Wednesday, August 28, 2013

One Job Per Worker, Please…..

I arrived home last night from my adjunct job at Valencia College to a veritable firestorm at the website of one of my university classes. I discovered it during the virtual office hour I hold each school night for all my classes. I’ve agreed to check the emails from every class by 10 PM at which time I assure my students I will see any email they have sent me. With our new system all of the emails from all of the classes come together in one big lump regardless of the course or section requiring me to match the students to one or more of the four courses they might be taking.

It’s one of the many joys of using the online technologies that have been repeatedly promised to save us.

Unlinked Images

Last night I found 5 angry messages from my HUM 3255 Modern Humanities course awaiting me, complete with screen shots of questions missing images.  Seems that when the IT folks transfer courses from our old system at Blackboard (may a stake be driven through its evil heart) to Canvas, the images on all the exams come unlinked from the questions. Thus, when the students go to the exam to take it, they are greeted by an empty box where the image should be, a familiar web symbol for a link that doesn’t work.

The damage is reparable. The images are all stored on the course site they just aren’t linked to the questions. You simply have to remember which images go to which questions and then edit each question, restoring the link. This is not an easy task given that the tests could have been created years ago, as was the one on Modern.

I finally got to bed a little past 11 last night after finally pulling out the text book to help me rematch the images to multiple choice questions that often referred only to “this image” with little clue to context. I suppose I am lucky that the system – stretched well beyond its capacities from more users than it was intended – only crashed once during that hour.

Let’s hear it for techno-tinker toys!

Of course, as I sat blearily trying to rematch images and questions last night after a full day of teaching, I did remember that this same little stunt occurred last spring in two Humanistic Traditions sections. It took IT a week to figure out what to do about that. I remember thereafter spending two whole days relinking questions and images.

This is definitely more fun than decent people should have.

This is how these folks do business….

Bear in mind that the transfer to this brand new IT system with its accompanying steep learning curve for all parties involved occurred in January, smack in the middle of the school year as if we had nothing else to do. (At a workshop on the new system at the faculty conference last summer I had the temerity to ask why the university chose to make such an abrupt and demanding change in the middle of the school year. A colleague standing next to me quickly responded, “How long have you been working at UCF? This is how these folks do business.”)

Had I been able to extrapolate from my previous experience with Canvas that the problem with unlinked test images would be replicated in every class that Canvas transferred over from WebCourses/Blackboard, I perhaps could have avoided this firestorm by spending the hour up front relinking the images. (All I had to do was simply remember everything that happened in those courses eight months ago, right?)  I certainly will do that for the four remaining quizzes in the Modern class.

Add four more hours to an already staggering workload.

I ended up setting the repaired quiz back a week and sending out a note to students informing them of that change and apologizing for the irritation they may have endured in the process. It was not irritation I had caused nor had I even been aware that it would occur though I will no doubt be blamed for it on student evaluations, the repository for virtually all complaints about the system these days.

Of course, that later quiz date does defeat the whole purpose of giving the quiz in the first place which is to insure that 1. Students actually buy the text, (hardly a given these days of $150+ textbooks) and that 2. Students actually read the text prior to the classes in which that section of material is discussed.  (Sure enough, when I called on students today to discuss the text, given that they hadn’t had to take the quiz, about half of them had to confess that they simply hadn’t read it and thus had nothing to contribute to the discussion)

When pedagogy is held hostage by cheap technology we just can’t do without, pedagogical considerations such as scheduling quizzes to insure reading become secondary to the all-important question of how the course – and its operator and students - can serve the interests of the technology and the businesses which profit from it. The means become ends in themselves.

An hour’s worth of free labor…

What results is that a lecturer with a doctorate in religious studies and very little technical training ends up having to do a lot of cleanup work for the providers of this technology. Of course, this is in addition to the job he was actually hired and is paid to do – teach undergraduate courses.

According to my calculations, the university and the company with which it contracts for this software just got an hour’s worth of free labor last night from a worker woefully unprepared to provide it but required to do so on his own time nonetheless and to take the heat from his students (read: customers) for its malfunction in the first place. And this doesn’t even begin to count the countless hours spent constantly revising uploaded documents which lose their formatting when uploaded to a new system. These must be manually reformatted so they don’t look like crap. It also doesn't cout the hours of trying to guess at work-arounds when the system simply won’t do what it promises to do.

Frankly I think that’s all pretty outrageous. And yet, this is a very common pattern that most of us in academia today know only too well. Many of us spend hours trying to get technology to work which has been foisted upon us often without our consent. We are required to learn to use it on our own time. And we often must do this work with little help from overworked and understaffed IT departments who are themselves trying to pick up the slack from the short cuts taken by the technology providers to insure profit and their university employers who are only too eager to pay as little as necessary for their technology.

But profit ultimately must come from somewhere. As I constantly ask my students: Cui bono? Good for whom? And at whose expense? Someone has to provide the labor to make this arrangement work. And at this university, like many others today, at least a portion of that free labor comes from lecturers like me. Worse yet, a large portion comes from instructors paid far less than me, most of them far less than beginning teachers. Many of them are freeway flying adjuncts whose piecemeal courses rarely pay them a living wage and almost never any kind of health care. 

All of us do this technical labor for free.

The 13th Amendment is still in effect, right?

Here’s the thing. I don’t mind doing my job. I work hard, diligently and consistently at it. Just ask my husband. I’m also not afraid of technology and will work long and hard to learn a new system. Indeed, all of my classes utilize at least an online component.  But I hate like hell having to do other people’s jobs for them. More than that, I hate having to do their jobs at my own expense.

It’s one job per worker, as I see it.

So far as I remember, the 13th Amendment is still in effect. Requiring people to work for free is still a form of slavery, right? Right?

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Lecturer: Religion and Cultural Studies
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida
Kissimmee, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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