Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The submitting online recommendations obstacle course

Sunday October 16.

For professors, submitting recommendation letters has always been a time consuming process. However for me, it has always been a joyful one. I only agree to write letters for students about whom I am enthusiastic. I craft each letter carefully, paying particular attention to the individualized requirements of the department to which the student is seeking admission or the program from which she or he is seeking funding. I share a copy with the student and encourage her or him to share it with parents. Why shouldn’t a parent have the opportunity to feel proud when a mentor writes specific, complementary thoughts about their son our daughter?

Now, however, the introduction of online procedures for submitting recommendations has made the process more burdensome and far less enjoyable. Unfortunately, the time required to sort out problems with not-fully-debugged-online submission software is often greater than the time needed to write the letter of recommendation itself.

As Dormgrandpop readers would know, I am not a technology Luddite. For nine years, I directed a IT and multimedia customer support organization at American University that received very high marks from faculty, students and staff for service. Computer modeling, using differential equations is one of my professional specializations. I agree with Norbert Weiner who wrote in The Human Use of Human Beings about the promise of that computers offered: making life less routinized and more rich and fulfilling for human beings.

In the domain of submitting online recommendations, and many other domains, it hasn’t turned out that way. My experience in attempting - and finally succeeding - to submit of recommendation to the Institute of International Education, on behalf of a Fulbright program applicant is a case in point. I learned tonight that IIE has now outsourced the recommendation-submission process to an outside vendor, comprising IT specialists who, in all likelihood, know little or nothing about the Fulbright program or the circumstances under which faculty writing recommendations may work. I know from experience that when IT specialists are developing software, they are most often working under optimal conditions with the latest equipment (almost always IBM compatible running Windows operating systems) and with fast, reliable internet connectivity. When designing systems they assume, without giving the matter much thought, that their clients are reasonably IT savvy individuals operating under nearly similar conditions. Could clients be using a MacBook, lack a readily accessible scanner or have a slow internet connection? The possibility is unimaginable, or at least not something that should be taken into account in the design process.

These assumptions, of course, bear little relationship to the circumstances where their clients may be working, especially in a program where recommenders may well be working - and having to fill out recommendations - overseas. In my case I was working overseas, but did have good internet connectivity, however I was informed that my letter must be submitted online using a scanned document. Since I had no access to scanning technology, I had to wait until I returned to the US. There was no option offered for submitting recommendations by fax or mail. Fortunately, my travel schedule fit within the IIE’s deadline and I had scanning hardware and software in my DC apartment. Will every faculty member writing recommendations have this capability? It is unlikely.

But then I made the mistake of thinking I could easily complete the recommendation at my home in rural Virginia, where I only have a satellite internet connection. It was possible, but inordinately time consuming. The server response from the IEE software vendor was glacially slow, due no doubt to my slow satellite connection and the fact that the vendor’s software developers had only planned for lightning fast, totally reliabie, internet connectivity on the part of all Fulbright recommendation writers. I spent considerable time viewing the message “waiting for” and wondering whether the problem was my connection or the fact that the software had not been fully debugged for MacIntosh users. Downloading the recommendation using my normal browser, Safari, proved to be impossible. After long waits and fruitless attempts to reload the software, I switched to a different browser and repeated the process. This time, I decided that I would pass the time by writing this blog, while waiting to see if the server would respond. After an extended waiting period , it did. The document was successfully downloaded and I was able to complete the recommendation. Had I been overseas in Sri Lanka or perhaps even Singapore the task might well have been impossible.

The author of a cover-page-highlighted-obituary of Steven Jobs in the Economist described what made the products he designed so distinctive and appealing. He cared about what customers wanted and needed. He made his products and the software that supported them beautiful and user friendly. Most IT specialists who write software for Microsoft operating systems and including those who designed the recommendation software purchased by the IIE for the Fulbright program are cut from different cloth as I was once again reminded to my sorrow, this evening. I fear that Norbert Weiner was wrong about the human use of human beings. Steve Jobs and Apple are the exception. It is Microsoft and software vendors such as that are the norm.

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