Friday, August 29, 2008

Back to .... Everything

Been a long time gone! (There's a song there ... )

After I returned from North Carolina I got viciously sick with a fever/flu/head cold thing that is still with me. I don't have anywhere near the energy I usually do, and this week was the first week back to school with students. I've missed blogging a lot. Today, after a delightful glass or two of wine last night and after watching Barack's speech in Denver, I feel once again yes, I'll say it, hopeful.

I usually love the first week of school. I adore my students and I adore teaching. I even really like the people I work with, and my department in particular is filled with kind, intelligent, professional people. I am a lucky woman.


This week, partly because I am still not 100% well, but mostly because of a new, obscene, virtual thing that I have no control over, I endured the worst first week of my fifteen year teaching career. What could this be, you say? Yes, we know about silly assessment meetings, and college strategy meetings, and governing board objectives that must be somehow put into your individual performance goals as a faculty member (I still wonder how I'm supposed to enhance facilities management ... but maybe one day I'll figure that one out). We know about making sure you fill out your office hour sheet down to the quarter hour and the challenges of parking on the first week and the lack of coffee and the lines of students who look at you with deep longing to enter your already at capacity classes ... this is to be expected.


This week my institution decided to change its on-line access and student account information and passwords. Let me backtrack. I have also set as a goal (yay performance goals) to use less paper and conserve college resources. We have an on-line course component that is available in all classes, whether they are 100% on line or in the classroom. It makes ecological sense to post handouts and assignments on line and save the mass killing of yellow, blue, and pink colored trees. It makes environmental sense to post syllabi there. Contact information. Helpful hints. Then students have 24/7 access to their courses. They'll never "lose" a handout again, and there is no excuse for a late paper because they can turn it in at any time from the comfort of their own homes.

Here's an excellent example of the difference between theory and practice. I still don't see a flaw in my theory. Colleges use a LOT of paper. Most of it needless. I love trees. I'm a writer. I use a LOT of paper. I need to get my paper-karma back in balance. In practice, however, the world is vastly different.

I'm not afraid of computers. I really love them, actually. I've been a Mac girl for almost two decades. When I'm forced to use a PC (like in the classroom) I steel myself against the inevitable Windows Vista F-U messages and the fatal error messages and the overall slowness of this very clumsy operating system. My computer in my office has Leopard (fast cat!) and is just far more sexy than the PCs in the classroom. But I digress. I do believe technology can help us live more efficiently and consciously.

To a point.

My institution has reached the tipping point, where technology has moved from being a tool to being an inhibitor. We outsourced a project that we've called the "portal". Try to explain to a group of older students whose sole computer experience is maybe sending e-mail (if they don't "lose" the cursor) why they must enter this portal, how to enter this portal, and what they must do when they get there. Try to explain to a group of students how to save their files as Rich Text so that anyone can open them (gosh, are there other word processing programs than wordpad?) Try to explain to a group of students about the free Adobe Acrobat reader so they can read the .pdf files I posted in the class. Try to explain this over and over and over and over and over for the entire first week of school. To five sections. To 85 students. Assign a "test" assignment. Their mission, should they choose to accept it, was to create a text file and attach it to me as a rich text file.

Yeah. I had a handout with directions. Yeah. I believe that writers must know how to use basic technology if they expect to ever sell a book, or a story, or a poem. Everything in publishing is moving electronically. Submissions, rejections, edits, correspondence, contracts. You can't be a computer dork and be a successful writer.

But we are a rural, poor county. Many of my creative writing students are returning students. They did not grow up with computers. They don't know what their browser is. They don't always know what platform they're running. And here they are in college and they have to enter a portal. And I do mean have to. The school did not make this optional. So, here I am, newly forty, trying to explain to people in their 60s and 70s that this is the direction of education. That is isn't very difficult. Please don't be afraid.

I might have been successful with this route, except my school let me down.

Too many users caused system crashes all week. Forced changes in student passwords kept many students from being able to log in. Overloads in calls to our very sweet but relatively small staff of computer help desk employees. Forced upgrades in classrooms which were not completely done so that when instructors tried to show the students how "easy" it was, nothing worked. (Note to tech support: If you're going to install the Adobe Professional Suite, you must LAUNCH it before going away. Otherwise no one can open a PDF file until they first open Photoshop.) You try to find Photoshop on a Vista PC while your whole class is staring at you, wanting only the good old days when they could have a yellow syllabus that they could keep in a notebook. Sigh. I hear the horse and buggy trotting by as I write.

Then, my friend, my favorite browser, Firefox, let me down. You know how aggressive programs can be about downloading the new version. So, most people who use Firefox have been forced to upgrade to the new version whether they wanted to or not. The new version doesn't recognize Rich Text files until you make a change in Preferences. It's an easy change to do, if you know to go do it. The only message Firefox gives you is "unreadable file." So, you've told your classes that anybody can open Rich Text files, and then you find out it's not true. Your beloved Firefox must be fixed first. And did I mention -- about half my students didn't know what their browser was or which one they had.

So, you send group e-mails to all 85 of your students on Thursday about Firefox and how to change the preferences. You thank them for their patience. You apologize for your institution's bizarre choice to implement all these changes on the first week of school. And then half your e-mails get bounced back because something in the "portal" causes many of the e-mails to be returned as undeliverable. I know my students' e-mails are valid. I asked every student on the first week to verify. So I know it's us. I know we're supposed to communicate electronically and I know we're somehow making that impossible. I was able to send e-mails out to everyone prior to the launch of the "portal" on Monday. After Monday, group e-mails had difficulty. So I don't know who received an e-mail and who didn't.

I need more than wine.

Then, one of the "benefits" of the portal (did I mention nothing was broken before -- we could all log on, work, enjoy our days) was that we'd only have to log on once a day. I only logged on once a day before, but hey, whatever. Tech people have to have performance goals too. But now, I have to log in about every 20 minutes. There's an automatic time out that we can't adjust on the system. I'm supposed to be able to log in in the morning, have access to my on -line courses, my e-mail, my rosters, my committee groups -- everything I need to be a happy employee. Theoretically, I have no problem with this concept. Yeah. Theory and practice. Not the same.

This is not just a Laraine-gripe. Up and down the hallowed halls this week, faculty were cursing the portal. In the break rooms, no one could talk about anything else. We stormed the bastille to find out who to send nasty e-mails to. (Ever notice how these institutional changes often have no go-to person?) Students are dropping the classes. The technology is too daunting for some. There are no alternatives in Yavapai county. We are the college for the general population. Students are trying to be patient, but they're up against dial-up connections, old machines, and a lack of time to try and figure out a new system. Yes, we provide computers on campus. No, not 5000 of them. And no, everyone cannot make it to the campus to use these lovely pre-loaded computers. People are even talking about this in Albertson's. A few students told me they overheard people complaining while they were in line at the bank. Yep. It's a small town. But really, this has been a problem.

Ready for the very best -- I mean the seriously, laugh out loud, most hilariously best part of this week? Sit down.

My institution's umbrella goal for 2008-2009 is customer service.

I lift my second glass of wine.
To Customer Service.


Andi said...

Oh, Laraine, Laraine, as my students would say, "I feel ya." And now I will forward this post to everyone I know as my college is also launching "the portal" in the next few months . . . here's to cautionary tales. My glass is lifted.

Carrie Anne AKA Mad Scientist said...

You're trying to handle all of this on only two glasses of wine? So brave. Another couple weeks of this, and the instructors and students will all need to be institutionalized in a computer free environment.

Dawn Maria said...

Glad to see you back! Sounds like an awful week. I'm a Mac girl too, so I understand your PC pain. Hang in there and keep your wine handy!

msb said...

Yikes! It sounds scary over there. I was going to take a class this term but I had computer problems. Maybe next term after the portal rotor rooter.