Stupid computer system, or Hal, why do you hate me?

Yesterday I went to the first day of technology and computer training, the first of three 5 hour sessions. I was (and am, actually) really thrilled by the prospect of learning different pieces of software and hardware. Mainly I was hoping to get inspired for some grand project I could come up with that wasn’t using blogs or wikis just for the sake of using them (e.g. I want to avoid the “everyone write a short report on a famous mathematician, post it on a blog, and comment on three reports by other students” syndrome).

Perhaps we’ll get introduced to some cool things today. But yesterday was the day for basics — logging into the computers, backing up our computers, and worst of all: email.

The email system is part of this larger comprehensive system that the school uses which does email, instant messaging, a calendar, an address book, and a still ambiguous concept of “conferences” which are (I think, but truly I have no idea what the heck they are) akin to a web 2.0 email listserve. The whole system is poorly designed from: an aesthetic standpoint (terrible design elements, the important things aren’t easily findable) and a functional standpoing (too many choices all the time, not very customizable, lots of small annoying quirks). And I’m certainly not technologically slow; sometimes I’d even call myself tech savvy.


I spent a long time yesterday being frustrated with learning the system — and just not “getting it.” There are two things I took from this episode. First, and this was pointed out by the girl sitting next to me, who I think was incredibly insightful: this is what happens to students when they don’t get something. They get frustrated, agitated, angry, and start acting out. Second, I absolutely have to master this system before the first day of school. It is going to be such a time sink in my life if I’m struggling over every email, trying to figure out how to plan a “conference” (a what?), trying to remember to not accidentally send an email to the whole school.

I really do want to go through my litany of complaints about the system — especially before I get too used to it and all the quirks and bad features are naturalized — but since this is something that I can’t change (I can’t re-code it, and I certainly can’t … at least not yet … have the entire student and faculty population switch to something better), I don’t think it’s worth going into detail about. It is worth dealing with proactively and positively by spending a lot of time trying like Sisyphus to make it over the steep learning curve.

There is one feature of this system in particular that causes consternation: you can view an email’s “history.” In other words, if I send an email to three students informing them about tomorrow’s assignment because they were (gasp!) absent, I can see if and when each one read the email. Sounds useful (if not a bit Big Brother-y). But the reverse is true: students can find out when I’ve read an email. Which means I have to revise my email checking and answering practices, or at the very least, come up with explicit guidelines about email. Let me tell you what I’m afraid of. A student emails a question at 3am the night before a test, or similarly, a student asks for a meeting after school the next day. I tend to wake up and check my email in the middle of the night. They will know I’ve read it and start whining that I didn’t respond, that I don’t care.

Of course I can stop this by coming up with a policy that I’m not required to respond to any emails received after 6pm. Or something to that effect. But as you can see, now I’m forced to think of a policy.

I swear I’m not a technophobe, and I’m not generally scared of new things. I am just cautious before jumping on the technology bandwagon without thinking it through.


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