Supporting the Unsupportable

More with less (or at least the same).

How does a department, organization, institution provide support for the growing variety of available software, hardware, and networked solutions with the no additional staffing? It’s no secret, hiring “enough” support staff isn’t possible.  Aside from being fiscally impossible, it’s probably impractical – there are just too many needs.

We all have our favorite operating system, web browser, word processor, collaboration solution, etc.  Personally, I like the Macintosh operating system.  I use Firefox web browser and Microsoft Word as a word processor.  I prefer a Wiki over Sharepoint.  Others like Linux, Open Office, Google Web, and Google Docs.

So, how can we support this diversity?  The above examples are fairly trivial.  We should continue to provide full support for key, institutional, mission critical technology.  But when it comes to providing support for specialized software or hardware, the challenges become more complicated and diverse.

One way to do provide “support” is through the community.  In the “old days” this was done through special interest groups – “SIGS.”  The problem with SIGS was that most of the interaction was through group meetings, on a monthly basis. Over time, the interest usually waned and the topics could become irrelevant to the vast majority.  Today, technology can make it possible for any us to reach out for support 24×7 and receive relevant help through the community of interested users – all through the use of Discussion Forum technology.

I’m a member of several forums related to audio/music engineering. I used them a lot when I first opened my recording studio back in 2001.  These forums have threads on many topics with lots of good information.  Before I asked a question, I searched the forum to see if my question had ever been asked before.  If so, I had my answer.  If not, I would post my question, within a day or so, if not sooner, someone posted an answer.  What’s cool is that some questions got lots answers from various perspectives – many who contributed were from world renown audio engineers who had been in the business for 30 years.  Rarely, did I not get what I needed.  Some of the forums had threads were 3 or 4 years old that still provided value.  I got an email message every time a new post was added to a thread that I participated in or started.  In fact, I recently got an email message a couple weeks ago when someone posted on a thread that I participated in four years ago.

We can setup discussion forums with subject matter experts as forum moderators.  Forum topics can be technologies like: Final Cut Pro; Using Google Docs; Effective Ways of Using a Wiki in Teaching; Macintosh Snow Leopard; Podcasting; Creating Multimedia; Using SPSS/SAS, and many others.  Such a service can enable a student with a question about SPSS to post their question to the the forum; someone within the Northeastern community can provide an answer.  The thread is persistent and can probably help another student months and even years later.

Can we support the unsupportable?  Yes.  We just need to be creative and willing to find ways to make sure that our faculty and students can get what they need – without them having to be technical wizards.  There’s a lot of knowledge out there that can be tapped into – we just need to provide “the forum” for them to share that knowledge.

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