Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Dust in the Wind

For the benefit of those who wonder what administrators talk about in closed-door meetings, and why we come out looking annoyed, a multiple choice question based on an actual meeting this week:

Which of the following represents the greatest danger to the equipment in high-tech “smart” classrooms?

a. obsolescence, since technology moves so quickly
b. chalk dust getting in the vents
c. theft/vandalism
d. ever-shifting ADA requirements

The correct answer is b. But b is harder to remedy than one might think.

Tearing out chalkboards and replacing them with whiteboards raises several issues. What to do about the volatile organic compounds in dry erase markers? Can we get hypoallergenic markers? Is there asbestos behind the chalkboards in the older buildings? If so, how many asbestos remediation projects can we afford, and with how much notice? Can we get them done over the summer, or will they bump up against semesters? And what about the agreement with the math department not to mess with chalkboards in their classrooms? Would this constitute a change to the “terms and conditions of employment,” requiring impact bargaining?

Alternately, if we go with ipads or netbooks, can we be sure that the wifi can handle it? Do the students pay for the workstations? If not, where do we get the money? How do we ensure compatibility? Since we can’t afford to hire many more IT staff, who would be responsible for responding when something doesn’t work? What if it doesn’t work for a night class, or on Saturday? Who would be on call?

I am not making any of this up.

A problem that shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to solve -- if chalk dust is a problem, just replace the chalkboards and be done with it -- becomes a chain of issues, each with side effects of its own. A decision that looks simple and obvious from the outside is anything but.

I have much more fun thinking about “the direction of higher education in America over the next twenty years” than I do thinking about “chalk dust in the vents,” but on a day-to-day level, the administrivia swamps the Big Ideas. A roomful of smart and dedicated people with graduate degrees spends an hour discussing the amelioration of chalk dust, finally landing on “let’s investigate some more.” Easy answers require resources. Let us tear down the old buildings and put up shiny new ones, and we won’t have chalk dust or temperamental wifi or rooms with tables in unmovable rows. Let us hire a full IT staff, and we can respond to emergencies as they arise. But in the absence of money, this is what we have to do.

It’s enervating, and a little absurd, and disturbingly reminiscent of the kind of inwardly-focused nitpicking that has doomed other institutions over time. It’s also what actually happens in closed-door meetings, even when everyone involved knows better. Starve institutions of money long enough, and the decisions will get progressively smaller and harder. In a setting like this, the easy default is to stick with chalkboards and junk the technology, hoping to hold the future at bay for just a little longer. There’s a metaphor in here somewhere...