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Automation Chimera: Education Is Not Management

The lure of automating workflow online so human intervention is minimized is continually reinforced in the minds of higher education administrators by examples of automated campus systems such as financials, student information systems, security systems, utilities management systems, CRMs, business information systems, and other enterprise systems.

Automation: What's Good for Management is Not Always Good for Learning

But systems thinking and the drive to automation -- no matter how good the systems are for campus management -- create problems on the academic side. Human learning, because of individual differences in learning style, in pace of learning, in what clicks, because of the social aspect of learning, and because our understanding of learning can be distorted by quantification, is not amenable to automation.

Central computing often sets expectations on a campus for how computing should work, because administrators hope that a large investment in a large system will solve large problems, because of the influence of vendors who work with IT staff on campus to gain profit by creating automated monoliths, and because all faculty want to make their jobs easier and are therefore prone to embrace the promise of automation (we once thought that word processing would automatically improve student writing). Therefore, educational software becomes over-engineered and over-built.

Why Does Automation Work for Management Software?

Enterprise systems on campus succeed because a core group of people use the systems day after day and so know how to use the systems. Educational systems built like enterprise management systems don't succeed because faculty and students usually don't ramp up to that same level of skill and expertise, nor should they have to. Faculty may use a CMS or ePortfolio system in one course but not another; students may use them only occasionally. It is hard to deal with a large automated software system if you don't practice every day.

An even more fundamental problem with educational software built as an enterprise system is that no one chooses to use them for fun. This kind of system does not connect with the social energy around using interesting applications. They are the equivalent of very large textbooks.

A Possible Improvement

In a recent conversation with the lead developer of Desire2Learn's new ePortfolio system (, I was pleased to hear that the system, which offers infinite management combinations for content and permissions, can also present the user (student or faculty member) with ratcheted-down options and therefore a simpler interface. A user can be set up to use just a minimal essential set of options.

Users still may not use Desire2Learn's ePortfolio system while they sit on a deck overlooking the water, but they at least have the option of a lower threshold for using it for their academic work.

The educational software market needs to follow this variable interface model. ePortfolio platforms, for example, have become even more complicated and higher-threshold than course management systems because the systems have become assessment management systems. They have become institutionally owned re-accreditation tools because that's where the money is. ePortfolio designers have fallen prey to the same automation chimera as CMS designers.

The Web 2.0 Antidote to Automation Bloat

How to rescue us from automation? Desire2Learn's approach is one answer. Another is to clearly have a student-centered Web 2.0 module where management of content is more drag-and-drop than filling in a form; to have this module that can then report some transactions to the automated system for whatever purpose the university needs such reports. This kind of module, then, has two interoperable cultures -- one centered on individual learning and the other managed in all the ways that enterprise systems need, with authentication and demographic updates and linking to whatever other systems are appropriate.

The Chimera

When vendors demonstrate their applications, they show how the various features work, as of course they should. During the demo, the cursor flies from one part of the screen to the next and new windows pop up like fireworks. Wow, it can do that! And that! And look how it does that! Such nice displays, such easy operation. Let's get it!

But, of course, the "it" is the person pushing the cursor around and not the software. What you see is the skill of the demo person. It would be better to buy that person along with the software. All those 'wow' features, the more there are, the more complicated the application becomes to use and the less likely anyone will adopt it.

There is no particular learning value in having all functionality in one system -- this goal is market-driven, not learning-driven. Students don't learn more by using really complicated software systems. Better is to have really simple applications that produce something quickly. Have a bunch of them. Learning is about choices and flexibility and not about automation.

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (, serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: E-mail: [email protected]

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