Kyle Bowen in front of screen with attendees in foreground.

Kyle Bowen kicking off the Living Dead Week’s Friday presentations.

Innovation can’t happen unless you try something new.

That’s the basic premise behind Living Dead Week, an event where Education Technology Services (ETS) staff pursue a topic, idea, skill, or area of interest for a full work week and then present on what he or she learned on the fifth day. The subjects covered during the event ranged from an idea to create a homemade electrical power source to re-conceptualizing online learning environments.

First, about the name, which actually has nothing to do with zombies; the Living Dead Week organizer, Kyle Bowen, director of ETS, came to Penn State this year from Purdue University, where he served as director of informatics. Living Dead Week was something he created while at Purdue, which has something they refer to as “Dead Week”. This is a week where students are given time to prepare for their final exams the following week without other exams or quizzes, hence the term “Dead Week.” Bowen thought it would be perfect to use the “dead” time for something lively and dynamic like a week of creativity and ideas, and the Living Dead Week was born. “I wanted to get across that this would be an active time,” he said. “Also, any time you have a chance to throw in a zombie reference, it should be taken advantage of.”

There really was no structure to Living Dead Week, Bowen said, other than having to deliver something by the end of the week. Also, the event was not limited to just ETS staff, as 10 staff from Outreach and World Campus and several staff from Teaching and Learning with Technology units other than ETS were invited to participate in Living Dead Week.

The only limit to what ETS and the other employees could work on was their own imagination, Bowen said, and they were told to work only on their idea or project during Living Dead Week and not their normal everyday work tasks. “The projects and ideas that come out of this are used as the origins of new services, new ideas and/or new ways to engage people or solve problems,” he said. “Really the intent is to set aside time and focus on one thing and make it a priority to do it.”

Megan Kohler, instructional designer with ETS, was part of a group that included Alexa Schriempf, accessibility technology specialist with TLT Operations; Audrey Romano, web designer with TLT Studio; and Brad Kozlek, director of TLT Studio, who worked on a project to re-conceptualize online learning environments and come up with some new ideas. “We had a couple of goals in mind, but what we really wanted to do was to create an online learning an environment that provided an experience rather than just information,” Kohler said. “We also wanted to streamline the look and feel of online learning environments and to make them more simplistic, yet incredibly powerful.”

For Schriempf, working on the Living Dead Week project with Kohler and Romano was a powerful creative experience. “I’d never done anything like this before,” she said. “What I got out of it was just a massive creative explosion. Going through the Living Dead Week process actually fueled my ability to solve other problems in other areas much more quickly.”

In Romano’s case, the experience of Living Dead Week allowed her to view a project from a different perspective. Normally, she said, she’s right in the thick of building something, so she doesn’t get the 20,000-foot view of a project like she did during Living Dead Week. “Megan has identified the problem points of the project and what her vision looks like,” she said. “She’s got a huge vision about online learning. It’s a lot to tackle something that large but also keep it simple at the same time.”

This variety of perspectives is something that Kohler found valuable as well. “We were able to get critical perspectives from everyone involved in the process during Living Dead Week. That streamlined everything for us,” she said. “Normally you have a series of meetings to try and formulate the idea, and then you start bringing in the right people at the right times. But in this case we were able to have everyone critical to the process involved in our discussions from the very beginning and throughout the entire process. It was a really great experience.”

Barb Smith, manager with ETS, explored a new service called CloudAXIS, which enables video conferencing between a laptop using a web browser, a mobile device, and a polycom unit so meeting attendees can easily share audio and video. Randy Kibe of Telecommunications and Networking Services gave Smith a virtual meeting room to experiment with, and she found that CloudAccess may have benefits for ETS staff. “It seems to be able to allow us to take advantage of mics and speakers and things that are already built into the rooms so we don’t have to lug a lot of stuff with us to meetings,” Smith said. So, that’s why I wanted to look at it.”

Bart Pursel, faculty programs coordinator, spent his Living Dead Week checking out the potential educational uses of a website called Twitch TV. Currently, Pursel said, Twitch TV is used for people who want to broadcast and watch e-sports and online gaming. However, Google is preparing to buy Twitch TV, which will enable it to become a much larger streamlined web-based system that will allow people to broadcast and watch a wide variety of content subjects.

“I think it has a lot of applications for what we can do with online learning specifically,” Pursel said. “It can also be used for blended learning, giving students the ability to do these broadcasts for classroom presentations. For example, this would be great for journalism communications majors.”

These projects and others were part of a day-long meeting the Friday of Living Dead Week by the participants, where they shared brief presentations of what they worked on and learned. “The diversity of projects it was just so compelling,” Bowen said. “It was fascinating to me to see people who were taking on challenges that were outside of their typical job responsibilities. Often these were people who were taking on what were really kind of old challenges but really bringing fresh ideas to how to take them on.”

“What I saw ran the gamut of projects that are mature and ready for further exploration and  those that are really early stage and maybe need a little bit more incubation before becoming a real project. I was thrilled with the projects I was seeing,” Bowen added.

The end-of-week presentations were valuable to Pursel, as he found out what others were working on, which he believes will spark a lot of collaboration. “I saw a lot of synergies between what different people were doing during the week, people who probably weren’t even talking to each other and didn’t realize that they were kind of doing similar projects,” he said. “So, already I can see some things that will probably grow legs and begin to get some momentum and turn into real impactful things down the road.”

ETS staff found the event so successful that they are already looking forward to Living Dead Week 2015. “Because this was the first time for most of the people participating, now they have a better understanding of how Living Dead Week works and what can be done in a week,” Bowen said. “I am hearing that they even are beginning to generate ideas now for next year, and I think everyone realizes that this kind of activity is important for an institution to be successful.

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