An update on submitting assignments

Last time I handed in an assignment, I said that I had not done any efforts to avoid the paper used in handing in assignments, which I was angry at myself for but for which there were reasons.   I wanted to give an update on my efforts since that post, and what I plan to do next.

I lamented that I had not sent another email in the lead up to handing in Assignment #2, and said that I should sent such an email in order to “continue the momentum for me making my point and emphasizing that this issue is not going away”.  In order to correct that regret, I did send an email earlier this week in advance of Assignment #3, but also kept in mind that “security” had been highlighted as the key concern for why we needed to hand in paper copies.  Thus, when I emailed to ask if I could hand in electronic only, I also proposed a hopeful solution to the security issues.  Again, as I likely could have anticipated, I was told I needed to hand in the assignment in hard copy, but this time, the key factors that were highlighted was the “departmental guidelines on submission of work”, which prevents electronic submission, and a desire to be consistent across all students.  A request for an opportunity to meet for 15 minutes to understand the factors preventing electronic submission was not taken up.

I also had an assignment coming up for my other ESD course, ESD 100, in which I had not yet submitted an assignment and for which this challenge was initially undertaken.  As sometimes change comes if you only ask, I had hoped for a favourable response to my request to hand in my upcoming assignment electronically only.  I was then hoping to be able to use that “small win” as a precedent within the broader system.

While the response was sympathetic, it was not positive.   I received a detailed response that highlighted the departmental guidelines (as well as the course handbook) requiring hard copy submission, and that ‘single exceptions’ cannot be made.  Fair enough.  Most useful was this conclusion:  “if a change is to be implemented there will be a need to formally change protocol.”

My next step is to know what the protocol actually is, and how to change it.  Difficulty is that it seems that the actual protocol (or guidelines, the exact name is not clear) is missing in action.  I tried to find the guidelines on the engineering departmental website, but they are not listed under the procedures page at http://www.eng.cam.ac.uk/admin/admin_procedures.shtml and nothing comes up via a search of the webpage.   Does anyone know of where they are?  Dr. Fenner was kind enough to offer to send them to me, but the course administrator has been going in circles trying to find them… apparently no one has the actual document!

In someways it reminds me of the classic joke that we tell of bureaucracy:

If you place five monkeys in a cage, with stairs to a banana, eventually one will try to climb the stairs.  However, once the monkey starts to climb the stairs, all the monkeys are sprayed with cold water.  The monkeys soon learn that as soon as one of them starts to climb the stairs, they get sprayed with cold water; not wanting to be sprayed, as soon as one of their number goes climb the stairs, the rest of the monkeys beat on the errant member and prevent them from climbing the stairs.  If you replace one monkey, the new monkey has never been sprayed and goes to climb the stairs:  the remaining four monkeys will beat on the errant member and prevent him from doing do.  He soon learns to not climb the stairs, and soon joins in if any of the other monkeys tries to climb the stairs.  If a second monkey is replaced, the same thing happens, with the other four beating on the new monkey when he attempts to climb the stairs.  This can be repeated until all 5 monkeys are replaced, and they will all beat on the one of their number to prevent them from climbing the stairs to the banana, without having any knowledge about why they do so as none have ever experienced the cold spray.  And that is how policy is maintained.

The crazy part is that it is not a joke, and was actually a real experiment with real monkeys published in 1967.  However, to goes to show the momentum of “that is how it always been done”, but no one can actually say why!

Is that the case here?  We shall see; I await to find out from the departmental procedures!

Even then, I will need to make a case for why there needs to be a change, and why this would be advantageous for the department and course.  A big element is that it reduces the quantity of paper that needs to be managed, as the administrator has indicated to me that approximately 70% of all paper she needs to store is from assignments.  Paper copies are also a massive data protection risk, and given the exceptionally data-protection sensitive people the British seem to be, I anticipate that will have some influence!

Until next time, be paperless,

Micah

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