“There is a line where technology crosses over from ‘cool’ to ‘creepy,’ and that line is different for everyone,” says Mathews.

Jun 06 2014

Q&A: Brian Mathews on ‘Being Ubiquitous’ in Education Technology

“There is a line where technology crosses over from ‘cool’ to ‘creepy,’ and that line is different for everyone,” says Mathews.

(After the publication of EdTech: Focus on Higher Educaton’s “Top 50 Must-Read IT Blogs,” we chatted with a few of the bloggers on the list.)

In his day job, Brian Mathews helps with outreach and learning at Virginia Tech's libraries. But as the Ubiquitous Librarian, he's also known as one of the most prolific bloggers in higher education. He also shares his observations on Twitter @brianmathews. We spoke with Mathews this week about the history of his blog and what he sees ahead for education and technology.

EDTECH: Please describe the theme of your blog.

MATHEWS: It launched in 2006 when I was working as a reference librarian.

Librarians often talk about outreach and engagement, but most of the time that means promoting library collections, spaces and services. I wanted to challenge the practice. Instead of just finding new ways to connect people with their library, I asked: What is it that people on my campus need, and can I do something to help them?

The “ubiquitous” theme is about addressing problems, ideas or possibilities regardless of whether it involves the library’s core portfolio or not. It’s about reframing my personal mission: How can I make the community better? Make it stronger? More creative? More competitive?

I wanted to free myself from traditional established boundaries as well as the perceptions of what a librarian is or does, and instead, open myself up to new and unexpected directions. This has involved improving recycling efforts on campus, helping a student organization raise money for a speaker, teaching a faculty member how to use GTD, and numerous conversations that involve advice, brainstorming or encouragement.

This act of being ubiquitous not only strengthens the community but also expands the perception of the library. To me, that’s the real objective of outreach, not a larger gate count.

EDTECH: What made you want to start writing your blog?

MATHEWS: Around 2002, I noticed a handful of my friends were using LiveJournal. This online diary concept was new then and more engaging than email or instant messaging.

In 2005 I started using TypePad to write about professional topics. This was the early era of Web 2.0, and many of us in libraries were excited about how “the participatory web” would impact the ways that people shared, accessed and created information. So all of that was swirling around in my head, as well as wanting to have a channel to chronicle various projects I was involved in.

In 2011, The Chronicle of Higher Education invited me to write on their platform. It was also around that time that I shifted more into library administration as well.

EDTECH: Do you interact with your readers?

MATHEWS: In the early years I read every comment and responded to most of them. Today I glance at comments but interact very irregularly. I tend to have more engagement with readers via Facebook and Twitter. I also receive emails from campus administrators and professors from around the country asking for follow-up information. I occasionally hear from architects since I frequently blog about learning spaces

EDTECH: From your perspective, what's the biggest technological challenge higher education institutions face today?

MATHEWS: Tough question. I don’t know enough about institutional IT administration to outline the biggest challenge they are facing. I do know that as a client, I am asking for greater email inbox capacity and better wireless bandwidth. Content and personal devices are going to continue to multiply, and we need to meet those demands.

One of the biggest challenges that I see for higher education technology is social rather than technical. There is a gray area around privacy versus personalization. There is a line where technology crosses over from “cool” to “creepy,” and that line is different for everyone.

During a recent conference trip, my phone — an HTC One — automatically knew the hotel I was staying at, my reservation number and check-in time, as well as driving directions. It also offered restaurant and tourist recommendations that were spot-on. I didn’t have to set up any preferences or fill out forms — Google skimmed my emails and search history, along with my GPS coordinates and handled the rest. It seamlessly provided me with very personalized content.

I told some colleagues about this and they thought it was creepy and worrisome. But honestly, I am fine with Google knowing all of this and using/selling my data in order to serve up a contextualized experience. It actually enhanced my trip.

I think this concept will trickle down into higher education. We have a lot of student data across many different systems — is there an opportunity to deploy that information in a way that enhances the campus experience? Where is the line between making things intuitive for learners versus being too intrusive?

I think these are questions we will be tackling over the next five years.

EDTECH: Read any other IT-related blogs?


  • The Next Web is my go-to blog for technology news; I read it throughout the day. Wired and FastCo always offer great insights, but I typically pick those up off of retweets.
  • I enjoy Wired Campus.
  • Gardner Campbell writes about the intersection between pedagogy, creativity and technology.
  • Jon Udell posts about digital citizenship.
  • Data artist Jer Thorp always shares interesting content.
  • I closely follow blogs and papers from Steelcase and Herman Miller. They often cover user-centered design regarding the future — with some technology-based integration.

Read our other Q&As with top higher education bloggers

<p>Courtesy of Brian Mathews</p>