace
  • August 25 – Multifocal and Collaborative Approaches to South Asian History

They are also seeking editors with the following academic expertise areas:

  • History
  • Theology & Religious Studies
  • Literature & Languages
  • Modern & Ancient Languages
  • Philosophy
  • Cultural Studies & Critical Theory
  • Film, TV & Media Studies
  • Musicology, Drama & Performance
  • Classics
  • Art, Design & Art History
  • Legal Theory
  • Digital Humanities
  • Politics & Political Theory

If you are curious to learn more about why libraries, and Bethel University Library in particular, is supporting OLH or about its relationship to open access and scholarly publishing you can contact Rhonda Gilbraith or Kent Gerber.

Teach that Meeting: Cues from the classroom for managing meetings


Ever feel that way?

A recent National Public Radio (NPR) report highlighted the proliferation and dysfunction of meetings in American work culture. While the report focused on corporate settings, many of the observations felt discomfortingly familiar.

The report suggested managers remember the Parkinson’s principle as an antidote to ineffective meetings. Introduced humorously and somewhat anecdotally in a 1955 essay in The Economist, Parkinson’s principle has some research to support it—  including most of our daily experience.

The principle, in short, is this: Tasks expand to fill the time we give them.

In the classroom, this can be good news. If (assuming I’m a competent facilitator) I give my sophomores 50 minutes to examine the role of consumerism in the American Christian worldview, there’s a good chance we’ll engage the issue thoroughly and multifariously—the task will grow to fill the time.

If, however, I’m in a department meeting and our task is determining who’s teaching general education courses next term, without some management, the task could grow to fill the hour. We’ve all seen it happen: The announcements fill ¾ of the meeting, leaving the main business a rushed 10 minutes before it gets bumped to the next meeting—in which ¼ of that meeting will be spent trying to remember what we discussed last time.

At this point, the related Parkinson’s Law of Triviality saunters in. This related principle, sometimes called “bikeshedding,” summarizes our tendencies to devote our time to trivial, easily understood issues rather than important complex ones. The classic example cites a nuclear power plant approval committee arguing over materials for a bike shed.

The average American worker spends 9 hours a week—more than one full workday— dealing with project update meetings. Thankfully, many of us average that monthly rather than daily (as long as we’re only counting department, committee and module meetings). But if higher ed. is being forced to deal in efficiencies, I think we’d all rather trim our administrative tasks than our teaching tasks.

Some departments have disciplinary expertise in meeting management, but most of us made it to the academy on principles of inefficiency— they let us in here because we can take an achingly specific subject and address it in thousands of words.

So how can we use our skills as teachers—practices present in all disciplines– to better manage our meetings and avoid all kinds of Parkinsons?

Next time you’re elected to run a meeting (or volunteer— blessings upon you), consider implementing a few effective strategies from teaching:

Focus on objectives
Consider chucking the agenda and instead identifying objectives. Objectives contain motivating and focusing verbs that can clarify direction and participants’ roles in the interaction. Consider, for example, an agenda listing “Internship connections” vs. an objective to “Identify new potential internship connections.”

Distribute materials for review ahead of time. If people haven’t been able to engage the material before the meeting, postpone the discussion  rather than using meeting time as reading time. We’ve all seen that student trying to skim the chapter as class starts—how insightful is his or her contribution to the discussion?

Announce at the end
Email and handouts are ideal vehicles for conveying information—less so for discussion and decision-making. If anything falls off the agenda, let it be announcements, which can easily be distributed in other forms. Making announcements at the end of a meeting (class) also matches the information to the listeners’ point of need: anyone with questions or business relevant to the announcements can address those individually as the meeting adjourns.

Utilize group work
Chairs and minute-takers are routine in our meetings, but formalizing roles—and including a timekeeper—can encourage productive interaction. In the classroom, we warn our students when it’s time to wrap up, give a nudge when conversation lulls, and ensure turn-taking. That last one is especially difficult with peers (or bosses). If utilizing a human timekeeper is politically complicated, outsource to a cell phone—set an alarm to remind everyone when it’s time to move on or to wrap up. Formalizing roles can be socially awkward, but it assures a meeting is steered by the business at hand rather than by the relational dynamics of the group (like who’s asking whom to Nikdag).

Get feedback
NPR’s report struck me personally when it claimed most meeting leaders 1) never solicit feedback or 2) continue despite nonverbal feedback that attendees are disengaged. I’m guilty on both counts. Teaching in a vacuum is guaranteed irrelevancy; why should I expect facilitating a meeting to be any different?

What meeting management strategies work well in your department and on your committees? How do you avoid Parkinson’s principle– in meetings or in the daily grind of university work?