A Day in Abilene

Yesterday consisted of a drive from Grapevine and a quick tour of Abilene. I drove around a bit and checked out downtown before it got dark. A quiet day where nothing exciting really happened at all.

Today was day one at Abilene Christian University (ACU) it was jam packed, the polar opposite of yesterday. It was finally great to meet George Saltsman and his team here – Dwayne Harapnuik, Bill Rankin and Dennis Marquardt. George gave me a quick tour of the building – after I removed the parking ticket I had accumulated rather quickly from campus police. The Adams Centre resides in the same building as the library and really feels like the hub of activity for staff and students. The offices are pretty standard there is also a suite of training and conference rooms. We spent most of the day in the Bamboo Room – which was planned as a space for designing and ideas. We then moved onto the library to see the refurbished learning commons area, complete with Starbucks and suite of services areas, before heading up to the Learning Studio – a brand new space for students to create digital content. It’s a truly beautiful space and purpose built to provide students with a variety of rooms and spaces to encourage collaboration, team work and to develop digital content. There’s a great studio space available to students to learn and create high quality video and photography and it’s open to students right across the campus. There are also reading, writing and speaking areas – where students can get support to develop their skills in these key areas. The librarians are tucked away under research and these descriptive definitions really make it easy for students to find and access support and navigate their way around. I was really impressed with the Learning Centre and the variety of spaces their – I was especially enamoured with the workstations that allow multiple students to share their laptops on larger screen. I do want one!

I spent the rest of the day talking, which sounds boring, but the conversations were great and it was such a pleasure to discuss and share ideas with Dwayne and Bill. It’s strange to really get a feel for somewhere and someone so quickly, but there is an intuitive and palpable personality and culture here. You immediately feel welcome, which maybe drawn from a deep Texan tradition, but there is a relaxed and unpretentious atmosphere that immediately puts you at ease. Imbued in this culture is this quest to innovate, improve and enhance teaching and learning. You can see it in the spaces here as they reflect this quest. You can hear it too in the enthusiasm in their voices and the animated way they speak. It so palpable that you can almost feel it and touch it. Taste it even.

During our discussions I used the metaphor of a ship on the high seas about our mobile program. At the moment CSU is just getting into the boat and is shoring up our direction. ACU however has their sights set on a point on the horizon – they know where they are going. At sea storms and unexpected events may knock you off course, but when you have a clear direction you can get there – it might just not been the easiest or quickest route. And it’s this purpose and direction that really underlines the work and the culture here at Abilene. They have created a culture here that lives and breathes, that almost has life itself. But it is not something in isolation – the culture extends out to the faculty too.

I spoke with Dwayne about this and interestingly he felt that food played a big part. The Adams Centre provides lunch everyday as part of professional development sessions and often has larger lunches for faculty – not as part of training, but as a chance and an opportunity to get people together in the same space. There is a lot to be said for breaking bread together, and here it’s been taken to another level.

I think that quite often getting people together at CSU is like herding cats. Our widely spread multicampus structure doesn’t make it easy either, but when it happens, its usually a great experience. At the CSUED conferences there is such a great vibe of collegiality, sharing and openness, but away from the conference loose that everyday conversation – instead waiting to channel it through the next event. We seem to loose that focus, vibrancy and dialogue when we go back to work it becomes more obvious when comparing it to here at Abilene where there is an environment that lives and breathes that collegiality and sharing culture everyday. It’s also all united under the clear direction to improve and innovate to ensure the best learning and teaching experience for their students. While we spoke about mobiles and the technology it became more and more clear that this culture has been the deciding factor for the success at Abilene. Without it, who knows what would have happened but it probably wouldn’t be the success it is today.

The practical lessons I’m receiving about mobile learning are invaluable to my work, but if there was just one thing I could take home it would be about the importance of establishing this culture. It creates a space for relationships and dialogue. It generates a mind shift where staff actively want to buy-in to innovative projects. It removes the structural and administrative silos to enable more sharing and more collaboration, so much so that it becomes part of the practice. The culture brings with it and defines these in built layers – so they become automatic, even natural and second nature. There isn’t a need to ‘enforce’ anything, it just happens.

To me, that is priceless.

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