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Bad software

Note: Some of key issues that I complain about here have been addressed. Thanks ITS!

Each of our classrooms has a projection system. It used to be that the projection system used a purely physical interface to connect the computer on the podium to the projector. But we have multiple inputs (Mac, PC, Laptop, DVD player, etc.) and someone in ITS [1] decided it would be much better to have a software-based system. That way, for example, they could monitor and fix problems remotely. At least that was the plan.

About four years ago, we got new interfaces between the computers and the projectors. In choosing the new systems, they made some strange decisions. For example, even though VGA was clearly on its way out, they chose to use VGA rather than, say HDMI. That means that we’ve had to continuously find and replace dongles for all of our classrooms. And the fancy touch-screen user interface didn’t quite work right all of the time [2]. Worse yet, it wasn’t consistent. In particular, the configuration in my primary classroom (3813) was different than it was in other classrooms. So, when I arranged my window and font sizes for my primary classroom, it didn’t work well in the other classrooms, and vice versa.

This past summer, they decided to upgrade the system in 3813 to use HDMI. I thought it was a good thing. But then I discovered that whoever designed the UI apparently never bothered to take a user-interface design course, the contractors who installed the system apparently didn’t bother to test it, and it seems to me like we got a lemon of a system.

Let’s start with the old one. In the old software-based system, you’d click the input you wanted (Mac, PC, laptop, DVD player, etc.), click the On button, and then wait a few minutes for the projector to start. In the new system, you click the input button (again, Mac, PC, laptop, DVD player, or whatever). Then it asks Do you also want to turn the projector on? So you click Yes. But it’s a strangely designed modal dialog [3], so after clicking Yes, the dialog stays up until you hit OK [4]. Then it waits two minutes, about long enough for the projector to actually start up, and then puts up a new modal dialog that says something like Wait for the projector to start. So what used to be two button clicks [5] has now ended up being four button clicks. And the extra clicks serve no clear purpose.

It that’s not enough, not all of the dialogs are even correct. You may recall that I said that they switched from VGA to HDMI. So what happens when you click the Laptop button? It asks whether you want to use VGA or HDMI. But there’s no VGA input. So why have that question? Bad programming, is what I’m told. It’s senseless.

The first time I tried to use the VGA connection to my laptop, a 15" MacBook Pro, the color scheme was off. Way off. And it wasn’t just off on the projector; it was also off on the monitor. Green dominated everything, making it feel like an old CRT terminal. ITS [6] came in to look at it. They couldn’t figure it out. We decided to leave it as a winter break project. At some point, they figured out that the Macintosh HDMI output does not match the HDMI input the system expects. Couldn’t our contractors have tested the system with real computers? It appears not. So, even though my Mac has an HDMI output, I’m still stuck using a dongle. Let’s hope it doesn’t disappear from the room.

I might put up with all of this if the system worked well. But the new system is even less reliable than the previous one was. I’d say that the odds are about one in three that something will go wrong each day. On a recent Monday, I arrived in my classroom fifteen minutes early. I made sure that it was on the PC and hit the enter key. Nothing showed up on the monitor or the projector. I switched to the Mac, and while the Mac showed up on the monitor, nothing showed up on the projector. So I rebooted the PC. It eventually showed up on the monitor [7], but not the projector. Then I turned the projector off and on. That had the great effect of making the monitor stop working with the PC and didn’t fix the projector. At that point, I had reached the start of class. I called ITS. Someone from ITS came. They also turned the projector off and on. It made no difference. They called someone else from ITS. They turned the projector off and on and moved the cart. That fixed it. But the debugging ended up wasting more than ten minutes of class time. My time should be focused on thinking about how to present the material, not on getting the system to work.

I’ve had lots of other problems with the system. The Mute Image button doesn’t work [8]. They’ve had to physically reboot the hardware part of the system at least twice [9]. At some point when they rebooted it, the resolution changed and we have not been able to get it back to the old resolution. I don’t know why they don’t just accept that we got a lemon and ask the vendor to fix it.

What about that Mute Image problem? Here’s my experience. I put in a ticket on the problem. I waited. I understand waiting; I put in a lot of tickets, particularly on our projection system [10]. After two weeks, someone responded that The programming is correct. Not the programming is correct, we tested the system, and it’s working. Just the programming is correct. But anyone who walked into the classroom and tried the Mute Image button would have known that it was still borken [11]. I waited to see if they did anything else. They didn’t. Eventually, I posted a follow-up note: Any other thoughts? This time, I got a quick response: This is the second room we have had in which image mute stopped working and programming was correct. Visited the other room yesterday and resent programming and image mute worked once programming was sent again. Visited this room this morning and did the same. Image mute is working now. If the program needs to be re-downloaded, then I would say that the program currently in the system is not correct.

I should note that while this situation is bad for me and my students, it’s equally painful for ITS. They get regular tickets from me about problems. And it appears that the system is not easy to debug. Worse yet, it sounds like the folks called upon to support the damn system may not have recommended it. And a system that reports that the software is correct, but only works when you re-download the same software, is not something that anyone should have to deal with.

I’m not sure what’s worse, having to use bad software or having to support bad software [12].

But I do really wish that the software we bought [14] made my life easier rather than more difficult. I don’t relish having to get to class fifteen minutes early each day to make sure that the software works [16].

[1] DT, I believe.

[2] For example, I’ve had difficulty using the Image Mute button in at least two different classrooms this past week. I write more about one of the experiences later in this musing.

[3] A modal dialog box is one that you must respond to before you can do anything else.

[4] Or maybe Close.

[5] I used one of the old systems after writing the two click claim. It turns out that I was wrong. Those systems also require a four-step sequence. First, you tap the screen to get out of sleep mode. Then you click the system you want. You click On. Then a new screen shows up that says Please wait while the system starts up. At least you can click anywhere on it. So the number of clicks may be the same. That’s still significantly better than having to repeatedly click a pointless Close box.

[6] Well, the A/V Center, but they are part of ITS.

[7] You know how I said they never checked the laptop connection with a Mac? I’m pretty sure they never checked the PC connection with a Linux box. I would venture to guess that some signals that should be sent back and forth aren’t.

[8] Or didn’t work. I’m told it’s fixed in one classroom. I haven’t had the chance to try.

[9] Rebooting the physical part requires someone to unscrew the back of the podium. I hope that re-downloading the program doesn’t.

[10] What’s the moral of that story about the boy who cried Wolf? It’s that everyone appreciated the warnings, right?

[11] Yes, the spelling is intentional.

[12] Probably the worst part is having to deal with people like me, who not only complain about the software, but also do so in a public fashion.

[14] It’s not just the classroom software. Ask a faculty member about Sedona, or SelfService [15], or GrinCo, or the host of other software that gets imposed upon us.

[15] Which they may refer to as Web Advisor.

[16] That’s assuming I can get into the classroom fifteen minutes early. There are only ten minutes between classes. It usually takes the prior class a few minutes to get out of the room.

Version 1.0 released 2018-03-08.

Version 1.1 of 2018-04-25.