Delving into institutional information systems

As recently noted, I’m about to return to university study. Have decided that I’m going to keep a journal of the entire experience. Perhaps with some intent later on to use this as data for research around the student experience. This may be of some interest as I will be studying at the institution I worked for as an academic for 20 years.

Completing enrolment

My current task is to complete the enrolment process. This means I have to use the dreaded institutional ERP system. In the dim dark past this system did not have a good reputation, I’m wondering if it has improved?

Starting with downloading the guide

The first recommend step is to download the user guide. I don’t remember Amazon or similar online commerce sites requiring a user guide to be downloaded. Why should completing an enrolment process for a university be any different?

Oh dear, not only should I download the guide, I should also print it out. So, this not only suggests a somewhat less than usable system, it’s also not particularly sustainable.

Mmm, this is what is shown on the page to download the guide

please download and print the XXXX Student User Guide. This guide can be found here or by clicking on the words ‘XXXX Student User Guide‘ throughout this webpage

The underlined text represents links. Given that I am being advised to download and print this guide, I’m assuming I’ll get a PDF when I click on the link. Ahhh, no.

Instead I get taken to another page titled “Student user guides” which offers me a choice of three separate student guides. One for enrolment, one for Moodle and one for assessment. Each of these guides have their own sections on the page. The enrolment section contains exactly the same text as I’ve included above. Only this time when I click on the link I get the PDF.

At this stage, I have to remember to use the back arrow on the browser to return to the enrolment system. Ahh, no. That was just a web page with a list. You have to login elsewhere to get to the actual enrolment system.

The lovely portal

And you have to love this. The pages don’t give me the link directly to the system in which I have to complete my enrolment. I actually have to go to the student portal first, and then see the link to the enrolment system.

Usernames and passwords

Okay, they haven’t fixed this year. Student numbers at this institution come in three flavours, each starting with a different letter. The pre-peoplesoft student numbers have the letter followed by 8 digits. The post-peoplesoft student numbers have a letter followed by 7 digits. The pre-peoplesoft students have to remember to remove the last digit from their student number in order for the authentication system to work.

That’s right, all the documentation has to tell students to use different approaches depending on their student number. Why not just make the system accept both? Sounds like a perfect example of misplaced PEBKAC.

Now, new students are supposed be given a default initial password that lets them in. I’m thinking I might have some problems as I was enrolled as a Masters/PhD student at this institution a good 10 years ago. So I am guessing that my student number doesn’t have the default password.

It failed the first time, but this seems to have been user error. I tried again, very carefully and it seems to have worked. So I know have a very non-institutionally branded page from the SUN access manager to set options.

Ahh, restrictive password rules. Minimum 8 characters, must have 3 of 4….making passwords so difficult to create and remember that people have to write them down.

Ok, no its telling me that the current paswword I entered wasn’t correct. Which is interesting, as I was very careful to enter what I thought was correct. No, that didn’t work a second time……Ok, very carefully now. Caps lock is off. Nope, that didn’t work.

So, ignore that and see what else I can do. Change password reset options, that seemed to work. Not real well, but it worked. What about change my email address, I’d prefer it to go to my gmail account. Ahh, I get the error “mail-User does not have sufficient access”, but the changed value is there.

Ok, so what do I do know? I was trying to login to the enrolment system. Let’s click on “Help”….Ahh no, a 404 error.

Moving on

Regardless of the above, I am able to get into the portal and the enrolment system. So, let’s press on while it works. After all the aim here is complete my enrolment, not diagnose intermittent problems with institutional authentication systems.

Oh dear, the start page of the enrolment system is littered with “important” notes all in bold and centered. Making it difficult to read. Oh wait, there’s another link to the student guide. Of course, all of the important stuff has no connection to me at all. Why doesn’t the enrolment system know that I’m currently trying to complete my enrolment? Why isn’t the first thing I see when I login to this system direct guidance on completing my enrolment?

Oh, and I’m being a naughty boy using Chrome. Best viewed with IE7, IE8 and Firefox. The addition of Firefox is a step up from previous advice.

So, I’m past the important information and into “David’s Student Centre”. I’m here to accept my offer. Surely there has to be a prominent link on this page to help me do this? Ahh, there it is. Down the bottom. Ahh, a popup which Chrome rejected, thought it accepted it from another institutional page.

Ahh, it’s an acceptance wizard. Only 13 steps. First step was click accept. No I have a page and a bit of text with HTML elements mixed in with content, perhaps due to using Chrome. But come on, it’s just a page of text. How can you do that in a non-standard format?

Bad formatting

Page 3 doesn’t have any bad formatting, but page 4 does. And page 3 had various form elements….not even consistent? And now onto the “HEC form” and the problems are horrendous, see the image.

So, I have to login with Firefox. Don’t want to go through the portal, so type in the direct URL. Ahh, just the host name doesn’t work, click on “Peoplesoft login”, ahh, redirected to authentication system. Logging in again. The default password seems to be working.

The system knows that I haven’t completed the form. So it asks me straight away to complete it. Why didn’t it use this before?

Okay, so the pages are displayed fine with Firefox. Gees, it’s just text and a couple of check boxes. That’s done.

So now I have to select a specific plan for secondary. I thought I’d already done this, but apparently have to do it again. Okay done.

“Tacit” knowledge

I’m just thinking what this process must be like for someone with no experience of this institution. There’s a lot of knowledge I’ve built up over the years that makes navigating all this much easier. I’m finding simply navigating the system a little challenging. If I had the extra cognitive load of not knowing the terminology….

Adding courses

Oh, this is interesting. When I’m selecting specific courses to enrol with, I can see that

Your enrolment shopping cart is empty

The student as customer message is being established early.

Okay, to add a course, I have to search for it. Course codes are the traditional peopelsoft XXXXYYYYY, where XXXX is a subject code (e.g. EDED), and YYYYY is the catalog nbr (e.g. 20491). The trouble is that only peoplesoft and folk who feed it really care about this distinction. For everyone else a course code is EDED20491.

This is important because the “search” form for courses requires that you know that EDED is subject code and that the number is a different part. Even though all the printed docs accepting me don’t make this distinction. In addition, the search form by default has “Course Career” set to non award. The system knows that I am studying a postgraduate program, but it hasn’t set this properly. So I have to know how to change this.

All this is increasing the cognitive load of the student. I can imagine students without knowledge of the institution having to waste time looking up the guides, looking for that bit of information that helps get them past each little step.

At least the search form has remembered the settings I created from the first search. It shows it can be made easier.

Of course, this program has a fixed set of courses. I have no choice. I have to complete the courses that are set. So why should I have to actively choose the courses via the system, why aren’t the courses already set?

A hold on your record

So I select the courses and go to finish the process. Only to find out that there is a hold on my record. So I can’t enrol until that is removed. I wonder what it is?

There is a “Fix Errors” button which when pushed takes me back to the start of the add courses process. This is not going to do anything about the hold. At least, my understanding suggests that.

I saw another part of the home page mentioning holds. If I go back and look at that it is apparent that the Division of Financial Services at the institution thinks I owe it almost $5000. That’s interesting.

Also interesting that in processing my application and accepting me into the program, there was no mention of the holds. Seems I’m destined not to complete my enrolment today. Time to email the debtors address.

Student email

Actually, I’m wondering if my student email account has any insights to share on this. The student email system was purposely modified not to allow students to forward official email to their personal email accounts. And I haven’t ever checked it. Maybe there is something there.

Oh, my session has timed out. Okay, log back in. Oh dear, no there is a 404 error on the portal. What’s more, it’s for that absolutely essential resource – dtfavicon.ico – the little icon for the browser to show!

Ignore that, back to another page, into web mail. No, nothing there.

A turning point

I am unsure whether or not I believe in specific turning points. Perhaps life is a bit more complex. The metaphor of life as a road with specific forks which mark the turning points, seems a bit simplistic. But today does feel like a turning point due to two events:

  1. reaching closure on the PhD; and
    I’ve just sent off a complete draft of the thesis to ANU for a couple of folk to reading and the provision of pre-submission feedback. The thesis is no longer some Sword of Damocles hanging over my head, demanding attention and effort. Instead, I sit back, have a life, enjoy the family and think about what I might do (hence this post).
  2. acceptance as a University student.
    Today I received acceptance into the Graduate Diploma of Learning and Teaching at CQUniversity.

Changes in the blog and my PLN?

This turning point also marks, I think, a turning point in this blog. It’s going to take on a more educational/high school focus. The IT side of things will remain, but there will also be an increase in mathematics since I’ll be a math/IT teacher, probably. You are warned.

I’m also wondering how this will and should influence my PLN. I’m already feeling that some of the uni folk I follow are becoming slightly less relevant to my learning needs. Though they do remain interesting and insightful. I’m beginning to wonder if I prune and what I’d miss if I did.

Ideas and suggestions

You may want to skip the whinging diatribe about university L&T and jump to the more future looking perspective. This is where I outline what I’m doing to prepare for the future and would love some ideas and suggestions about “what should a novice high school teacher be thinking about?”.

Turning away?

To some extent I am turning away from being a part of the technologists alliance as described by Geoghegan (1994)

The last decade has seen the formation of an alliance between “technologist” populations concerned with instructional computing. Those involved include faculty innovators and early adopters, campus IT support organizations, and information technology vendors with products for the instructional market. Ironically, while this alliance has fostered development of many instructional applications that clearly illustrate the benefits that technology can bring to teaching and learning, it has also unknowingly worked to prevent the dissemination of these benefits into the much larger mainstream population.

In particularly, I was part of a group within a university charged with helping improve the quality of teaching. Increasingly, most universities have such a group or groups.

I am incredibly happy to be leaving this type of group. Not that there aren’t some great people (not to mention some silly and downright dishonest and hurtful) doing some great work. But the technologists alliance within universities, as a whole, is going the wrong way and most of the senior leaders of this alliance are actively enabling that trend. They seem to be actively creating systems that don’t value teaching. What’s worse, I see a system that is increasingly hurting the members of the alliance that work at the coal face. The type of frustration reported by Mike Bogle is more prevalent than those in leadership positions understand.

The fundamental problem here, at least for me, is the insidious growth of techno-rational approaches to “leadership” within universities. An approach that assumes that the leaders can identify what is required and then tell their staff to implement those solutions. This can never work because Universities and teaching and learning are much more complex than simple solutions. The trouble is that when those solutions fail, it’s never because the leadership identified the wrong solutions. It because their staff didn’t implement it well enough. The staff carry the can.

To make matters worse, by this time a new VC or other leadership have arrived at the institution. Leadership on a short-term contract determined to make a mark so that they can receive another short-term contract, preferably one step up the ladder. To make their mark, they need to argue for radical change. They need to hold up prior work as somehow flawed, identify some scape goats, identify some new solutions and implement them, preferably minus the scape goats who were suposed to implement the previous solutions.

I suggest that you can see some evidence of this process in the summary of the report of an ALTC project. This project was titled “Strategic Leadership for Institutional Teaching and Learning Centres: Developing a Model for the 21st Century”. The report looks at the findings from a survey of 31 of the 38 Directors of Teaching and Learning Centres at Australian universities. It’s first finding was that the average centre “would have been restructured sometime in the previous one to three years”.

The triumph of the techno-rational approaches to leadership has resulted in a university sector that is increasingly trying to improve the quality of learning and teaching by fiat. By telling academics you will do X, complete GradCert Y, use LMS Z, be guided by principles L. And at the same time ignoring the context within which academics operate and what those academics already know and are doing.

A few months ago I was interviewed for a position as the head of a group of educational developers. We were asked to provide a vision of the enhancement of learning and teaching. I provided one that focused on creating an environment that helped academics (and the broader institution) reflect on what was happening and struggling to improve. It wasn’t what they wanted to hear.

Based on the questions I was asked, both before and during the interview, the strong message was that they wanted someone who would manage the group as a service provider. I have some qualms about the impact of using the client/server metaphor, but lets leave those aside. The impression I received was not that the client in this relationship was not the teaching academics. The client was the Dean of the faculty. The service to be provided, was whatever the Dean thought was appropriate. See above points.

Needless to say, I am incredibly happy not to have gotten the job.

Turning toward?

Looking forward. In the short term, it looks like I’ll be a Math and Information Technology high school teacher. At least that is what I’ll be studying next year. I’ve already started reading and listening to more high school related resources. I’m increasingly interested in being more directly responsible for teaching and being able to experiment with all the insights, tools and practices which I think are important. At the same time, I’m also realistic enough to know that the school system has its own problems. It too has been invaded by techno-rationalist approaches to management. There are bugger all resources. Aspects of the system are as buggered, if not more so, than the university sector. But importantly, I’m hoping that there will be possibilities for taking some control of what I do in the classroom and subsequently what is inflicted upon students.

In preparation, I’ve been

  • listening more to the Future of Education podcasts and looking for more of the same;
  • purchased a bunch of books on mathematics in order to (re-)discover my inner math nerd;
  • joined the AAMT mailing list;
    And in a few days have already discovered that I have far to go before being a math nerd.
  • begun collecting online resources and sources related to teaching; and
  • beginning to reflect upon my thoughts on teaching and learning.
    George Siemens recent post is an interesting spring board, as is much of the above.

Either way, it’s a damn good feeling to be finally completing one chapter and moving onto another.

If you have ideas or suggestions that can help me be better prepared for this next chapter, fire away.