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A chicken and egg problem and other situations in software selection (#1098)

Topics/tags: Teaching

I have a chicken and egg problem. You know, Which came first? The chicken or the egg? [1]. I suppose my problem is more prospective rather than retrospective, something of a Which should come first, the chicken or the egg?

The problem is one of software selection. Or perhaps it’s a class of problems. As I plan for online teaching this fall [2], I’m thinking about software to use for a variety of situations. What should I use for pair programming? What should I use for collaborative brainstorming? What should I use for collaborative authoring?

While I have more software selection questions than normal right now, these kinds of questions are not new. Software always plays some role in my teaching. And, as a computer science educator, I also end up exploring a wide variety of kinds of software for my students to use in our classes: programming languages, libraries, integrated development environments (IDE), version control systems, testing frameworks, database management systems, markup languages, and more.

Up to March 2020, the processes I used likely shared many characteristics with the processes other faculty use. Let’s start with the processes for major pieces of software, such as the IDEs I will recommend to students in a class. While some students will choose their own IDE and support themselves, most will not know what to use. For those students, I’ll recommend an IDE, provide some supporting materials to help them use it, and often arrange aspects of the course to make it easier for students to use the IDE. For example, when I teach our data structures and algorithms course with Java and Eclipse, I set up GitHub repositories with preconfigured project descriptions, which makes it much easier for students to load them into Eclipse.

So, how would I choose an IDE? I’d probably start by gathering a list of expectations. Some will be relatively concrete, such as integrates well with my preferred version-control system, supports unit testing, and runs on macOS, Windows, and Linux [3]. Others will be a bit more abstract, like easy for students to understand or encourages good practices. For introductory-level courses, I’d likely prioritize an environment designed for novices. For upper-level courses, I might want something that is used in industry.

In developing that list, I’d be talking to colleagues, both at Grinnell and at other institutions. I might even post a request to the SIGCSE-members list, but I’d probably combine such a request with a request for suggested IDEs. What do you look for in an IDE for course or language? Which did you select? Why?

At the end of this process, I’d have a list of criteria and a list of candidate IDEs. I would then download the IDEs, experiment with them, and talk to colleagues in the department. Since we don’t tend to change those all that often (it’s nice for students to be able to support each other across years), so that conversation would have been going on throughout the semester. Since I’d be committing to software for at least a semester—and more likely multiple years—I’d spend a lot of time trying out each option, perhaps even seeing how it performs on different platforms.

After that, I’d start restructuring my course around the new IDE. I’d write instructions for the start of the semester. I’d set up code for assignments to work with the IDE. Things like that.

It’s a time-consuming process. But, as I said, it’s one I expect most faculty do for some set of software they use, particularly software integral to their teaching.

But Grinnell now requests that much of the software we use in the classroom be vetted by lawyers, proceed through additional on-campus processes, contracted, and more. Here’s what a recent letter on the subject says.

Software requests are perhaps one of the more complicated technology requests since the review process is necessarily multi-faceted. Each request requires significant time by multiple teams within ITS, purchasing and accounting, the Office of the Dean, and often general counsel because the risks of using unapproved software can be significant; risks whose effects are amplified multi-fold in the current environment. Completion of the online central software request form initiates the review process. The review process includes assessments that examine many factors before determining whether a specific piece of software can be purchased or used. These include the privacy of software users; data security; cyber security of the College network and data; accessibility requirements; fiscal responsibility and cost control; and that appropriate indemnifications are in place. Likewise, compliance rules such as FERPA must be upheld, which often requires contract negotiation with the software vendor.

The software budgeting and purchasing policy describes the key policy components involved, and it is important to know that all academic-related software requests include a review by the Office of the Dean. Each software review produces an array of assessments from which an institutional risk decision is made, and the length of the process is dependent upon the complexity of the software, the data that is involved, and the responsiveness of the vendor. The College has a very large portfolio of approved software, but the complexities of licensing requirements mean that there is not a full list available. ITS publishes a list of key general-use software and a list of software that is available on the campus lab image that you can reference, and updates are planned to expand the listing. If you have questions regarding whether a particular piece of software is available, but you do not see it on the list, please reach out to the Deputy Chief Information Officer.

I understand that this cumbersome process is part of our approach to risk management. I appreciate that we are considering important issues like accessibility and privacy. I would have chosen a lighter-weight process, but we’ll get to that at another time [4].

Why is this a chicken and egg problem? Let’s return to the IDE example. Suppose I’ve gathered a list of five possible IDEs along with my carefully considered criteria. Do I want to spend the time evaluating software carefully if I have no idea whether it’s going to be accepted or whether I’ll even get any sort of answer before the semester starts? It’s tempting to just send all five IDEs to the software request process as I begin my evaluation. Since evaluation is likely to take a week or more, it shortens the time between the conclusion of my evaluation and the decision. It also means that I may choose to delay my deeper evaluation until after I get a response from ITS and the Dean’s Office.

But asking for all five IDEs when I know I’m only going to be using one is a waste of College resources. Others will have to assess the software in ways other than I would assess it. Someone may have to look at contract language. Given that the College has only limited time to consider software, will my requests hinder other requests, requests that may be more important?

Which should come first: my review or their review? If my review comes first, I may be wasting my time, time that is in short supply (and currently uncompensated). If their review comes first, I may be wasting their time. Both seem like losing choices.

My current strategy is a hybrid. I spend time evaluating software, but less than I would historically. I narrow my choices as much as possible. I send off one or two requests. And then I cross my fingers.

I did say that was one kind of example of software selection. Here’s another. I hear about a cool teaching technique from a colleague at another institution, perhaps in a conversation, perhaps from a mailing list or article. We’ll suppose it mentions a particular piece of software. For example, Here’s a cool way I used Trello in my class. Before July 2020, I might try the example on my own and, depending on how it went, either start learning more about the software and start incorporating the approach in my class, or decide that it was a failed experiment and go on to something else. We learn by experimenting, by trying, sometimes even by failing [5].

But that’s not quite so possible any more. Now I need to submit a request for the software and wait. No more spur-of-the-moment experiments. Less agility. Less fun [6]. Perhaps even less innovation but that’s hard to tell; you can get innovation with careful planning as well as with quick on-off experiments. I much prefer the latter to the former.

I don’t blame the folks in ITS; they are just enforcing a rule. And I’ve had some really good experiences with my colleagues in ITS, including suggestions of other approaches, good explanations of choices, a willingness to listen, even a few quick responses.

I understand the need for some risk management. But the quality of our teaching may also be at risk; does anyone consider that? It appears that we have adopted a policy more appropriate for a large corporation than an educational institution [7]. Certainly, if the review we do were common, our contract review form would have already analyzed most of the software we’ve requested.

I am not a lawyer. I will never be a lawyer. But I also wonder whether our approach protects us as well as we think it does. Suppose there was an inadvertent leak of student data from a piece of software. I’d much rather defend that suit by being able to suggest that the use of that piece of software is common practice in academia than by acknowledging that we’d done a review.

But what do I know?

I don’t even know which comes first.

Postscript: Where did this onerous policy come from? I have no idea. No one has told us. Perhaps no one wants to take the blame. Part of me wonders whether it was one of President Kington’s final actions as Grinnell’s President; the process does seem to share some aspects of governmental red tape. Part of me wonders that because Risk Management got (necessary) authority during the start of the pandemic, they used that authority to impose this policy. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The policy is there.

[1] The answer to that is easy, dinosaur eggs long predated chickens. And yes, I do realize that the question is intended to be Which came first, the chicken or the chicken egg?

[2] CSC 151 needs to be online; our classrooms can only support six or seven students with physical distancing.

[3] Runs in the cloud is a very different option.

[4] Perhaps even later in this musing.

[5] As a tenured faculty member, I am perhaps more comfortable doing something new in the classroom, knowing that it may fail. But I’m pretty sure that I experimented in the classroom long before I had tenure, even when I was on less-secure visiting positions. If you have good rapport with your students (and, I expect, if you have the privilege of being a large, white-presenting, authoritative-sounding male), they’ll forgive a few failed attempts.

[6] At least less fun for me.

[7] Someone told me that our contract-review firm did not have other educational clients, but it appears that they have a wide variety, including Boston College and The Rochester Institute of Technology.

Version 1.0 of 2020-07-18 .