Friday, November 30, 2007

The Ticking Clock

I just completed my mandated sexual harassment training for the next two years, in an online tutorial that is not much different from the one I finished two years ago, which I described here. I was glad to see that the answers to questions were a little less laughably obvious than those in the last iteration and that there was more attention to real-life case law and interesting precedents that are informing U.C. policy, but I was sorry to see that the basic mechanic of the program had not changed at all during the past two years and that cartoony PowerPoint-style graphics continue to shape perceptions of the sample narratives. (Click to enlarge and see characters pointing at a skin color chart.)

The user also completes the tutorial from the viewpoint of a very conventional heterosexual administrator that often presents those in positions of authority as white males. Given the flexibility of computational systems, it would be easy for a user to specify gender and sexual orientation, particularly so that gays and lesbians could be shown as social actors in the university rather than those who are always "other" and objects rather than subjects of discourse.

The UC system requires those with supervisory duties to complete an online ethics tutorial as well, which operates similarly around attention to the ticking clock. Although I feel that we all have an obligation as public employees to observe state law and to protect the interests of our government-supported institution, I am troubled by the fact that these programs effectively encourage multitasking while completing tutorials, since these systems constantly remind rapid readers to "slow down," and thus -- from speaking to my colleagues -- it appears that what Richard Lanham calls the "economics of attention" ironically encourages distraction because it dictates that busy employees optimize their time by keeping the tutorial window open while checking e-mail or reviewing websites. (Click to enlarge.)

Ian Bogost has writtten about how "procedural rhetorics" function in computational media like videogames, so that users may deduce how particular rules contribute to particular win states. It quickly became apparent that the system was not tabulating “right” and “wrong” answers or checking me periodically with a question to gauge my attention-level. The only way it kept score was by showing the number of minutes that had passed, and all that seemed to matter to the computer program was that I complete two hours of online time. I didn’t have to demonstrate competence in comprehending any minimum fraction of the total material. As the screen below indicates, I received a score of "100%," even though I actually missed a few questions when I clumsily hit the wrong part of the screen with the mouse. (Click to enlarge.)

Naturally, employees who did the tutorial found themselves wanting to game the system, particularly when the essential "cheat code" was so simple. From conversations with others, I learned that the “cheaters” resisted partly because they felt that the price to limiting potential liability for future litigation was to be exacted from the labor force in the form of further hours of work, even though all that would be produced would be a relatively empty signifier, particularly without a real assessment of the distance learning program. Those who took the tutorial might have intuited another purpose of the exercise for university administrators: to avoid serious, substantive, structural changes in the conditions of academic labor that relate to gender and sexuality. Even my buggy diploma of completion indicated a lack of attention to the human decorum associated with completed training. (Click to enlarge.)

Given the high cost of potential legal liability for corporations and large institutions, it is not surprising that several designers of "serious games" are now turning their attention to the challenge of creating interactive online content that dramatizes decision-making processes to make the learning process more engaging. For example, Saving Sergeant Pabletti was developed in the wake of the Tailhook scandal to provide game-based interactive distance learning to educated military personnel about sexual harassment. Perhaps the next time I complete the harassment tutorial, it will be a little more challenging to "win" my diploma.

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Blogger Leslie Madsen-Brooks said...

If UCI has an in-person version of the training, I recommend you attend it as well for purposes of comparison. I attended UCD's faculty training (which, interestingly, is separate from staff training) and found it to be considerably less onerous than, say, the online ethics training. Plus, it was fun to be in a room with a lot of older white male professors who admitted they thought they could make it to retirement without participating in the training. In the end, they seemed to take it pretty seriously--I didn't notice much eye-rolling.

Through my position the the UCD Teaching Resources Center, I'm trying to launch a modest "making classrooms safer for men and women" initiative to help faculty better understand the power dynamics of gender and sexuality in their classrooms (by which I mean: looking beyond merely sexual harassment). Of course, such an effort is a collaboration of several departments and programs across the university, and thus the pace of the project is a bit glacial. Your post has inspired me to try to kick up the pace a bit. Thanks for that.

10:53 PM  

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