Network Down! And Other Thoughts On Shifting Our Educational Practice To A Virtual World

May 15, 2011, 3:37 pm

Yesterday the Zenith network went down.  While the message that informed us that things were working again said something about a hardware upgrade, it is difficult to believe that they really intended to take the whole system down during finals week.  I suspect that, although tinkering may have been part of the issue, the network was also overwhelmed.

This happens periodically because of two institutional impulses, neither of which is inherently bad, but which together can create havoc:  putting as much of our work on-line as possible and cutting the university budget.  It is only a guess that these two things are related, but I can’t recall a year during which we have lost our online services abruptly so very many times (the last occurrence was in the middle of uploading senior honors theses.)  Here’s a lesson for you, if you are an aspiring administrator:  money saved by implementing technological innovations often requires spending the same money to maintain the system better, expand it and do ongoing maintenance so that it can handle the additional traffic. 

Of course, it isn’t just budget cutting that has produced this massive shift to putting things on-line.  Some things are genuinely better and more convenient, as long as the system stays up.  Submitting grades, registering for courses, and the various approvals that go up the line from faculty member to chair to dean to the provost (or registrar) work much better without the many forms we used to sign, many of which were folded, spindled, mutilated and left to molder at the bottom of backpacks long after the deadline to hand them in had come and gone. 

Eliminating the forms is often articulated as a positive step, in and of itself.  Whipped up by eco-enthusiasms, the university has created many opportunities to do everything pedagogical and organizational through our computers.  Rumor had it that they were going to pick a couple courses to shift onto iPads, and that everyone would get a free iPad to experiment with this.  I was, like, “Pick me! Pick me!” They did not, so I had to buy my own iPad, but I can see how an iPad would enhance a course in all kinds of ways and I wouldn’t mind trying it.  The only down side, as far as I can see, is that you can’t use any book that doesn’t already have an e-edition, and many university presses are not up to speed with this. The up side would be:  if you are teaching Jane Austen or any other text where the copyright has run out, every reading in the course is free.

This semester,  responding to the periodic exhortations to avoid the use of paper whenever possible, saving entire budget lines and forests of trees, I shifted one course entirely onto Moodle, an open source course management system (CMS) that made our work 100% paperless.  All in all, I would say this has been a real success, I have gained a great deal and I have not sacrificed a single thing that I value.  We do not yet teach on-line, mind you, although I fully expect that we will be invited to do so in the future to support the various graduate liberal studies degrees that Zenith offers, and I fully expect this will be greeted with hoots of derision and warnings about the coming Apocalypse.  But the more you fiddle with the various platforms available, and Moodle is the best one I have yet tinkered with, the clearer it becomes how one might easily teach on-line from the comfort of one’s own boudoir. In fact, during the snow emergencies this semester I quelled my anxiety about missing too much face-time by putting entire classes up on-line so that they could review the material themselves, with some gentle guidance from me.  I was able to do this using simple applications available on my Mac and my iPhone, without any instruction from anyone, and to my great surprise and pleasure, it actually worked.  Some of the material from those classes has reappeared in subsequent assignments as texts that had, for many students, the greatest impact of any they read in the course.

Now you might say, “Isn’t shifting so much of your teaching to the Internet alienating, Professor Radical?  Is encountering you as a virtual professor really what your students are really paying all that fancy-pants tuition for?”  Here is an important point:  they actually saw me twice a week, and they also had a teaching assistant who ran discussion groups outside of class and worked with them on their writing to great effect.  So I am not yet an expert on what you can accomplish without any human contact whatsoever.  That said, after a semester of Moodling, I find that — other than the possibility of making all assigned texts and everything used in class available in one place — the latter feature truly improves my relations with my students.  As you move through the course, they can add things that they think are important, and you can tailor future classes to the students who actually enrolled in the course  (as opposed to the fantasy students who might have enrolled, whose interests will exactly match yours, and who will hang on your every word regardless of what you say to them.)  Although I didn’t use these functions as much as I might have, there are also numerous functions that permit/force student participation and create opportunities for students to share their ideas with each other.

I would also say that, overall, I found the business of the course (turning work in and returning it) far more straightforward.  Either the paper was, or was not, in the drop box when it is due, and it can be due at midnight if you want, making it more likely that students who work at the last minute will get it done.  There was no haggling about whether the administrative assistant was — or was not — in the office at the designated witching hour. There were no papers slid under the office door, and we had no hoo-hah about printers that mysteriously ceased to function at the unluckiest possible moment.  Importantly, exams taken on-line allowed those with accommodations for learning disability to take the extra time they are permitted with absolutely no effort or planning on my part:  this is actually a very big deal in a lecture course, where you can have as many as ten or twelve different diagnoses that require as many different accommodations.  Exams are clocked in by the Moodle, and there is no need for elaborate proctoring arrangements that also, not incidentally, reveal the identities of those with learning disabilities, invite stigma and, I am convinced, often cause students who would perform better with an accommodation to not reveal themselves..

Marking papers is also more fruitful, in my view.  Instead of scribbling graffitti all over their work, I enable the editing function and add comments, re-arrange their sentences so they are grammatical, explain errors of syntax and structure, and so on.  It took less time on my part, was far more legible (in the past, in order to make my point, I would find myself writing elaborate paragraphs at the bottom of the page, and connecting them to the offending passage with a long, curvy arrow.)  By comparing the original (which remains in the drop box) to the graded version (which you upload later) students who wanted to improve (which is nearly all of them) could actually see the differences between the two versions laid out in front of them, rather than trying to figure out from a hopeless sea of red, gr
een what good writing really looks like.

Downsides?  I can’t think of one for the pedagogical experience, except that I had to devise new techniques for learning names, something I normally did by handing back graded work and free writing exercises in class. A second issue that will affect some people more than others is simply spending too much time at the keyboard and risking ligament and tendon damage in the

Here’s the catch, however. When the system goes down you can’t work, unless you have had the foresight and the wit to download all the written work at once,.  Having the university server crash, or become unstable and need to be taken down for maintenance, in the portion of your day or week that you have set aside expressly to mark papers or do final grades does temporary havoc to your sense of control and order, something we faculty prize enormously.  When this happens, there is literally nothing that you can do but turn your computer off and catch up on the episodes of The Borgias that you have missed because of the intensity of the semester’s end.

Why this forced work stoppage occurred yesterday at Zenith is anyone’s guess, but it seems obvious that it is most likely to occur at exactly the time of year when we are all using the system most intensely — finals week — and during which a crash or downtime will also result  the greatest inconvenience.  Universities are going to have to take what they are saving on paper and administrative assistants and redeploy it to hiring more IT people, updating their systems more frequently, and having emergency crews on retainer to monitor the system during moments of abnormally high usage.

Here’s my prediction:  ultimately, universities will no longer maintain their own servers, and IT staffs will exist mainly to  work on server space that is rented from Google, Apple or one of the megaliths.  This will make systems more reliable under normal and extraordinary usage.  But it will raise other challenges, one being a possible narrowing of the choices we have as institutions to decide what platforms and software we are using as those who own the servers have greater power over what kinds of innovation they will support.  Another challenge is that, while each of our universities is vulnerable on its own, by linking our fate to the One Big Server (OBS) we become highly vulnerable together:  a breach of security in one location can take us all down. This is something to anticipate and understand before that moment in which change is inevitable but the terms of change have already been decided entirely by corporations.

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