Friday, September 10, 2010

That's What I'm Saying

It's been ages since my last blog post.

Sad to say, what's bringing me back--despite my busy writing schedule--is a need to vent. I have these little rants that I keep putting on back-burners, and now something has to hit the page or I'll explode rather messily.

The straw that broke my back-burner's back is tech support. Not terribly surprising, if you've dealt with tech support. I'm not anti-tech support. I know tech-support people. I like the competent ones. We'll call them gnomes. I like the gnomes. But those offices are also cages for people who have a lot of undeserved ego and no listening skills, and for some reason, the rest of us have to deal with them more often than we get to deal with the competent folks. Call them goblins. I hate goblins.

This post is not about the blessed, beloved gnomes who make the world work better. It's about the other guys. The goblins.

Here's the triggering event:

I wrote to the tech support guys who manage the Blackboard systems for a campus where I'm teaching, asking them to combine several of my classes into one single Blackboard page.

This was a reasonable request, one they've granted every term since, oh, about 2005. The Blackboard sites I want combined are all for different sections of exactly the same course, all using the same readings, the same syllabus; all doing the same assignments.

I want to do this because it's good time-management. Having to bounce around making redundant updates to multiple sites is very inefficient and takes time away from grading, mentoring, writing letters of recommendation, and other things that I consider to be part of my job. I like being efficient.

This year, however, I encountered goblin resistance. I was warned that if I do this, the roll sheets on Blackboard will be blended, and I (gasp) won't be able to tell which student is in which class.

Well, yeah. Like I said (and like I told them in my request), I've been doing this for a long time. I know that the Blackboard roll sheets end up blended. But I don't use Blackboard for roll sheets.

I told them their problem was no biggie: "I use the roll sheets on iGrade, so I'll be cool. Please combine the sites, etc."

Besides, I added, Blackboard's roll sheets have never been that accurate anyway.


Okay, so that last comment, in hindsight, was a mistake. Never criticize a goblin. He'll throw dung at you.

Needless to say, my comment provoked an entirely different, additional conversation, also with tech support, so now I'm in two frustrating discussions with prickly people who resist everything I'm saying.

"Blackboard's roll sheets are identical to iGrade, because they're drawn from the same source," one writes to me (I'm paraphrasing).


Here's the thing about goblins: They look at the contraption but not at what it produces. They judge it by its purpose, not by its effects. It's a mindset: The documentation says it does this. I set it up to do this. Ergo, it does this.

No, it doesn't. Check the results. It's a critical step in designing anything. You design the car. You say it'll drive. You designed it to drive. At some point, get in the freaking thing, turn the ignition, and try to drive it. Not just up and down the driveway. Take it on the freeway. In traffic. Please. It's what a gnome would do.

It's clear, abundantly clear, that the folks at Blackboard and the campus computing people never drive their stuff. They're overrun by goblins.

After ripping from my scalp some hair (which was graying anyway), I replied: "No, they're not the same. Blackboard is good at adding students from the same dataset as iGrade. But when students drop the class, Blackboard doesn't remove them. If you go off of Blackboard, you think students are still enrolled in your class when really they aren't. You have to check iGrade or the originating dataset to find out who dropped. Every term, I have to go into Blackboard and clear out the students who have dropped."

The goblin reply, in a nutshell, said: "You're wrong. They are in sync. The only reason they wouldn't be is that you are adding students on Blackboard, but not on the official rosters, so if they're out of sync, it's because you made them that way. If they were really out of sync, that'd be a big deal, and we'd need to know about it."

More hair loss ensues.

There are several things about that response that are truly frustrating.

1. I never, ever said I added students, but goblins can't read. I had said that the two systems end up naturally out of sync, without any interference on my part. My interference brings them back into sync.

2. More importantly, never say "you're wrong" and "if you're right, I would need to know about it" in the same message.


I just told you about it, and you didn't listen

If you're a goblin, it's a fair assumption that this happens a lot to you: People tell you things you really need to hear, and you tell them they're doing stuff wrong, instead of listening.

If things are really going wrong
, the goblin tells himself, someone will let me know.

Great idea, gobby.

Want to know what it will sound like? Hit REWIND.

Tech support goblins have been drawing my wrath for a while now--in general, not just at one particular office.

On some other campuses, the tech goblins are security "conscious" to such an insane degree that the campuses are no longer actually secure. Again, the gobbers have a system with a stated purpose, and they assume it does what they designed it to do. Tell them that it doesn't, and you get lip.

To truly appreciate the insanity, you need to know three facts:

1. Increasingly, computer security protocols on many campuses require that all college employees change their passwords every six months. We're also told we can't recycle passwords we've used in the previous six semesters. Moreover, the passwords have to be these complex monstrosities with capital letters, lower-case letters, numbers, special characters, two hieroglyphics, and a telepathic Vulcan signal, with a minimum character length of here-to-the-moon. Basically, they want you to come up with a random string of unguessable noise every six months. If you're a normal software firm with mostly full-time employees, this makes sense. Those protocols would, in fact, make things more secure. Much more.

But we haven't factored in everything yet...

2. The primary security concern is student data/student privacy. We don't want Johnny's grades posted on Facebook somewhere.

So far, everything still looks good. Til we hit item #3.

3. A great chunk of university and college instruction is now carried out by part-time, non-tenured instructors who are given just enough classes to cover the teaching, but not quite enough (each) to qualify for benefits. As a result, the vast majority of students are taught by people who are teaching on multiple campuses.

Put these together.

Dr. Smith teaches on three different campuses, two classes each. For each campus, there are entirely different, constantly changing security protocols, such that he cannot use the same password on each campus.

So, Dr. Smith needs to come up with different passwords for each, change them regularly, and come up with passwords complicated enough he can't possibly memorize them.

So what do Dr. Smith--and the thousands of others like him--end up doing?

They write down the passwords.

I've seen them scribbled on post-it notes attached to the monitors on their desktops. That's the worst of the coping strategies.

Others put them into little black notebooks that they carry with them as they shuffle from campus to campus, carrying armloads of other books and papers, occasionally, uh, dropping things.

Either that, or they create a Web page with all of their passwords on it, so they can look them up easily, because they can't possibly remember them all.

Or they store them on portable devices like cell phones that can be read from 30 feet away by a 15-year-old kid with tips from a warez site and some cheap tech from Radio Shack.

Listen up, goblins.

I realize you think you've made information on campus safer. I hear you say it in speeches and emailed announcements. And clearly, that's what your documentation and memos say has happened. That was the purpose of your protocols.

But that wasn't the effect of the protocols. At some point, someone will tell you this.

I know I have.

But when that happens, you'll say they're doing things wrong. That's what you told me.

And then you'll wait around, imagining that if something urgent pops up, someone will let you know.

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