Answering and Asking: The Ronco Question

Next week, my family and I are taking a much-needed vacation. We’ll be holed up in a cabin in West Virginia with (I expect) no internet access and limited cell phone access. I can’t wait; I’m also a little afraid. 🙂

But, before I leave, I’m taking a moment on this blog to reflect upon a project that’s been brewing in the heads and hearts of many at UMW and to ask a number of my colleagues and comrades-in-arms to join in over the next week with their own reflections.

The project is code-named “Ronco.” For the not faint-of-heart, you can read a painfully long transcript of the email exchange that started this all off here. (Read the whole thing, and the meaning of the name “Ronco” will be revealed.) If you make it through that entire text, more power to you. Then move on to Patrick’s imagined use cases. They’re a bit more focused and may help make more sense of the whole thing.

But, right now, in this space, I’m going to take a moment to answer the question “What is Ronco (to Martha)?”

Let me back up first to get a running-start. . .

I have the dubious honor of having kicked off that email discussion with a very early-morning post-Student Academy message in early April, which, on a whim, I forwarded to an informal group of fellow travelers (faculty, students, even the odd administrator), not sure what would happen next. It was cool to see my nocturnal ramblings spark a conversation that was far bigger, deeper, and more compelling than anything I had originally imagined. I’ll take credit for that small spark, but the fire that developed (and continues to develop) was fanned by all the creative, wise people whom I have the pleasure of calling colleagues.

Now, we’ve had a few opportunities to come together as a group and continue to try and pin down the meaning of “Ronco.” The conversations are always inspiring (seriously) and they spin off in many varied and rich directions. At the same time, we’re trying to figure out how to harnass all this creativity into some kind of feasible project that we can begin to tackle his summer.

So, again, what is Ronco? Here’s what I think. Ronco is a set of tools/online environments that allow us to make visible the mind of the University. Originally, I was focussed on one specific tool that I felt would meet a particular need — a Zotero-like device (Firefox plugin?) that a user could use to “capture” any kind of online resource and generate a sort of RSS/XML-feed on steroids. Sick of wondering how to get all the various Web authoring tools and social networking spaces to play nicely together, I wondered what would happen if we just scrapped that approach altogether and built some intelligent, lightweight, browser-based “appliance” that would allow me to cobble together a feed from any spot along my digital trail. (Others have asked if this isn’t del.icio.us. I still don’t *think* so, but I can’t really explain it. At least, not right now, I can’t.)

I’ve got no clue if my original idea holds any water. Frankly, the conversation has spun so much larger at this point, that it doesn’t seem to matter, sometimes. Because now, after spending two-odd months in multiple conversations (large and small) that are “Ronco-enhanced” we’re thinking beyond the tool or appliance. We’re thinking instead about the more conceptual underpinnings behind all of this — underpinnings that our colleagues and cohorts in schools and institutions all over are also mulling over (in some cases, have been mulling over for far longer than us). In particular, they seem to grok this stuff in Canada — what’s with that, huh?

Alright, let me try to re-focus. Sigh.

What is Ronco? Ronco is a set of tools/online environments that allows us to make visible the mind of the University. With the “Ronco Suite for Inspired Minds,” learners and teachers will be able to capture and tag their online travels. Once captured, we’ll then be able to consume those trail markings in a number of rich, visual environments, focussed (as needed) through different lenses. Want to see what all the students in a class are Ronco-ing? Here it is. Want to see all the tags they’re using, in a weighted tag cloud? Here it is. Want to see how that tag cloud relates/corresponds to the one generated by the class down the hall/across campus? Here it is. Want to see how my tag cloud as a freshman compares to my cloud as a senior. Here it is. Want to see just the videos that have been tagged with “adventure?” Here they are, oh, and we’ll present them in a rich Web space that allows you to add your own annotations on top. Why? Because with Ronco, we can!

What else can we do? We can “travel the tags,” journeying across the synapses of the University, uncovering the unspoken, usually unacknowledged connections among English courses and pyschology courses, independent studies and seminar classes, formal and informal learning experiences. Maybe advising fits in here somehow, too, huh?

I think I’m rambling now. . .So, I’ll stop and ask you. What is Ronco? I’m calling you all out. When I return from WV, I hope I’ve got lots to read. . .

Update: Comments are, of course, welcome. But I’d love it even more if you took the conversation back to your own blog and pinged-back. And, while you’re at it (in the sprit of Ronco) use the tag/category “umwronco.” We’ve got plans for that. . .

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