Monday, 30 July 2018

Tertiary education administration systems

I was talking to an educator who is part of a professional development group at their institution considering stress in the workplace, and trying to come up with ways to better manage the stress that seems to be inherent in the education sector.

"Why is education stressful?" I hear non-educators ask, incredulously. "You have so many holidays!" Yes, it looks like that from the outside. But the trouble is that we are 'always on'. 'Blended learning' is another way of saying being 'contactable 24/7'. Students will post questions, assignment drafts, get involved in discussions online as well as in class, and these things seem like they need to be dealt with as they are happening. As a result, we get texts, emails or online updates at midnight or 2am, every day of the week.

Yes, we can put in better boundaries and not pick up our messages at night or on the weekend. We can have the volume off on our devices at night. We can let others deal with out-of-hours crises, knowing students may bypass us and go to the head of school or the student union. It is the expectation that we should be 'always on' that adds to educator stress.

For example, my institution is doing away with desk phones. We are all getting a personal mobile phone instead, to make life 'easier'... supposedly because there are so many part-time and hot-desk workers that it is impossible to contact educators when the institution needs to. Interesting. There is no expectation of delay in communication from the organisation's point of view: it appears that my organisation too thinks we should be always available when they want us. Despite the fact that so many educators are part-time.

Let's think about that for a minute. I teach part-time, research part-time, run my own business part-time. When I have tried teaching more than a 60% load, I get sick (hospitalised last year and the year before). So my personal rule is now not to teach more than two papers a semester (this takes three days a week including marking and development as one paper has double-weighting). I have research conditions (another day). Then I squeeze my own business into the last day because that is the 'only' time that is left, but realistically my own business happens in and around my teaching and in my private time, because that last day often gets gobbled up by creeping education administration and by trying to engineer better systems to save me time later on. 

While in theory I should not available for at least two days a week, those days regularly get consumed by education anyway. I know that once my institution so generously gives me that phone I will get calls on my non-educator days (my strategy for that is simple: I will leave it on charge in the office. Then I only need pick up messages when I am actually there: at my discretion, on the days I am paid).

It seem to me that my colleagues are running close to empty, all the time. At least half the teaching staff are on semester by semester contracts. There is no fat in the system to cope with errors or down-time, because contractors only come in to teach. When not teaching, they work from home where they don't get constant interruptions for the administration and reporting which adds an unpaid burden to the teaching load. No one can afford to get sick, be injured, or have a family crisis. Recently I was called at home on a day I don't work - late morning - to ask if I could step in and take a colleague's lecture that afternoon at 1pm. This was the third time that particular last minute call had gone out that term (we have two terms in a semester). The number of times this is happening is increasing: I remember perhaps eight or nine years ago this being a surprise in a year, let alone being a regular occurrence during a single term.

When mistakes happen - and it is amazing with how stretched people are that mistakes don't happen more often - there are few systems to pick up the slack. I know the phones are an attempt at system, but it is the wrong system that will add to the problem, not provide a solution. 

We have had many background failures which the government and the students don't see, largely because, in my view, we have no national, standard systems for managing marking, students, results, and reporting. Instead each education organisation has created their own. Worse, each system is often standalone, fragmented, repetitive and error-prone. We hand-transfer data between systems. I start with a spreadsheet tab for marking each individual student's work, then transfer my results by hand into a master spreadsheet, and then upload the assignment totals and the feedback collectively into my institution's online platform for students to pick up. Then I enter the SAME assignment totals collectively into my institution's reporting system. That gives me the potential for four layers of mistakes - and I have colleagues who mark into Word documents and mentally total them, adding at least one more layer of error opportunity - before results have even been approved by my institution, adding yet another layer of potential error.

Why do we use spreadsheets? Four reasons. Firstly, our organisational systems do not provide the marking-split detail required to report against and mark for each learning outcome, so we have to provide that level of detail ourselves from outside our organisational system. Secondly, because we also have to enter our results separately into the online platform for students, anyway, it is better to enter from one base document. Thirdly, there is very little server space allocated per educator, so it becomes easier to work at home where all our data is (I have half a terabyte of data that I carry with me, yet nowhere near enough space allocation for that amount of data in my institution). Fourthly, internal organisational result systems are often not available off campus, so, if we want to work from home (where our data is), a spreadsheet is portable... and the best option. 

In addition, we often have to report things three or four times, to different audiences. We need data for: the Ministry of Education, the Tertiary Education Commission, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and the Education Review Office. They all require education organisations to report on different markers. All of which gobbles time, creates duplication, allows for error, reduces available funding and destroys soul. What goes unseen is that it is the individual educators who have to gather the data for these data demands: educators who are thin on the ground, and who already feel 'always on' with student load.

In New Zealand we have eight universities and 16 polytechnics: 24 GOVERNMENT tertiary institutions. I wonder why there has not been a single system created by the Ministry of Education for managing delivery, marking, students, results, and reporting and that ALL learning institutions must use, where all required reporting can be entered at the institution, at marking split level, which then be automatically pulled out to the online platform for student results, with reports tailored for each government department needing it. This needs to be a central government initiative. The result would also be my idea of heaven.

If we collected the data once and the system did the administration for us, it would reduce individual educator load. Then we would be better able to deal with who should be our focus: our students.


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