Artisanal education and the illusion of support.

via haikus

I absolutely dread calling tech support, and will do just about anything to avoid it, including spend three days with no intarwebs at home, hoping that my modem will magically return from the dead. (Stubborn, me? Surely you jest.) Working my way through a phone tree; waiting on hold “for the next available representative;” explaining my problem in great detail; having the support rep walk me through a series of steps that I’ve already tried (and that haven’t worked) on several occasions; being notified after 30 minutes that the department I actually need to speak with is currently closed; and having the rep advise me to call back “during normal business hours” to start the process all over again from the beginning? Just the thought can be totally overwhelming.

As a 10-year veteran of front-line tech support, I can say with confidence that it’s just as much fun for the people on the other end of the phone. Remaining polite and helpful when your job is to answer the Same Flipping Questions every day is incredibly difficult, and taxing, for the employee. It’s often more efficient for an organization to hire relatively inexperienced part-time folks for the front-line positions, and quickly train them to either provide very basic assistance or “escalate” issues to someone more experienced. Theoretically, this creates a winning situation for everyone: those who need basic help get it quickly (and cheaply), those who need something more are quickly identified and transferred to the right person, inexperienced workers gain valuable experience in a variety of contexts, and experienced (i.e. more expensive) workers can focus on the problems that require greater knowledge or creativity.

In the real world, though, this model is much more complicated. Perhaps the person asking for help doesn’t have the vocabulary to accurately describe the problem, or is overwhelmed from struggling for who knows how long. Maybe the support technician doesn’t recognize when a problem needs to be escalated, or has plenty of technical knowledge but lacks customer service skills. Throw cultural or generational differences into the mix, and instead of efficiency you end up with the illusion of support, where nobody gets what they need and everybody ends up frustrated. It’s not just large technology corporations with overseas call centers that do this. It happens in small and medium organizations, for-profits and non-profits, IT departments and classrooms.

via clarkkampfe

I’d like to believe, as Bryan Alexander tweeted (quoting an article on about the rising cost of college), that “higher ed. remains essentially an artisanal industry.” Education —  and the various services associated with educational institutions — SHOULD be artisanal, a craft that is honed and refined over a long period of time, undertaken by those who care about what they do, and who strive for quality over quantity. But all too often it’s too much of an industry. To avoid spending time creating new tests or grading written answers, a high school teacher re-uses the same multiple choice tests for more than a decade. Instead of searching for new, updated resources or exploring ways in which other systems might provide a more engaging experience for students, a college professor copies last year’s files into this year’s course shell in the content management system.

A large part of the problem with our educational system, I would argue, is the result of poor support outside of the classroom walls. Secondary teachers aren’t going to have time to rethink tests when they have to go to endless department meetings, chair after-school clubs and activities, and spend their summers attending classes to renew their certification. College profs aren’t going to explore new technologies if their IT or ed tech departments refuse to provide information, advice, or support on systems they don’t officially manage. Providing responsible support, like being a responsible learner, means sometimes reaching outside of what’s comfortable. It means taking risks, pushing through fear, and accepting short-term failures on the way to long-term success.

via cogdog

Identifying how support should work is the easy part; figuring out how to get there is a much bigger question. So help me, LLU readers. If you teach, what concrete steps can your institution take to allow you to focus more on your students? If you provide support, what would help you do a better job? Comments welcome from all (as always), but I’m especially intrigued to hear from those folks with experience in both worlds. I know you’re out there, teaching staff!

Ryan has been proudly maintaining and contributing to Language Lab Unleashed since 2005, and is the current President of SWALLT. Since the summer of 2013 he's been causing trouble with his all-star colleagues in the UMW DTLT; when not wrangling websites Ryan can be found doing strange things with heavy objects.

1 Comment

  1. Bryan Alexander · November 26, 2010 Reply

    I wonder if we should think of most offline work as artisanal, and most digital as the scalable complement. f2f discussions, p2p tutoring on the one hand, ebooks and the whole open Web on the other.

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