Thursday, 12 February 2015

Time-Vampirism at the Free University of Kafkashire: a Cry for Help

I f you read this, please send help to the Free University of Kafkashire. Help save FUK from a devils' compact: between Higher Education executives with a mania for top-down control, and I.T. wonks offering ways to exercise it.

The University is becoming sclerotic with process, its once noble purpose overwhelmed by the myriad ways of accounting for every institutional activity in minute detail, without addressing the deeper quality of its human outcomes. The Information Technology revolution has accelerated this life-threatening condition. The creation of imperfect systems to manage almost all University business now outstrips critical discussion and possible rejection of those systems.

This communiqué aims to show the kind of thing that is happening via the example of timetabling at FUK.

The timetabling software used at the Free University of Kafkashire is provided by EduFarm. Here is an extract from their self-appraising online statement: [1]

University timetabling software and resource allocation solutions from EduFarm enable universities to optimize service provision, reduce operating costs, and improve staff and student motivation [...]
With close to 500 users in 25 countries and across 5 continents, EduFarm is a world leader in the provision of software solutions for complex resource scheduling problems. The innovative and dependable scheduling solutions assist in securing vast improvements to student and staff retention, resource optimization, and timetabling challenges.

All staff and students at the Free University of Kafkashire are expected to check their FUK/EduFarm timetables every week. The system allows – and the rule insists – that personal timetables be retrieved regularly, at the cost of unrevealed user-hours. [2]

Rage impotently at why it is necessary for thousands to check their timetables every week.

Once, course activities were more or less known at the beginning of a semester and could be written down in a diary, and subsequent changes would be agreed among colleagues with open diaries. Today, all must regularly consult the innovative and dependable scheduling solution, adopted wholesale by the University in place of direct human interaction. They must do so, especially, because the scheduling solution cannot alert its users – by email or any other means – of any changes that might affect them.

Everyone must bend to the process, and to the imperfections of the process.

Notwithstanding the existence of any rule, many will not check their online timetables every week as long as the following conditions pertain.

In a standard diary or calendar, hours, days and weeks are laid out sequentially in a grid. This form is so familiar now that little or no effort is required to understand its principles of organisation. It is widely understood that scanning such a grid is analogous to scanning a period of time, and when clearly laid out it leads the eye and the mind directly to its contents, rendered in abbreviated everyday language.

With a FUK/EduFarm timetable, time itself is rendered in a such mind-bendingly unintuitive way that the whole point of consulting such a document is confounded.

The FUK/EduFarm system offers a choice between two layouts: 'list' and 'grid'. 'List' shows information in fields: Activity, Module, Type (of activity) Start, End and Duration (of teaching sessions),  Room (in which an activity takes place), and Week (in which an activity occurs). This sounds comprehensive.

Unfortunately, the date on which any scheduled activity is to take place is not shown. Dates are only alluded to in terms of the 'weeks' in which they fall. These are Academic Calendar Weeks, which are numbered independently from real-world ones (although this is not the fault of FUK or EduFarm). The activities shown in 'list' format are not always in chronological order.

This is not really a timetable, because time is not the clear organising principle.

In 'grid' format, much of the information you would expect from a timetable is written in various codes, in tiny print inside plain graphical boxes. The boxes represent blocks of time allocated to teaching sessions in particular rooms. These sessions seem to be correlated with the hours of a (non-specific) day, in a (non-specific) week... until you factor in the tiny-print Academic Calendar Weeks inside each graphical box.

A single box might refer to a single session, or to any number of sessions in the same room: you have to read the tiny-print numbers to work that out. Again, these are the numbers of Academic Weeks, not real-world dates that a person could transcribe at a stroke into a normal diary. However, they are the key representation of how the activities shown in the grid are distributed over a period of time.

The visual order of things in the FUK/EduFarm 'grid' is not governed by the order in which they are scheduled to occur in the semester. If a user requests information for a particular course over, say, an eight week period, the grid will likely show all the information requested within one graphically aggregated "week". This is obviously not like the real world, where weeks occur one after the other, not simultaneously or on top of each other.

This is not a timetable either, again because time is not the clear organising principle. It is an aggregation of information packed within a graphical object connected to the idea of a working week.

It is always possible to work out the date on which any FUK activity is scheduled to take place. The (separate) FUK Academic Calendar shows Academic Weeks correlated with real-world "week-beginning" dates. So, if an activity occurs on Thursday in Week 32, one only has locate Week 32 on the Academic Calendar and count four days from its real-world week-beginning date in order to work out the date on which it should take place.

Such calculations, involving two or three documents, each carrying slightly different information codified in a slightly different way, would be unnecessary were the University to use a standard calendar form, and real-world dates for its affairs.

Today, an already complicated, but manageable, reality has been re-imagined by EduFarm. Returning to their corporate statement: the system described here may or may not reduce operating costs, as its creators claim; but it is difficult to see how it could improve staff and student motivation, unless it is the motivation to express despair. It's a shame that the innovative and dependendable scheduling solution cannot inform its users of changes that might affect them; although it's obviously true that a person forced to carry out several tedious calculations in order to discern every instance of course activity relevant to them is, in a sense, being very definitely 'retained'.

Also, in a manner of speaking, 'scheduling solution' is a well-chosen term for EduFarm's concatenations of form and information that are really not timetables. But 'TimeVampire' would also be a good term. I dream that I hack the EduFarm email servers, where I discover a jokey in-house version of what will become their earnest mission statement:

With an EduFarm TimeVampire, retrieving a daily schedule exercises your mind in new and innovative ways. Every bit of information you might want has been delightfully transformed. The essentials of your world are reborn as Byzantine arcana, with many fascinatingly complex numerological and graphical diversions to keep your mind bright and alive in the workplace. (CEO comment: are these products inspired by the games enjoyed by our programmers, which they wish they were designing, rather than deadly-dull time management sytems for cost-conscious Higher Education farms? Only joking. Strike this part in brackets before publication).

At the Free University of Kafkashire the frustrations of self-organisation can only be increased by the calendars found in the personal sections of the separate online 'FUK-space' sub-system. These remain empty unless individuals manually enter content. But timetable content (for instance) is not then automatically updated when changes affecting it are instigated. The calendars are therefore useless as a way of checking for new things that might affect a personal schedule.

In a similar vein, lecturers may obtain personal Work Plans from their line managers. But these are not 'plans' in any normal sense of the term. They are lists of separate teaching commitments that do not show when or where any of the activities are scheduled to take place. To work this out the alphanumerical codes for every course or module listed on a Work Plan would have to be reconciled with alphanumerical codes on a so-called timetable; which, as I've shown, is itself a kind of Rosetta Stone which has to be translated in multiple dimensions in order to make sense as a timetable.

To summarise, the following invidious systemic factors impinge on all staff and students at the Free University of Kafkashire, at the basic level of organising their time:

- Timetables are designed according to principles which differ from any standard diary or calendar used in the wider world;
- Any person's timetable can change, without their prior knowledge and without their being informed. It is deemed the responsibility of every individual to check every week just in case something has changed on their timetable;
- Timetable checking requires the user to enter the conceptual universe of a timetable designer, read information encoded in a variety of ways, and translate it into a form usable in the real world;
- Individuals are provided with online tools for organising their time, yet these are not integrated with the sources of information most vital to that process of organisation;
- There is a strong suggestion that if anyone fails to grasp the intricacies of any part of these proprietary systems, they are to blame, not the designers of the systems, or their advocates.

The fact that these processes take so long to describe is an indication of just how complicated they have become. Perhaps this is a consequence of different managers needing to represent their own interests, in their own terms, within the University as a whole; tribes and fiefdoms demonstrating their heft within the corporate body, and hence within the scheduling solution.

I speculate that the Free University of Kafkashire is also the victim of an emergent species of computer programmer. I envisage a certain kind of young man, diffused globally, self-dramatised by his sense that multitudes are being made to conform to his own perverse rationalism, regardless of any specific tasks being carried out, or the particular abilities that might make a "scheduled person" valuable (say, to a University).

Whatever the explanation, the result is like a managerial equivalent of the worst post-modern theory: guaranteed to make all who encounter it feel either stupid and inadequate for failing to understand its intricacies, or enraged at having their time wasted on inane and flawed reinventions of the bloody obvious.

Finally, to extrapolate, to imagine:

Entire I.T. sub-systems exist within the Free University of Kafkashire for many purposes besides timetabling (equipment booking; payroll, pension and tax information; library business; etc.). Many FUK employees have to deal daily with several of these sub-systems, each in its own idiosyncratic terms, before they engage with any student or teach anything.

Everyone bending to all those processes, and all those imperfections.

It raises questions about institutional priorities.

The turn to micro-management-by-I.T. suggests that the executive mistrusts its staff. Coincidentally, the instigation of onerous rules for everyone, which are bound to be broken by many, opens a way for the executive to evade censure when the systems it introduces in the name of controlling everything prove inoperable or inefficient.

Can't we call this what it is: control mania and managerial I.T. bloat, inimicable to academic discourse; inimicable, in fact, to a civilised life?

The portals of Hell are agape. Please send help to the Free University of Kafkashire.

[1] This P.R. statement is real (in 2014), but the name of the company has been changed to something  that more transparently represents its theatre of operations.

[2] Quite possibly, EduFarm's sheduling solution logs all the minutes and hours of online engagement, regardless of their usefulness. No doubt this proves that staff and students are "present" – in the same way that EduFarm's two thousand Twitter followers "show" that their products are valued in the wider world.

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