Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Paper constipation

Years back I started going paperless. Classroom assignments were turned in on a hard drive or by email, announcements were posted on my teacher webpage, grades were posted on a secure Internet-based gradebook and my school turned to email and instant messaging instead of paper announcements in teacher boxes. At home I eliminated as many paper bills as possible and began paying bills and doing banking online.

My home state of Washington eliminated a lot of paper forms nearly a decade ago because of a big push from Bill Gates and Microsoft. The story goes that at one point Bill Gates looked at all the forms he was signing and paper he was perusing for day-to-day affairs and said something to the effect of... Bring me all the forms we have to fill out, bring me all the papers we require of others in our business and let's figure out how we can be a paperless company. He pushed the state of Washington to put nearly every form required of business online.

Now I work in a virtual field where almost everything is done electronically. Almost! I'll get to the almost part in a moment. I teach online courses where most course materials are on websites (we still use some books but students can get eBooks), the assignments are turned in electronically, I make comments on them in an online gradebook or I put comments inside the documents electronically and return them to students. Students communicate by email, discussion forums, and the occasional phone call.

However all of this work is done for universities... (sound of creaking door) Brick and mortar universities... (more creaking) Or online/virtual universities who seem to have copied the worst traits of brick and mortar institutions... Sigh! Universities seem to all be victims of paper constipation!

Example of a system with paper constipation: Recently I completed teaching a 6 week course and in the mail (yes snail mail) I found, not my payment for the work I had done, but the contract they had forgotten to send me before the course started. The course begin in July, I got the course site ready in late June, the course ended in August, now it is mid-September and I am still waiting for that paper check to come in the mail.

Why is the contract a piece of paper which has to be put into an envelope and mailed? Why is the check a piece of paper which also has to be put into an envelope and mailed? Why are we still relying on the USPS system to transfer money? And Lord help anyone who moves because universities are not good about information management. I just had a contract (yes sigh a paper one) mailed to an old address, hadn't lived there in more than two years. I have received other things from this university but some functionary pulled up a database which hadn't been updated when the other databases were and my contract was 'returned to sender.' Sender shouldn't be sending me out paper contracts to start with, email it to me!

The whole problem is not limited to contracts and checks, but also applies to grade changes in most institutions. I can teach an online course from anywhere and often do! I live at least 500 miles from any institution for whom I work, so no, I cannot stop by your office to pick up or drop off a form. Grade changes should be online secure forms, most grading is now online and secure, why aren't grade changes?

Paper constipation is still endemic in most institutions for whom I work and I am tired of it. Paperless is so much simpler, easier, and quick. There are issues with paperless systems too, I admit. Like forgetting to tell a publisher you receive funds from once a year that you changed banks sometimes in the last 12 months... still trying to track down that royalty payment.

I may be ignorant about why institutions are still so reliant on paper but frankly I am tired of the paper flow, or lack of it. Universities need to get over their paper constipation and get into the 21st century with the rest of us! Yours in ignorance!


  1. I find it ironic that even though the government trusts us to send our taxes in signed electronically, we can register for courses online, and we can apply for $300k mortgages online, we can't sign a simple course contract that way, nor can we be paid by direct deposit if we are "contract instructors".

    Do you think this is because accounts payable/receivable at BM institutions (pun intended) crave that much paperwork control, or they simply lack the technology skills to create the correct type of .pdfs????

  2. Love your pun! BM institutions have paper constipation! LMAO
    I personally think they are just stuck. They are autistic, stuck in the same patterns repeated over and over again and any attempt to change things causes great distress. And yes some of it is about control and yes a lot of it is the lack of technical skills.

  3. Great posting! It has always irked me no end to have to fax information to universities when a simple emailed document would be much more efficient. And fax is not secure when confidential info is being sent - anyone can see info coming in on a fax machine.

    One university where I taught (but no longer do) required an attendance sheet sent via fax every week. GRRRRR

    I'm enjoying your blog -- just found it yesterday in fact -- and am reading all the back posts. This is great stuff!! Got you on my google reader now so I don't miss a thing. Also following you on twitter too. My blog is "sort of" anonymous but here's who I am (we worked together a bit at one university) You can find me on my website.