Thursday, June 26, 2014

Don Silvius: iMLearning Champion

To my knowledge, Don Silvius is IC's most acclaimed historian.  His calm demeanor and clear intrigue with history makes it so you cannot be around him for too long without learning something interesting; I guess you could call it "Don knowledge osmosis." 

Despite only knowing Don just under a year, I think it is safe to say that anybody would be hard pressed to find a friendlier individual who deeply values the people and connections he has made over the years. When I went to Don's office for his interview, I was greeted, chatted about some of the photos on his wall, and then got straight to business:

Q: Would you mind telling me a little about yourself?
A: I was born in Martinsburg, WV but my family has lived in the Shenandoah Valley for over 250 years. I graduated from Shepherd University with a degree in Chemistry, as you can see, I use that degree everyday... I got my job at SU because I used to work at a library automation company, and in 2006 they chose to downsize, and the very next day I received a phone call about an opening at SU.  In that aspect, I guess you could say I was fortunate and at the right place at the right time.

Q: Don, what kind of stuff do you do outside of work?
A: Okay, I do a lot of things outside of SU.  I, jokingly, call it my, "other life." I come from a musical family, and music is a big part of what I do outside of here. I play piano, and though I do not play in any public settings, my wife enjoys the performances. She doesn't make me use headphones anymore with my digital piano. It's a huge accomplishment. I'm the vice president of the Berkeley County Historical Society in Martinsburg, and I've been on their board of directors now for eleven years. My main function at the historical society is directing research. I've actually written three books for the historical society, all three have sold out!

Q: Are you working on any projects right now? 
A:Right now, the project I am working on is probably the most interesting project I have worked on to date because it involves living people. We have a historic Baltimore and Ohio Railroad roundhouse built in 1866 that has been restored after being shut down in the late '80s. Many of the people who worked there are still living. I've been doing video/audio interviews with them. Their stories and their photos are great; it's a great experience thus far. We actually made their stories into 15 and 30 minute videos and by October, we will have a third video which we will use at events and when people tour the roundhouse.  For now, the tours are free, and I would certainly encourage people to come and visit

Q: Are you an animal lover?
A: Yes! We have cats, chinchillas, and a hedgehog.  The chinchillas and the hedgehog belong to our daughter. At first I had reservations about having rodents as pets, but they make surprisingly excellent pets.  They like to sit on your shoulder and are actually very social. 

Q: What is your most memorable experience at SU thus far?
A: There are a lot. Most of them involve students that I got to know well. I have, appropriate, and special relationships with many of my former student workers, one is right there (He points to the wall where he has several pictures of smiling folks). My wife and I call her our Chinese daughter, now she lives in Shanghai, China with the job of her dreams. I'd have to say though the most memorable moment was making iMLearning actually happen. In late 2008 we were gearing up for it, and despite hearing from multiple sources that the project might not work, we eventually did it. Now we are in year six of the iMLearning program. 

Q: What does a typical work day in your life look like?
A: Most days, I begin by reacting to emails with people with questions or concerns about iMLearning related things. Once August is over, and everybody has their iMLearning equipment, we will begin getting ready for the next year.  During the downtime between iMLearning distributions, it is a matter of logistics and planning ahead. Getting equipment here to be distributed to the right people, at the right time, at the right place, and in the right numbers is trickier than you might think. 

Q: Can you give me a run down of the iMLearning process?
A: From beginning to end. Let's just say it is the day after a major iMLearning distribution. The first thing we do is evaluate, re-purpose, and repair old equipment that we get in. After that we begin to get into some of the logistics, we gather numbers and projections so that we can figure out how many new devices we are going to need to acquire.  Of course, as time goes on, the projections get more and more accurate. Typically, a month or so before the end of a semester, I will already have fairly accurate projections about what equipment I will need to order for the next semester. Then we place our orders, which is a process in itself. Once the equipment arrives, then it all needs to be prepared. This includes putting asset tags on everything and imaging the computers (last semester Tom Anderson and I, including a few volunteers imaged 700ish MacBooks in three days). After all of this, the distribution happens, and then we do it all over again.

Q: If you disappeared into an extra-dimensional pocket and nobody took over your job responsibilities, what would happen after six months?
A: It would depend on the time of year, if it was mid semester, I think things would be okay. We have everything setup so that if I had to be out for week or two weeks because of an emergency, somebody else can step in and fill for me.  If nobody picked up the ball though, there would be big problems after six months.  I mean, imagine if nobody was around to make sure the iMLearning distribution happened, it would be rough.

Q: If you could give users one quick pro tip regarding technology that you support, what would it be?
A: I think the most important thing is to backup your data.  I know you've heard this from some of the other people you've interviewed but it is so true. Just the other day, I had a student say, "I don't know what I would do without my MacBook, my entire life is on there." If your entire life is on your MacBook, you should back it up often. 

Like most experiences regarding Don, my interview with him was pleasant. If you ever have any questions about iMLearning, feel free to email him at If you get the chance, pay attention to, and learn from, The Berkeley County Historical Society projects!

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