Archive for February, 2011

Online Student Services

Posted February 22, 2011 By Steve

I posted this in my class discussion about online student services, and thought it might be of at least marginal general interest, especially since it includes a follow up to my previous post about UM’s support of students who use open source technologies.

What online student service do you believe to be of greatest value to all stakeholders? Why?

Asking which student service is the greatest value seems like asking which puzzle piece is the most important. Some of the pieces might be bigger than others, and some might be in the middle of things while others are out there on the edge, but you can’t complete the picture without every single one. Especially considering that in this era of shortfalls and budget cuts nothing superfluous can survive, if there were a student service that were unnecessary I think we’d see it start to disappear from what colleges and universities offer their students.

That said, and especially given that money makes the world go around, I think I’ll argue that financial aid is the greatest value to all stakeholders. Without it, many if not most students wouldn’t be able to attend in the first place, obviating the need for any others. And without those incoming funds, many institutions would soon have to close their doors.

What student service(s) has gone online that shouldn’t have? Why?

I think [a classmate’s] example of remedial education shows that there are some student services that either shouldn’t go online, or at least should only go online in a careful way. Remedial education is something where immediate back-and-forth conversations between student and instructor can be vitally important for understanding. That doesn’t mean that they can’t go online altogether, however. Such services can be provided in a synchronous format, such as Skype, WebEx, or a similar service, rather than asynchronously through a discussion board.

Tutoring is another example, and for the same reason. Students requiring tutoring may be less far behind than those at the remedial level, but the principle of timely access to answers is the same. If this service is offered online, it should be offered synchronously, even if it’s also offered asynchronously as well.

What student services are not online? Explain why they may never go online.

There are no student services that are not online. There are distance learning institutions that offer a comparable experience to that of a traditional campus, including both academic and non-academic components.

The one exception is wellness services. And to some extent even this is possible to do remotely, as the emerging practice of telemedicine shows. But for the most part distance learning institutions leave this one be, especially as much of the motivation for offering wellness services on traditional campuses is to prevent the spread of maaldies among the university community, which isn’t a danger with online learning.

Using an example of a poorly executed online student service, what design factors were not taken into consideration during implementation?

I have a personal story of a poorly executed online student service, here at UM. I’m also taking Statistics I this term, and in this course the use of a remotely hosted application is required. At one point I was having trouble getting this application to save a file to my local machine, something it had done before successfully. It was clear to me that there was some sort of issue on the remote end, and that my own machine was configured properly. I called technical support, and spoke with someone who was polite, but whose level of technical competence was completely insufficient to understand my problem. I knew she was having trouble understanding me, but my heart really sank when ten minutes into our conversation she asked, “Wait, what application is this again?”

Eventually she decided that the reason that I was having trouble is that my local machine runs Linux rather than Windows or Mac OSX. I knew without doubt that this was not the problem, but clearly there was no better help to be had from her, and she did at least offer to open a ticket, so I gave up and let her. It turned out that I was right, in that when I tried to do the same thing again I was successful — UM’s turtle-slow network was finally no longer timing out. As for technical support, I heard nothing more from them for eight days, until I finally received an email letting me know that they were closing my ticket because they don’t support Linux.

Design factors missing from this experience include:

  • The service was not only not designed from my point of view, but there was no knowledge of veteran staff tempering anything.
  • There was no focus on new technologies, indeed technical support gave up as soon as they decided that a new technology was involved with the situation, even though it wasn’t.
  • There was no delivery of just-in-time service. Even the lowest priority ticket should be worked before eight days have passed.

To be fair, I should add that this was my second experience with UM technical support, and the first experience was completely different. In that instance, I was trying to get connected to the remote application in the first place. That was a Linux-related issue, yet the technician took the time to find out the information I needed and provided it anyway.

So perhaps the poor execution of this online student service isn’t so much design as it is execution, and that with better consistency it would be a well run service for those of us who rely on doing things online.

I just sent the following letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Dear Sir or Madam,

I’m not sure this is the right place to send this, but it wasn’t clear how to contact the people who run the Wired Campus section of your site directly, so I thought I’d try here since this is the only email address that refers to suggestions.

My suggestion is to find the people who added that constantly updating Twitter feed to every page in Wired Campus, drag them out back, and shoot them dead. It is nearly impossible to read an article when something else on the page is constantly distracting the reader with an unnecessary update. It is a usability nightmare — the triumph of “Can we do it?” over “Should we?”

If you’re not willing to resort to homicide, however justifiable, then if nothing else, please, please, please, at least get rid of it, or failing that make it one-click easy to shut off so that readers can actually absorb the content they came to your site to find.


Steve Foerster

Freedom In North Africa

Posted February 13, 2011 By Steve

“Thank you Facebook!” — Egyptian protester, recorded by NPR

El tahrir
Three cheers for the people of Tunisia and Egypt! May those in every nation rise up so boldly to cast off those who would oppress them! The last few weeks have been “Fall of the Berlin Wall” quality for those of us who care about liberty and the developing world. It’s especially gratifying to see that protesters in other countries are inspired by these grassroots revolutions, and that dictators in Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen are losing sleep over this.

One thing that’s interesting here is the discomfort that U.S. officials seem to express in admitting that their three decades of support for the regime in Egypt means that they can expect the next government there to be markedly less friendly, even as it (hopefully) will be much more democratic. Some American commentators have also remarked that since the U.S. didn’t do more to prop up Mubarak even now that similar dictatorships, especially those in the Persian Gulf, will become less compliant to U.S. interests.

Amazingly, they say this like it’s a bad thing. But one of the lessons of 2011 is that when you stand up for dictators rather than democracy, the world can see that you really stand for nothing. American policy makers have talked emptily about their wish for democracy in the Middle East for years, but it’s obvious to everyone, particularly Middle Eastern democrats, that they really couldn’t care less about this. The Cold War has been over for twenty years. Even if support for right-wing dictatorships was necessary as bulwarks against communism, and I’m not saying it was, that rationalization reached its sell-by date a long time ago.

Another case in point is the Republic of Somaliland in the northern part of what still shows up on the map as Somalia. There has been a functional republic there for years, with peaceful transition of power through elections and everything. It’s completely unlike Mogadishu. But decision makers in the U.S. government won’t even recognize its existence, much less support it. With friends like that….

By the way, I chose today’s quote for a reason. I was one of the ones who was unimpressed that Mark Zuckerberg was Time’s Person of the Year last year rather than Julian Assange. But given the pivotal role that social networks played in coordinating the efforts of those who rose up against Ben Ali and Mubarak, perhaps they weren’t just being cowardly, perhaps they were also inadvertently prescient. Either way it’s nice to see that the Internet is living up to at least some of its promise for being an equalizer when it comes to who gets to wield societal power. But especially given that the U.S. diplomatic cables leak helped to inspire the protests in Tunisia, I still say that Assange — warts and all — deserves to be Person of the Year.