Against monoculture.

BY JONATHAN REESSkibbereen_by_James_Mahony,_1847

Last week, the learning management system (LMS) at the University of California – Davis went down right before finals week. It didn’t take too long for the vendor to restore it, but this kind of message from the administration there, quoted by Phil Hill at the blog e-Literate, probably didn’t inspire very much confidence:

The vendor has restored SmartSite service. We are not certain of the system’s reliability, support, and capacity. SmartSite will be open for viewing and downloading course materials only. Do not upload assignments or any content.

Given the extended outage, do not rely on the vendor-hosted SmartSite system to remain available.

If you do a little Googling, it’s easy to discover that this wasn’t the first time that SmartSite at UC-Davis went down. This is from the school paper in 2013:

“SmartSite is used in the vast majority of all UC Davis classes, and in almost all large-enrollment classes,” Jones said.

As such an important tool in students’ everyday lives, there is a lot of dependency placed on it, and this dependency is a real issue when SmartSite’s routine maintenance goes wrong.

The most recent example of this problem is the incident that occurred during SmartSite’s maintenance on Oct. 18 that caused access issues through most of the weekend.

“There was something that went wrong with that maintenance that wasn’t detected until Saturday. So it was down from about seven in the morning Saturday until mid-afternoon Saturday; and then, although it seemed to be corrected, it occurred again Sunday,” said Steve Faith, the instructional technology coordinator of Academic Technology Services.

Asahi Net International hosts and performs maintenance on Smartsite when something goes wrong.

“They can’t always tell us when it’s going to be fixed because they don’t always know what’s wrong,” Faith said.

UC Davis used to host SmartSite personally, but it was cheaper to outsource this duty.

I think that last sentence is the most important here. While there’s good reason to blame the vendor here since the outage affected other colleges besides UC Davis, it was the administration’s decision to outsource the process of hosting the site thereby making it harder to hold anyone on campus accountable for precisely this kind of catastrophic failure.  There’s a wonderful variety of Internet resources available for faculty to host their classes, let alone online tools that they could employ outside the LMS. By working inside the LMS, they run the risk of this kind of Irish Potato Famine situation – their sole crop fails and suddenly they can’t feed themselves any more. Since this is academia, emigrating to America isn’t an option. What faculty at Davis and elsewhere could do, however, is exercise some shared governance.

Audrey Watters has spoken and written a lot now about the dangers of a “Silicon Valley narrative” or a “California ideology” taking over American higher education. She’s right to do so, of course. Learning management system vendors are just one kind of start-up that looks at American universities and see nothing but dollar signs. However, they can’t cash in unless someone wants to buy what they’re selling, and if for no other reason but convenience the people who purchase those products are invariably administrators.

I’m not alleging a conspiracy here. I don’t think there’s a series of dull meetings going on where all the associate deans of the world are plotting to take over our courses by forcing us to employ bad LMSs. What I do think, however, is that there’s a power vacuum that they’re filling and we’re not. Speaking to the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required), Audrey put it this way:

I think university professors see technologies — with the exception of folks who adopt them on their own — as something that’s done to them, that’s imposed upon them, that’s not really their decision to make, that somebody else makes the decision about the technology. Somebody else decides whether the room is going to have a projector, or the computers in the teaching facility have Windows or Macs. I really feel as though technology is something that gets done to the classroom and isn’t really interesting to many, many professors. It seems like an obligatory thing.

My friend Historiann’s totally understandable reaction to the UC-Davis news was to write a post titled “Why it’s a good idea to take your teaching off the grid.” For some of us, however, that would be like not eating. A different idea would be to stop letting technology happen to us and start controlling it ourselves. At a minimum that would require an end to technological monoculture.

If some professors want to keep eating potatoes, then let them eat potatoes. However, if faculty demanded the right to help plan the menu, maybe professors and students alike could make dinner a lot more tasty. More importantly, faculty should explore other options besides potatoes. There’s a burgeoning Indie Edtech movement where professors just like you plan their courses using available online tools completely outside of traditional administrative controls. [I’ve been doing that myself lately, and honestly it’s nowhere near as difficult as it may sound.] Leave aside the fact that I think I can design a better course using tools outside the learning management system on my campus. If our campus LMS ever goes down like it did at UC Davis, my students and I won’t starve.

One thought on “Against monoculture.

  1. One has to understand history. The core of the LMS came from the old BBS’s, some of which have never been equalled for interaction and “learning”. The problem is that there was no “management” system to link with registrar, business office, etc and that linked to the admin software. Once that occurred we have the system of today and to separate is like an addict who won’t go into treatment.

    The question one needs to ask, since AAUP is a “union”, is how to motivate faculty not just to join but to be proactive. The situation seems to be similar to the original issue of ‘activism” to get joiners and to have them act in their best interests. Now when the adjuncts and untenured look behind and see all who would step in if they fell, there is no stomach; and the admins are willing to let the tenure tracks play their pub/perish games like knights entering the lists. The kings don’t care who kills whom as who survives is of no consequence unless there is a knight wearing the queen’s colors.

    Audrey enjoys being the pop contrarian and makes for quick reading. The issue of tech and those who live in the Silicon Valley bubble have more substantive critics and should be treated more seriously beyond the impact on education. It is a subject more deserving for humanities scholars to address to the lay public if only they would step outside the academic “lists”.

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