tisdag 7 juni 2011

The paradox of planning


How much time should be spent planning an event in relation to the time spent actually doing it? How much time should be spent planning a study or a software project in relation to the time spend actually doing that study or project? How much time should be spent evaluating a course in relation to the time spent actually teaching it?

When it comes to doing studies, most "junior researchers" (university students writing their theses) often spend way too little time planning something before they jump in both feet first. That is a pity, because by beforehand thinking over all the steps of a study and the process of performing one, you can "debug", find and solve problems before you even start - rather than halfway in. The same goes for writing a large, complex computer program - time spent planning is undervalued, and especially so by junior programmers.

But after you have written that computer program, how much time should be spent documenting it? A traditional problem in software engineering is that very little time is spent on documentation and the short answer would thus be "more". At the same time, there is a law of diminishing returns at play both in the case of documenting computer code or planning a study. Spending twice as much time does not necessarily lead to twice as good results, and spending ten or a hundred times as much definitely won't. At some point, it's time to say "enough".

Moving to the university setting, how much time should be spent planning and giving a course, and how much time should be spent administering and documenting that very same course? At some point, any endeavor will face a diminishing marginal utility of pouring more resources into it. My previous blog post concerned the diminishing marginal utility of trying to control and improve the quality of higher education by top-down approaches (such as through performing "Education Assessment Exercises"). If I give a course this year and I will give the same course next year, how much need is there really to document the course in excruciating detail? I can understand the need to do so if I were to hand of the course to someone else, but if I don't plan to do so, is it not enough that I do the work of thinking through the course, rather than writing lots of stuff up just for the sake of it?

My point is that those times that I have written up a course evaluation, nothing has come from it. Sure, someone may have spent a few minutes looking at it, but that is of no special use for me. So why should I be forced to write things up just for the sake of it?

On the other hand, I would be passionately willing to discuss the course in question with someone who has a sympathetic ear and who might offer suggestions for improvements, but this service has never been offered to me because someone else's time is a cost, but my time is free (in the eyes of my superiors). This is another example of a top-down approach (of ordering me to provide information that no-one ever reads, or at least never acts upon) and a bottom-up approach (of supporting me as a teacher with those things I perceive as problems in my day-to-day activities). It also unveils power relationships between me as a lowly and exchangeable provider of educational services, a cog in the machinery in an industrial model of education - and those who run the organization or the whole system of higher education in Sweden. In this model, students are the raw materials and teachers stand at a conveyor belt "treating" them in different ways until we in the end turn out "quality-assured" cookie-cutter engineers.

We never have enough money to provide hands-on support for teachers to help improve their courses, but we always have money to make sure that someone writes an email to remind me to fill out the course evaluation document and to perform an EAE assessment. Who reads the course evaluation document? How will the EAE assessment be used? Who knows? I for sure don't know! How come? Who knows?


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