Losing Cite of the Objective

Humorous cartoon Student saying to a teacher

Which is the academic best citation system?

A.MLA (Modern Language Association) F. AMA (American Medical Association) K. AIP (American Institute of Physics)
B.APA (American Psychological Association) G. ASA (American Sociological Association) L. IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers)
C.CMS (Chicago Manual of Style) H. MHRA (Modern Humanities Research Association) M. AMS (American Mathematical Society)
D. Turabian I.Bluebook N. Vancouver System
E. Oxford J. ACS (American Chemical Society) O. None of the above; All of the above; Who cares?

The answer most of us is of course “O.” Yet there are those who will argue the point; people who will eschew powerful technologies unless it supports their citation system of choice.

This fact was brought home to me by a message in a listserv I frequent (ISED-L) in which the writer reported that teachers in her school did not like Google Docs due to the fact that their MLA citation tool was not on par with that of that  MS Word. OMG, the horror of it all.

I recall my days as a Ph.D. student and later as a thesis advisor,  in which the details of the APA handbook often got the best of me. But some minutious fossils who sat in judgment of student work would refuse to budge until every comma, colon, and period was properly placed. At times this seemed to be their only critique of a student’s hard work; the content and methodology of the research was secondary.

Modern scholars avail themselves of the tools of the modern writer and researcher, such as spelling and grammar checkers, online search utilities, and academic citation generators. A misplaced comma or period in a citation should be of little concern to them as long as interested readers can find the source material. Let computer programmers and experts fix citation software to make it more compliant with arcane rules. Better yet, let the learned societies of the world work together to invent with a 21st century citation system.

In a previous post (In Praise of Good Enough) I wrote that “being part of an elite college preparatory institution brings with it expectations of perfection in everything we say and do, a place where the perfect is the constant nemesis of the good.” Leave well enough alone, I say.

How To Decrease Student Stress in College Prep Schools

Frustrated college studentTen steps for decreasing stress in college prep schools. Feel free to use one or more as discussion points in your next faculty meeting,

10. Start school at 9AM. Teen brains need the rest and later start.

9. Counsel parents and students about sleep deprivation; provide teachers with skills in detecting it.

8.Reduce the amount of refined sugar used in school lunch programs.

7. Cancel Awards Day.

6. Decrease homework by 50%

5. Treat Art and PE and “core” subjects on par with math, science, English, and languages.

4. Teach and practice mindfulness.

3. Stop using AP curricula. Develop your own.

2. Stop giving grades. Use student portfolios instead. Universities will adapt.

And the number one way to reduce student stress in college prep schools?

1. Ask college counselors to advocate to parents and students non-Ivy League and top independent schools in favor of state colleges, universities, and more affordable Canadian schools. Play down Harvard, Yale, Stanford, et al.

Scalability

attack-of-the-50-ft-woman

Some things scale better than others.

Scalability
noun

  1. the ability of something to be changed in size or scale
  2. the ability of something to be used or produced in a range a capabilities

Tech people love to talk about scalability. They especially like to use the term with school administrators when talking about how much money the IT department will need in future years to enable them to properly scale the technology  infrastructure required to support the academic and operational goals of the school.  IT directors will often ask themselves and vendors if “such and such a system” can scale with future needs. Typical of such systems are network performance, disk storage space, speed of applications, processor power, and other QOS (Quality of Service) standards.

An unspoken assumption regarding scalability is that it almost always means scaling up: more storage, faster CPUs, more services, more users, more devices ad nauseam. But in truth scalability includes the ability to contract as well as expand. Some technology scales very easily in both directions while others, as we will see, do not.

Here are some factors to consider in the scaling technology discussion.

  • Size Matters. Systems are scalable when they work for all sizes of people. 
    • Technologists sometimes forget that children have smaller hands and legs than adults. Small children are often asked to adapt to adult sized computer keyboards, pointing devices, and furnishings. Without fully developed their fine motor skills, and keyboarding and pointer skills may be developmentally difficult for them.
    • This is why computer tablets are especially useful with younger learners where the direct, tactile manipulation of screen objects is both more intuitive and developmentally appropriate.
    • Adults, on the other hand, may find that smaller devices such as smartphones are more cumbersome and difficult to read. Perhaps this is in part why smartphones are trending towards larger screens.
  • The Cost of Unused Capacity. Systems are scalable when they are in the “goldilocks zone” not too big, not too small.
    • In many areas of technology cost per unit of measure has fallen over time.
      • For example, the cost of additional random access memory (RAM) has fallen from $189/G in 2005, to $5.5/G in 2013; the cost per gigabyte of hard disk capacity has fallen from $1.24/G in 2003 to $.05/G in 2013.
      • These falling prices have been a boon for technology department budgets, even counting the unintended consequences of bloated software and storage of unnecessary and redundant files. [See Delete This Post.]
      • But just because RAM and storage is cheap doesn’t mean schools should not exercise due diligence in stewarding these resources.
    • On the other hand, Internet bandwidth in the United States is quite expensive compared to other countries (see table from newamerica.net.
      • For example, in Seoul a gigabyte internet connection will set you back only $31.47 per month, compared to almost $1000 per month for the same level of service in Lafayette, LA. Your local service likely likes between these extremes, and competition is gradually increasing in American cities.
      • Be wary of long-term contracts that may lock you in to high prices for unused bandwidth.
      • Some ISPs offer so-called “burstable” bandwidth which purport to allow customers to get faster internet speeds on an as-needed basis. But the fine print in these contracts often reveals that they are not what they are advertised to be.  (see links at end of post)
  • Standardization vs. Personalization. Systems are scalable when personalization is the responsibility of end users, not the IT department.
    • The BYOD model of provisioning student computers coupled with the influx of consumer devices (smartphones, e-readers, and so on) means that tech departments now face a much wider range of support issues than when everyone used the same computer.
    • Support of BYOD models scale best when management of the physical devices brought to campus is limited to cloud-based services and Internet browsers with zero or very few locally installed applications.
    • When it comes to computers that are purchased by schools for use by employees, IT departments must weigh the support costs of standardization versus the desire for personal choice and configuration of devices from faculty and staff accustomed to this in their personal technology use.
    • Personalization does not scale well if it the model of your help desk is “the do it for me” rather than “teach me how do it for myself” department.
    • Finding the right tension between personalization and standardization is part of IT’s mission.
  • Sometimes, just say “no.” Systems are scalable when they do not overwhelm human capacity.
    • Human capacity for change is less than the breadth of opportunity in educational technology. I have witnesses the stress in many of the teachers with whom I consult, teachers who are dealing with (a) the introduction of a 1-1 device initiative, (b) the adoption of Common Core State Standards), (c) pressure from  lawmakers and regulators as manifested in high-stakes testing and anti-union rhetoric, (d) increasingly litigious parents, (e) decreases in school funding, and (f) increases in school enrollment.
    • Businesses who grow to fast fail. (Remember the original People’s Express Airline debacle.) Teachers who are asked to do too much too fast burn out.
  • Uh, that was unexpected. Systems are scalable when their core functionality remains strong over time.
    • A great decision made in 2009 may turn out to be a lousy decision in 2014. A great 1.0 version of a product may, by the time it reaches version 5.0 or 6.0 be so unrecognizable, bloated, and feature laden that simplicity, ease of use, organizational utility are missing and the cost/benefit ratio is negative.
    • One could argue that long in the tooth applications such as MS Office have reached this stage and that cheaper, basic word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation application make more sense for schools. But core applications such as these are “sticky” and difficult to dislodge from user allegiance and institutional inertia.
    • When considering scalability it is important to determine what are the critical features in a product or service that you wish to see develop capacity over time and which are not.
    • “Feature creep” is a well-known phenomenon in software development and sometimes it is the end users who are victimized by it.
    • Software companies and service providers have profit incentives to continually innovate and generate additional revenues by convincing you that current technologies are inadequate. Indeed, there often seems to be an unholy alliance between software and hardware companies to use consume more and more CPU cycles and hard drive space rather than optimize software to be more efficient.
  • You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave. Systems are scalable when you can easily get stuff back that you put in.
    • Technology partners are like banks, banks in which you deposit assets (data), the privilege for which you are charged a fee.
    • Should the bank go out of business or another one offer you a better deal, you will want to easily get your data back. This is often easier said than done.
    • Assume that you contract with a company to host your school’s student information system (SIS). The company stores your data in a standard database format such as SQL. So far, so good. Over time you ask for modifications that required modifications to the database as well as special report formats which the hosting company creates using non-standard, proprietary software. Ten years later you decide you want to switch to another SIS only to find that the customizations and reports will make it difficult to get your data out and proprietary report formats and coding are not owned by you. Do you stay with the old system despite its flaws or move to the new system?
    • Economists might characterize this problem as a sunk costs problem, in which the investments you have made in the first system are not recoverable and you need to take the hit and move on. But many people do not think like economists and continue to have faith in and use systems that don’t meet their needs simply because they have put so much into it.
  • This technology is rated PG-13. Systems are scalable when they work across different age groups, cultures, and skill levels.
    • One might think that building user interfaces that are “intuitive” would be, well, intuitive. But this is not the case. Intuition is highly dependent upon age, experience, culture, and patterns of problem solving and thinking. When first introduced, the computer mouse was not intuitive to many users. They would pick it up, move it through the air, run it across the computer screen, or make other errors that we perceive as humorous now.
    • If you must make significant changes to computing systems that are not intuitive for 98% of the users of the hardware or software, I suggest you look rethink your rollout plan.
  • A Greener Shade of (e)mail. Systems are scalable when their power requirements stay the same or decrease even as more users or functionality is added.
    • Energy efficiency of computing devices roughly doubles every year and a half, a trend that needs to be factored when considering a school’s investment in hardware, especially when such devices are part of an always on, always available Internet. A single device may not consume that much power but in aggregate all of the devices in your school do.
    • When calculating your school’s carbon footprint, you must include a portion of the  power consumed by associated hosting services, and even estimates of recharging of school devices that may happen at home.
  • Gilding the lily. Systems are scalable when perfection does not become the enemy of “good enough.”
    • Google has reported that it wants to get 90% of all MS Office users for whom Google Drive will do what they need, leaving the last 10% who need a desktop application to continue to use Office. It may well be that their analysis of the functions available in Google Drive are in fact sufficient for 90% of users, but I suspect they underestimate the amount of effort it will take to change people’s habits.
    • It is the responsibility of the tech department to spend money wisely. People making an in-house newsletter do not need Adobe InDesign to accomplish that. And most users do not need Microsoft Office to write memos or letters, make simple worksheets, or adequate presentations.

Have your own ideas about scalability? Leave a comment!

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Resources on burstable bandwidth:

Secrets and Salaries

keep-calmOne of the most damaging practices in independent schools is confidentiality about employee salaries. The secrecy, even paranoia, about compensation leads to organizational dysfunction, inequities (perhaps most strikingly amongst women employees), and a grossly unfair advantage for employers over employees in contract negotiations.

In April of this year, the U.S. Senate “passed” the Paycheck Fairness Act with 52 votes, but it fell short of the filibuster-proof super majority that the Senate must routinely use to “really pass” legislation. You can guess which political party led to its defeat.

But the fact that the bill failed does not suggest that it is without merit. Independent schools, especially those who consider themselves to be innovative, egalitarian, progressive institutions, should embrace the spirit of this legislation and lead the way to transparency.

As reported in Salon, “19 percent of employees’ workplaces formally prohibit discussing wages and salaries, and another 31 percent said it’s discouraged.” This was certainly true in some colleges, businesses, and K-12 schools in which I worked where I did not even know how much my own direct reports were making, let alone colleagues. Not talking about how much one makes is engrained in our culture that employees themselves, to their detriment, are complicit in this silence.

When people do not have access to information that is important to them, they are subject to misinformation, rumor, and innuendo. And when people believe that they are being  treated unfairly, they are less happy, less productive, and more prone to looking for greener pastures. Personally, I would like people to base their opinions about compensation based on facts and not hearsay. In an article debating the pros and cons of salary transparency, the conservative Wall Street Journal suggested  that “one way for employers to head off internal politics: Be even more transparent.”

Transparency about salaries would also further the discussion in school about equity, privilege, and economic disparity in a way that no theoretical discussions in school assemblies or classes can ever do. A Head of School who makes 10 times more than the lowest paid employee in the organization may have some explaining to do.

In my home San Francisco Bay area, the top heads of school earn as much as $647,000 a year. California’s minimum wage of $8.00 per hour would result in some workers being paid a mere $16,640 per year, 1/38th that of the top headmaster.

In 2013, Swiss voters decisively turned down a proposal to limit CEO compensation to 12 times that of the lowest paid worker. But the remarkable fact is that the proposal made it to a national referendum at all, and I believe it represents an awakening awareness of the inequities in pay that continue unabated. And the reality that our most elite and prestigious independent school are also havens of the 1% simply increases the social equity and cognitive dissonance within  organizations that fail to act.

Some readers may remember that when ice cream company Ben and Jerry’s was founded, the company publicly stated that no executive would be compensated at more than 5 times that of the lowest wage employee. This practice continued until the founders left the company and its new owner, giant multinational Unilever, dismantled it under a veil of secrecy.

Consider these words from Occupy.com’s article about wage inequality.

Imagine a world in which all salaries were public. You’d go into that very first interview already knowing what you could expect, not just immediately, but down the road. You’d negotiate without those fears of asking for so little as to be stupid or so much as to be knocked from candidacy completely. You’d do your job, happy in the comfort that you were being paid what you were worth, or, if you were not, you would determine whether you wanted to do something about it, given the information you had. And your employer would be held accountable to certain standards of equal pay for equal work, as well as justifying why, exactly, people were being paid different salaries if they were, because everyone would know if it was otherwise. What would be so bad about that?

What indeed?

Do Away with Annual Performance Reviews

dilbert-com-strips-comic-2012-10-27In my last post I explained while annual reviews suck. It’s easy to criticize something that is as universally reviled as performance reviews; harder, perhaps, to suggest ways to improve them. But let me try…

  1. First off, managers need to change their attitudes about performance reviews. Providing feedback to your employees is not a burden, but among the most important aspects of your job. Never display a ‘tude about reviews as something to get over with, irrelevant, or bureaucratic nonsense. If you think reviews are important and helpful your employees will pick-up on this and approach them positively.
  2. Feedback is best when delivered at the appropriate time, closer to the specific behavior or event, rather than something put on the shelf and doled out weeks or months later.
  3. You may find it useful to distinguish between feedback and evaluation. (Feedback is designed to provide guidance to improve performance. Evaluation is placing a qualitative judgment on performance based on criteria. Feedback is formative; evaluation is summative. It has also been described this way: “When a chef tastes the soup, that’s formative assessment,” he said. “But when the customer tastes it, that’s summative.” )
  4. When documenting performance that may end in dismissal, err on the side of being transparent with the employee and, of course, following all of the procedures in your employee handbook and as required by employee contracts, or state or federal laws.1
  5. Assertiveness training may help some supervisors and employees avoid the tendency in schools to pull their punches when it comes to potential conflict due to honest feedback as well as reduce defensiveness and blaming. It’s been my experience that many IT managers get into their roles due to their technical competence with little preparation for managing people. If all you have to draw upon is your past personal experience with managers, they may prove to be insufficient in helping you understand the nuances of human relations.

I’ve saved the best advice for last. It may also be the most controversial.

The best way to improve annual performance reviews is to do away with them!

Consider this: If you are engaged in a regular program of formative feedback, what is the purpose of the annual review? Your job as an IT supervisor is to create a culture in which their is continuous improvement in people, systems, practices, procedures, and outcomes. You establish goals in these areas and continuously assess progress against goals. Yes, there is a seasonality and rhythm to the school year that impacts what IT departments do, but the same is true in businesses with sales cycles, holidays, and quarterly and annual earnings goals. Let the academic schedule and practices regarding teacher contracts inform, but not control, how you manage feedback in your tech department.

  1. I have never quite understood school’s  fascination with contracts for administrative employees.  I do understand the rhythm of the school year and the close interaction between staff and faculty, yet How these positions need to be married to the school year and not treated like at-will employees in any other business is beyond me.

Annual Reviews Suck

Words_You_Don't_Want_to_Hear_During_Your_Annual_Performance_Review_Cover

How can I put this delicately?

Annual performance reviews suck.

Annual performance reviews suck because:

  • they are designed for employers, not employees.
  • they are annual. In many organizations that really means every other year, or perhaps never.
  • they are often hurried and completed by a manager who has puts in little time in the process and who is only invested in the outcome if there’s a “problem” with the employee that requires some serious CYA action.
  • schools foster a climate on non-confrontation. Being indirect is valued above straightforward honesty. (See previous post)
  • they are disconnected from actual job responsibilities and performance. In the name of standardization, HR departments create forms that try to apply to entire classification of employees. “Timeliness” for example may mean being to work on time, finishing a task within a given standard operating procedure estimate of time required, or just getting something done before a deadline.
  • rating scales are subjective. “Exceeds expectations?” Please. I have pretty damn high expectations. No one’s that good. On the other hand, my expectations are that you are a screwup and in the wrong job, but you fooled me and actually did better than I had dared to hope.
  • they are usually linked in time to pay raises. Like student grades, performance reviews are summative and linked to everyone else in the organization (or class  in the case of students). Doesn’t matter if the employees has been with you for 3 months or a year, they all get reviewed at the same time. This practice puts undue time pressure on managers and HR departments alike to “get reviews over with.”
  • they are often linked to compensation decisions. Employees are understandably interested in whether or not they will be getting a raise in salary or additional benefits and simply want the manager to cut to the chase. Any feedback provided prior the manager giving the employee the bottom line  is simply background noise.
  • they create winners and losers. Assume that as a manager you are told that you have 3% in salary increases for your department for the coming year, and you have the authority to allocate this 3% across the department as you see fit. The easy, non-confrontational thing to go is give 3% across the board. This is often the practice in schools. Such a practice disregards historical pay inequities, outstanding performers (you know ‘em when you see ‘em), and turns sticks into carrots (or vice-versa).
  • they are not fun but in fact dreadfully boring and even demotivating. In my thirty years of management experience I have never heard anyone say “I’m so looking forward to my performance review today.” The best thing I can say about them is that I usually took employees off-site for lunch on such occasions, which was a nice respite from the office for both of us.

So what’s the alternative? That’s the subject of my next post.

K-12 Transgender Students Gain New Legal Rights in CA

transgenderBack in 2011 I blogged about how education is changing to better reflect the needs and rights of K-12 transgender students. On January 1, 2014 AB 1266 takes effect in California. AB1266 requires public schools to let children use sex-segregated facilities and participate in the gender-specific activities of their choice. It also prohibits guidance counselors and teachers from discouraging or encouraging certain vocational choices based on gender.Socially conservative groups are gathering signatures to launch a legal challenge to it.

California law allows for single gender public schools, and AB 1266 does not spell out what, if anything, should be done should a student who identifies with a gender other than their biological gender applies to such a school.

While the law does not apply to independent schools it should. Accreditation bodies, NAIS and their state bodies, the National Coalition of Girls Schools, and other thought leaders should review AB1266 and similar legislation and incorporate it into their best practices and, ultimately, their accreditation standards.

10 Things Tech Departments Hate to Do

Robert Scroggy, Age 10

Over the past year I have had the opportunity to work with a number of technology departments different schools in both public and private K-12 education, and I have found that many of them share certain shortcomings. There are certain tasks that seem to simply never get done adequately or which IT departments wish were not their responsibility. I recently had the opportunity to interview legendary IT icon Robert Scroggy to ask him about his pet peeves. You may find that they ring true for you as well.

  1. Write Documentation (especially Disaster Recovery Plans.)
    • Creating written instructions about internal systems such as database schemas, logical and physical maps of network layouts, maintaining an inventory of fixed assets, detailed steps for restarting systems and so on take time away from playing with my toys. The worst of these is the Disaster Recovery Plan which implies that all of my toys, and perhaps even me, have been blown up, burned, crushed, drowned, or hit by a bus and someone else has to recreate everything I ever did. In a week!
  2. AV Support
    • Why is it that if something has an on-off switch, blinky lights, and and may have a computer chip in it somewhere becomes my responsibility? Don’t you watch TV at home? Or at least listen to the radio? Your car is basically a computer on wheels. Do you expect me to fix it, too?
  3. AUP Surveillance
    • Bad behavior by kids using computers is not my problem. It’s a discipline problem, like passing notes in a classroom, or goofing around in the gym when you’re not supposed to be there, or putting up rabbit fingers behind the teacher’s head.
  4. Copiers and Printers
    • You can’t change an ink cartridge? Add paper? Follow diagrams written at a third grade level to clear a jam?
  5. Support stupid users
    • You deleted a file and you didn’t have a backup. How is this my fault or my job to get it back? You clicked on the flashy pop-up ad in the browser and now we have a rampant computer virus in our school. What the [blank] were you thinking? Oh, shall I replay the recording I have of the conversation when you asked me the same question 39 times before?
  6. Blackbaud RE
    • ‘Nuf said
  7. Legacy systems
    • Yep, I agree that Windows XP was awesome. In 2002! Yeah, I know every other Windows release since then has sucked, but get over it.
  8. Cable management
    • Geez this is really, really boring but I know it looks nice. Still doesn’t mean I have to like it.
  9. Throw stuff out
    • I’ve grown close to some of my toys. Throwing out that 3COM switch or 128K Mac is like throwing out my favorite teddy bear–which, by the way, I still have.
  10. Explain why I have to have the latest equipment
    • You’re not a nerd, are you?