And they don’t even know enough to expect better

The title for this post is (probably a slight re-phrasing) of something @palbion mentioned last week during a conversation about the low quality of information systems within higher education (or at least our experience thereof). The comment was in relation to the professional and academic staff who are struggling with the various information systems universities are increasingly using to support tasks such as managing research higher degree students form application through to graduation, managing the process of sending students out into industry for practicums, and of course the more general LMS and student records system.

All of the staff involved are having to bumble along with systems with inherent limitations and attempt to develop what workarounds they can. For example, the system that sends out an email to students saying that their application is incomplete and to try again. The problem is that it doesn’t tell the students what is missing (even though it must know to have identified the incomplete state) and doesn’t tell them how to try again. Or, for example, the online assignment submission and management system that requires the staff involved with marking to repeat the same manual process for each assignment they are marking. Repeating processes is what computers are good at, not human beings. This inevitably leads to mistakes which need to be fixed. Leading to less than stellar efficiencies (which last weekend took on a much higher profile within Australian higher education)

The point of the title and Peter’s point was that many of the staff struggling with these systems think this is how information systems work. In their experience there has always been problems like this, it’s something you live with. They don’t know it can be better.

This particular discussion also arose out of some of my earlier discussions about the limits of our students’ technical knowledge. A reason, perhaps a significant reason, that these limitations became obvious was the poor design of the technical (perhaps socio-technical systems) within which the students had to operate.

Experience with the online assignment submission system suggests that it’s not just the students that are struggling with these problems

5 thoughts on “And they don’t even know enough to expect better

  1. Having seen how decision are made about the implementation of these pseudo-systems it ain’t surprising. The first thing to do is to get away from the wishful naming that plagues these stupid things and begin calling them what they are: misinformation systems. While these things are touted as efficiency gains they do not seem to be accompanied by job loss or relocation. The more efficient you become the more managers you seem to need. I was musing about how these systems would look if handled by those awful “press 1 if you are alive, press 2 if you know someone who is alive, press 3 if you’d like to become alive” systems. For me any delegation of work to a machine is always non trivial. But if you are a manager – you get to make the experience risky for everyone but yourself – this is Taleb’s notion of non-risk taker’s generating risks for those who can’t avoid it. As he put it: We are witnessing the rise of a new class of inverse heroes, that is, bureaucrats, bankers, Davos-attending members of the I.A.N.D. (International Association of Name Droppers), and academics with too much power and no real downside and/or accountability. They game the system while citizens pay the price.
    At no point in history have so many non-risk-takers, that is, those with no personal exposure, exerted so much control.
    The chief ethical rule is the following: Thou shalt not have antifragility at the expense of the fragility of others.
    Taleb, N. (2012). Antifragile : things that gain from disorder (1st ed.). New York: Random House.

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