Reflection on Work Load: I may have been too convincing

I’m a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to taking my own advice on exercise. “Start easy,” I say, as I come back from injury with a fast 10 mile run. “Don’t over do it!” I admonish as I try to lift my own body weight in a gym. I have two knee surgeries, multiple calf strains and a torn plantar fascia to bear witness to this. For this, and many other reasons, I have a personal training for the gym stuff who I see once a week and a running partner who (facetiously) threatens to slap me if I run too hard or too far. I’m more scared of her than I am my personal trainer but don’t tell her that.

To fit everything in, I train in the gym at 6am on Wednesdays and, while this gives me a long day it allows me to get some good core and upper body work in to balance my legs and overall fitness – strength is useful in many ways as a day-to-day thing but balance, the other effect of good core strength, is incredibly useful and makes me a much better runner. I also take the opportunity to talk to someone who doesn’t work with me, isn’t related to me and knows what I do, but not in much detail. It’s very relaxing to talk to someone like that, especially when you have things on your mind.

Time Banking has been on my mind, as has my own time management, so I’ve talked a lot about making my life more effective, working less and working better, all those good things. So imagine my surprise when my trainer wrote to me asking if we could move sessions a little, if possible, as he’d been listening to what I’d been saying and realised that he’d been working reactively by not allowing himself enough time to plan and structure his day, especially as he’s now managing the gym I train at.

I’ve been thinking about changing away from the Wednesday 6 slot and this means that this is great timing for me. I’d like to keep training with him but I could train with someone else who doesn’t have his burdens or schedule quite easily and still have a really good experience – I’ve trained with other people before there, it’s a good gym. But what I really like is the thought process – contemplative and transformative.

Now, either this is the greatest con job that I’ve been privy to or I may have actually helped someone else to see a new way of thinking about their own life. Either way, there appears to be some knowledge transfer going on.

One person at a time. It’s slow but I can work with that. 🙂


Short and Sweet

Well, it’s official. I’ve started to compromise my ability to work through insufficient rest. Despite reducing my additional work load, chewing through my backlog is keeping me working far too much and, as you can tell from the number and nature of the typos in these posts, it’s affecting me. I am currently reorganising tasks to see what I can continue to fit in without compromising quality, which means this week a lot of e-mail is being sent to sort out my priorities.

This weekend, I’m sitting down to brainstorm the rest of 2012 and work out what has to happen when – nothing is going to sneak up on me (again) this year.

In very good news, we have 18 students coming back for the pilot activity of “Our students, their words” where we ask students who love ICT an important question – “what do you like and why do you think someone else might like it?” We’re brainstorming with the students for all of Friday morning and passing their thoughts (as research) to a graphic designer to get some posters made. This is stage 1. Stage 2, the national campaign, is also moving – slowly but surely. This is why I really need to rest: I’m getting to the point where it’s important that I am at my best and brightest. Sleeping in and relaxing is probably the best thing I can do for the future of ICT! 🙂

Rather than be a hypocrite, I’m switching to ultra-short posts until I’m rested up enough to work properly again.

See you tomorrow!

You Are Reading This on My Saturday

Ah, time zones. Because of these divisions of time, what publishes at 4:00am Saturday morning, Australian Central Standard Time, will be read by some of you on Friday. It is, however, important to realise that I am writing this on Friday evening, around 8:30pm, so that will help you to determine the context. You may not need it because my question is simple:

“What are you doing this weekend?”

If your answer is anything along the lines of spending time with the kids, sports, reading, writing the world’s worst screen play, going to the theatre, checking out the new cafe down on market – then bravo! If your answer is anything along the lines of “working” then, while I don’t doubt that you feel the genuine need to work, I do have to wonder about any weekend that features as much, if not more, work than a weekday.

I’m very guilty in this particular exchange. My wife has returned home after only two weeks away and I’ve already started to slip back into bad habits – not just doing work on weekends because I needed to, but assigning work to weekends as if they were weekdays.

See the difference there? It’s the difference between the reserve chute and the main chute, the emergency petrol in the jerry can to the fuel tank – it’s the difference between a temporary overload and workaholism.

I understand that many of you are under a great deal of pressure to perform, to put marks on a well-define chalkboard, to bring in money, to publish, to teach well, to do all of that and, right now, there aren’t enough hours in the week let alone the day. However, how you frame this mentally makes a big difference to how you continue to act… and I speak from bitter, bitter experience here.

Yesterday, I talked about things that I hadn’t achieved. Yet, today, I talk about taking the weekend off. No work. Minimal e-mail. Fun as a priority. Why?

Because the evidence clearly indicates that the solution to my problem lies in getting rest and sleep, not by reducing my ability to work effectively by working longer hours, less effectively. If I am to get the whole concept of student time management right, then it should work for me as well – as I’ve said numerous times. My dog food. Here’s a spoon. Eat it up.

Are you working so hard that you can’t focus? Is it actually taking you twice as long to get things done?

Then rest. Sleep in. Take a day off. By simple arithmetic, skipping a day to get back to higher efficacy is a good investment. Stop treating the weekends as conveniently quiet days where nobody bothers you – because everyone else has taken the day off.

That’s what I noticed when I started working weekends. The reason it was quieter is that, most of the time, no-one else was there. Ok, maybe they didn’t ‘achieve’ as much as I did – but how did they look? Were they grey, or jaundiced, tired and listless, possibly even angry and frustrated on Monday morning? Or were they bright and happy, full of weekend chatter? Did you, pale and wan, resent them for it?

Look, we all have to work weekends now and then and pull the occasional all-nighter, but making it a part of your schedule and, worse, cancelling your life in order to work because you tell yourself that this is a permanent thing? That’s not right. If it was right, your office would be full on weekends and at 10pm. (p.s. if that’s your company, and you’re working 80 hours a week, you’re terribly inefficient. Pass it on.)

Now, I’m going off to sleep. I will post some more over this weekend but most of it is scheduled. Let’s see if I can practice what I preach.

Talk to the duck!

I’ve had a funny day. Some confirmed acceptances for journals and an e-mail from a colleague regarding a collaboration that has stalled. When I set out to readjust my schedule to meet a sustainable pattern, I had a careful look at everything I needed to do but I overlooked one important thing: it’s easier to give the illusion of progress than it is to do certain things. For example, I can send you a ‘working on it’ e-mail every week or so and that takes me about a minute. Actually doing something could take 4-8 hours and that’s a very large amount of time!

So, today was a hard lesson because I’ve managed to keep almost all of the balls in the air, juggling furiously, as I trim down my load but this one hurts. Right now, someone probably thinks that I don’t care about their project – which isn’t true but it fell into the tough category of important things that needs a lot of work to get to the next stage. I’ve sent an apologetic and embarrassed e-mail to try and get this going again – with a high prioritisation of the actual work – but it’s probably too late.

The project in question went to a strange place – I was so concerned about letting the colleague down that I froze up every time I tried to do the work. Weird but true and, ultimately, harmful. But, ultimately, I didn’t do what I said I’d do and I’m not happy.

So how can I turn this difficult and unpleasant situation into something that I can learn from? Something that my students can benefit from?

Well, I can remember that my students, even though they come in at the start of the semester, often come in with overheads and burdens. Even if it’s not explicit course load, it’s things like their jobs, their family commitments, their financial burdens and their relationships. Sometimes it’s our fault because we don’t correctly and clearly specify prerequisites, assumed knowledge and other expectations – which imposes a learning burden on the student to go off and develop their own knowledge on their own time.

Whatever it is, this adds a new dimension to any discussion of time management from a student perspective: the clear identification of everything that has to be dealt with as well as their coursework. I’ve often noticed that, when you get students talking about things, that halfway through the conversation it’s quite likely that their eyes will light up as they realise their own problem while explaining things to other people.

There’s a practice in software engineering that is often referred to as “rubber ducking”. You put a rubber duck on a shelf and, when people are stuck on a problem, they go and talk to the duck and explain their problem. It’s amazing how often that this works – but it has to be encouraged and supported to work. There must be no shame in talking to the duck! (Bet you never thought that I’d say that!)


I’m still unhappy about the developments of today but, for the purposes of self-regulation and the development of mature time management, I’ve now identified a new phase of goal setting that makes sense in relation to students. The first step is to work out what you have to do before you do anything else, and this will help you to work out when you need to move your timelines backwards and forwards to accommodate your life.

This may actually be one of the best reasons for trying to manage your time better – because talking about what you have to do before you do any other assignments might just make you realise that you are going to struggle without some serious focus on your time.

Or, of course, it may not. But we can try. We can try with personal discussions, group discussions, collaborative goal setting – students sitting around saying “Oh yeah, I have that problem too! It’s going to take me two weeks to deal with that.” Maybe no-one will say anything.

We can but try! (And, if all else fails, I can give everyone a duck to talk to. 🙂 )

Teaching Ethics in a Difficult World: Free Range and Battery Games

(Note, this is not a post about the existing game company, Free Range Games, although their stuff looks cool!)

I enjoy treating ethics or, to be more precise, getting the students to realise the ethical framework that they all live within. I’ve blogged before about this and how easy it is to find examples of unethical behaviour but, as we hear more stories about certain ‘game-related’ industries and the way that they teach testers, it becomes more and more apparent that we are reaching a point where the ethical burden of a piece of software may end up becoming something that we have to consider.

We’re already aware of the use of child labour in some products and people can make a decision not to shop at certain stores or buy certain products – but this requires awareness and tying the act to the brand.

In the areas I live in, it’s very hard to find a non-free range chicken, even in a chicken take-away shop (for various definitions of ‘free range’ but we pretty much do mean ‘neither battery nor force fed’) and eggs are clearly labelled. Does this matter to you? If so, you can make an informed decision. Doesn’t matter to you? Buy the cheapest or the tastiest or whichever other metric you’re using.

Free Range Tasmanian Devils. Don’t eat the eggs!

But what about games? You don’t have to look far (ea_spouse and the many other accounts available) to see that the Quality Assurance roles, vital to good games, are seeing a resurgence in the type of labour management that is rapidly approaching the Upton Sinclair Asymptote. Sinclair wrote a famous turn-of-the 20th Century novelisation of the conditions in the meat packing industry, “The Jungle”, that, apart from a rather dour appeal to socialism at the end, is an amazing read. It changed conditions and workers’ rights because it made these invisible people visible. Once again, as well apparently fall in love with the ‘wealth creators’  (an Australian term that is rapidly become synonymous with ‘robber baron’) all over again, we are approaching this despite knowing what the conditions are.

What I mean by this is that it is well known that large numbers of staff in the QA area in games tolerate terrible conditions – no job security, poor working conditions, malicious and incompetent management – and for what? To bring you a game. It’s not as if they are fighting to maintain democracy (or attack democracy, depending on what you consider to be more important) or staying up for days on end trying to bring the zombie infection under control. No, the people who are being forced into sweatboxes, occasionally made to work until they wet themselves, who are unceremoniously fired at ‘celebration’ events, are working to make sure that the people who wrote your game didn’t leave any unexplained holes in the map. Or that, when you hit a troll with an axe, it inflicts damage rather than spontaneously causing the NyanCat video to play on your phone.

This discussion of ethics completely ignores the ethics of computer games that demean or objectify women, glorify violence or any of the ongoing issues. Search for ethics of video games and it is violence and sexism that dominates the results. It’s only when you start searching for “employee abuse video game” that you start to get hits. Here are some quotes from one of them.

It seems as though the developers of L. A. Noire might have been under more pressure themselves than any of the interrogated criminals in their highly praised crime drama. Reports have surfaced about employees being forced to work excruciating hours, in some cases reaching 120 hour weeks and 22 hour days. In addition, a list has been generated of some 130 members of the Australian-based Team Bondi, the creators of L. A. Noire, whose names have been omitted from the game’s own credits.

On the subject of the unprecedented scope of the project for Australian developers, McNamara replied, “The expectation is slightly weird here, that you can do this stuff without killing yourself; well, you can’t, whether it’s in London or New York or wherever; you’re competing against the best people in the world at what they do, and you just have to be prepared to do what you have to do to compete against those people. The expectation is slightly different.”

The saddest thing, to me, is that everyone knows this. The same people who complain on my FB feed back how overworked they are and how little they see their family then go out and buy games that have been produced in electronic sweatshops. You didn’t buy L. A. Noire? Rockstar San Diego are on the “overworking staff” list for “Red Dead Redemption” and the “not crediting everyone” for “Manhunt 2”. (That last one might not be so bad!)

Everyone talks about the crunch as if it’s unavoidable. Well, yes , it is, if you intend to work people to the crunch. We’ve seen similar argument for feedlot meat production, battery animals and, let’s not forget, that there have always been “excellent” reasons for slavery in economic and social terms.

This is one of the hardest things to talk about to my students because they’re not dumb. They read, often more widely than I do in these areas. They know that for all my discussions of time management and ethics, if they get a certain kind of job they will work 7 days a week, 10-14 hours a day, in terrible conditions and maybe, just maybe, if they sell their soul enough they can get a full-time job, rather than being laid off indiscriminately. They know that the message coming down from these companies is “maximum profit, minimum spend” and, of course, most of these game companies aren’t profitable so that’s less about being mercenary and more about survival.

But, given that these products are not exactly… essential (forgive me, Deus Ex!), one has to wonder whether terms like ‘survival’ have any place in this discussion. Is it worth nearly killing people, destroying their social lives and so one, to bring a game to market? People often say “Well, they have a choice” and, in some ways, I suppose they do – but in an economic market where any job is better than job, and people can make decisions at 15 that lead to outcomes they didn’t expect at 25, this seems both ungenerous and thoughtless.

Perhaps we need the equivalent of a ‘Free Range/Organic’ movement for games: All programmers and QA people were officially certified to have had at least 8 hours sleep a night, with a minimum break of 50 hours every  6 days and were kept at a maximum density of 2 programmers per 15 square metres, in a temperature and humidity controlled environment that meets recognised comfort standards.

(Yeah, I didn’t include management. I think they’re probably mostly looking after themselves on that one. 🙂 )


Then you can choose. If it matters to you, buy 21st century Labour Force Games – Ethically and sustainably produced. If it doesn’t matter, ignore it and game on.


Two Speeds: Nothing and Ultra High Speed

Short post today. I’m reminded that, even with the best view of what you have to do, any time that you have in your calendar to do things can easily disappear when the unexpected strikes. I had this week planned as a reasonably paced week, with some paper writing. Now I’m looking at a week where I have one unscheduled 30 minute period until Friday evening.

Was this poor planning? No, I had my calendar planned with preparation time and all days were sitting under at my 70% scheduled limit, well under, in fact, because I wanted to allow as much drop-in time as possible for my students. However, now the time has filled up and, yet, all of my deadlines for this week still apply – plus some more on top.

It’s a reminder that stuff happens sometimes and, as we (eventually) start writing the time banking papers, it’s important to remember how easy it is to go from “everything’s cool” to “oh no, my brain is on fire!”. Now I have a lot of experience in handling brain fire but, even so, it’s that nasty little shock that means that there will be no early nights for me until Sunday. This is a surge week, a stretch week, so the usual 45 hour upper limit (the guideline to see if I can get everything done) is on hiatus but will be reset for Monday.

Now this is important because I have, so far, been able to get everything done within the time that I’ve been allocating, I’ve been more relaxed and I’ve been more effective. Today wasn’t the best day in some ways because the wheels had started to fall off and most of my day was spent planning in one part of my head while working with the other.

I see students hit this point a lot and an important part of my job is talking them down from the ledge, in effect. It’s very hard for people who are working o hard, and not getting everything done, to think that working fewer hours will allow them to achieve their goals. So far, I’ve been able to do it, as long as I am open to the occasional burst of week but, at the moment, I’m sitting the limit at 1 week.

We’ll see if that works!

Reflecting on rewards – is Time Banking a reward or a technique?

The Reward As It Is Often Implemented
(In Advance and Starting With a B)

Enough advocacy for a while, time to think about research again! Given that I’ve just finished Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards, and more on that later, I’ve been looking very carefully at everything I do with students to work out exactly what I am trying to do. One of Kohn’s theses is that we tend to manipulate people towards compliance through extrinsic tools such as incentives and rewards, rather than provide an environment in which their intrinsic motivational aspects dominate and they are driven to work through their own interest and requirements. Under Kohn’s approach, a gold star for sitting quietly achieve little except to say that sitting quietly must be so bad that you need to be bribed, and developing a taste for gold stars in the student. If someone isn’t sitting quietly, is it because they haven’t managed sitting quietly (the least rewarding unlockable achievement in any game) or that they are disengaged, bored or failing to understand why they are there? Is it, worse, because they are trying to ask questions about work that they don’t understand or because they are so keen to discuss it that they want to talk? Kohn wants to know WHY people are or aren’t doing things rather than just to stop or start people doing things through threats and bribery.

Where, in this context, does time banking fit? For those who haven’t read me on this before, time banking is described in a few posts I’ve made, with this as one of the better ones to read. In summary, students who hand up work early (and meet a defined standard) get hours in the bank that they can spend at a later date to give themselves a deadline extension – and there are a lot of tuneable parameters around this, but that’s the core. I already have a lot of data that verifies that roughly a third of students hand in on the last day and 15-18% hand up late. However, the 14th highest hand-in hour is the one immediately after the deadline. There’s an obvious problem where people aren’t giving themselves enough time to do the work but “near-missing” by one hour is a really silly way to lose marks. (We won’t talk about the pedagogical legitimacy of reducing marks for late work at the moment, that’s a related post I hope to write soon. Let’s assume that our learning design requires that work be submitted at a certain time to reinforce knowledge and call that the deadline – the loss, as either marks or knowledge reinforcement, is something that we want to avoid.)

But, by providing a “reward” for handing up early, am I trying to bribe my students into behaviour that I want to see? I think that the answer is “no”, for reasons that I’ll go into.

Firstly, the fundamental concept of time banking is that students have a reason to look at their assignment submission timetable as a whole and hand something up early because they can then gain more flexibility later on. Under current schemes, unless you provide bonus points, there is no reason for anyone to hand up more than one second early – assuming synchronised clocks. (I object to bonus points for early hand-in for two reasons: it is effectively a means to reward the able or those with more spare time, and because it starts to focus people on handing up early rather than the assignment itself.) This, in turn, appears to lead to a passive, last minute thinking pattern and we can see the results of that in our collected assignment data – lots and lots of near-miss late hand-ins. Our motivation is to focus the students on the knowledge in the course by making them engage with the course as a whole and empowering themselves into managing their time rather than adhering to our deadlines. We’re not trying to control the students, we’re trying to move them towards self-regulation where they control themselves.

Secondly, the same amount of work has to be done. There is no ‘reduced workload’ for handing in early, there is only ‘increased flexibility’. Nobody gets anything extra under this scheme that will reinforce any messages of work as something to be avoided. The only way to get time in the bank is to do the assignments – it is completely linked to the achievement that is the core of the course, rather than taking focus elsewhere.

Thirdly, a student can choose not to use it. Under almost every version of the scheme I’ve sketched out, every student gets 6 hours up their sleeve at the start of semester. If they want to just burn that for six late hand-ins that are under an hour late, I can live with that. It will also be very telling if they then turn out to be two hours late because, thinking about it, that’s a very interesting mental model that they’ve created.

But how is it going to affect the student? That’s a really good question. I think that, the way that it’s constructed, it provides a framework for students to work with, one that ties in with intrinsic motivation, rather than a framework that is imposed on students – in fact, moving away from the rigidly fixed deadlines that (from our data) don’t even to be training people that well anyway is a reduction in manipulate external control.

Will it work? Oh, now, there’s a question. After about a year of thought and discussion, we’re writing it all up at the moment for peer review on the foundations, the literature comparison, the existing evidence and the future plans. I’ll be very interested to see both the final paper and the first responses from our colleagues!

HERDSA 2012: Session 1 notes – Student Wellbeing

I won’t be giving detailed comments on all sessions – firstly, I can’t attend everything and, secondly, I don’t want you all to die of word poisoning – but I’ve been to a number of talks and thought I’d discuss those here that really made me think. (My apologies for the delay. I seem to be coming down with a cold/flu and it’s slowing me down.)

In Session 1, I went to a talk entitled “Integrating teaching, learning, support and wellbeing in Universities”, presented by Dr Helen Stallman from University of Queensland. The core of this talk was that, if we want to support our students academically, we have to support them in every other way as well. The more distressed students are, the less well they do academically. If we want good outcomes, we have to able to support students’ wellbeing and mental health. We already provide counselling and support skill workshops but very few students will go and access these resources, until they actually need them.

This is a problem. Tell a student at the start of the course, when they are fine, where they can find help and they won’t remember it when they actually may need to know where that resource is. We have a low participation in many of the counselling and support skill workshop activities – it is not on the student’s agenda to go to one of these courses, it is on their agenda is to get a good mark. Pressured for time, competing demands, anything ‘optional’ is not a priority.

The student needs to identify that they have a problem, then they have to be able to find the solution! Many University webpages not actually useful in this regard, although they contain a lot of marketing information on the front page.

What if we have an at-risk profile that we can use to identify students? It’s not 100% accurate. Students who are ‘at risk’ may not have problems but students who don’t have the profile may still have problems! We don’t necessarily know what’s going on with our students. Where we have 100s of students, how can we know all of them? (This is one of the big drivers for my work in submission management and elastic time – identifying students who are at risk as soon as they may be at risk.)

So let me reiterate the problem with the timing of information: we tend to mention support services once, at the start. People don’t access resources unless they’re relevant and useful at the particular time. Talking to people when they don’t have a problem – they’ll forget it.

So what are the characteristics of interventions that promote student success:

  • Inclusive of all students (and you can find it)
  • Encourages self-management skills  (Don’t smother them! Our goal is not dependency, it’s self-regulation)
  • Promotes academic achievement (highest potential for each of our students)
  • Promotes wellbeing (not just professional capabilities but personal capabilities and competencies)
  • Minimally sufficient (students/academics/unis are not doing more work than they need to, and only providing the level of input that is required to achieve this goal.)
  • Sustainable (easy for students and academics)

Dr Stallman then talked about two tools – the Learning Thermometer and The Desk. Student reflection and system interface gives us the Learning Thermometer, then automated and personalised student feedback is added, put in by academic. Support and intervention, web-based, as a loop around student feedback. Student privacy data is maintained and student gets to choose intervention that is appropriate. Effectively, the Learning Thermometer tells the student which services are available, as and when they are needed, based on their results, their feedback and the lecturer’s input.

This is designed to promote self-management skills and makes the student think “What can I do? What are the things that I can do?” Gives students of knowledge of which resources they can access. (And this resource is called “The Desk”) Who are the people who can help me?

What is being asked is: What are the issues that get in the way of achieving academic success?

About “The Desk”: it contains quizzes related to all part of the desk that gives students personalised feedback to give them module suggestions as appropriate. Have a summary sheet of what you’ve done so you can always remember it. Tools section to give you short tips on how to fix things. Coffee House social media centre to share information and pictures (recipes and anything really).

To allow teachers to work out what is going on, an addition to the Learning Thermometer can give the teacher feedback based on reflection and the interface. Early feedback to academics allows us to improve learning outcomes. THese improvements in teaching practices. (Student satisfaction correlates poorly with final mark, this is more than satisfaction.)

The final items in the talk focussed on:

  • A universal model of prevention
  • All students can be resilient
  • Resources need to be timely relevant and useful
  • Multiple access points
  • Integrated within the learning environment

What are the implications?

  • Focus on prevention
  • Close the loop between learning, teaching, wellbeing and support
  • More resilient students
  • Better student graduate outcomes.

Overall a very interesting talk, which a lot of things to think about. How can I position my support resources so that students know where to go as and when they need them? Is ‘resiliency’ an implicit or explicit goal inside my outcomes and syllabus structure? Do the mechanisms that I provide for assessment work within this framework?

With my Time Banking hat on, I am always thinking about how I can be fair but flexible, consistent but compassionate, and maintain quality while maintaining humanity. This talk is yet more information to consider as I look at alternative ways to work with students for their own benefit, while improving their performance at the same time.

Contact details and information on tools discussed:

Who Knew That the Slippery Slope Was Real?

Take a look at this picture.

Dan Ariely. Photo: poptech/Flickr, via

One thing you might have noticed, if you’ve looked carefully, is that this man appears to have had some reconstructive surgery on the right side of his face and there is a colour difference, which is slightly accentuated by the lack of beard stubble. What if I were to tell you that this man was offered the chance to have fake stubble tattooed onto that section and, when he declined because he felt strange about it, received a higher level of pressure and, in his words, guilt trip than for any other procedure during the extensive time he spent in hospital receiving skin grafts and burn treatments. Why was the doctor pressuring him?

Because he had already performed the tattooing remediation on two people and needed a third for the paper. In Dan’s words, again, the doctor was a fantastic physician, thoughtful, and he cared but he had a conflict of interest that meant that he moved to a different mode of behaviour. For me, I had to look a couple of times because the asymmetry that the doctor referred to is not that apparent at first glance. Yet the doctor felt compelled, by interests that were now Dan’s, to make Dan self-conscious about the perceived problem.

A friend on Facebook (thanks, Bill!) posted a link to an excellent article in Wired, entitled “Why We Lie, Cheat, Go to Prison and Eat Chocolate Cake” by Dan Ariely, the man pictured above. Dan is a professor of behavioural economics and psychology at Duke and his new book explores the reasons that we lie to each other. I was interested in this because I’m always looking for explanations of student behaviour and I want to understand their motivations. I know that my students will rationalise and do some strange things but, if I’m forewarned, maybe I can construct activities and courses in a way that heads this off at the pass.

There were several points of interest to me. The first was the question whether a cost/benefit analysis of dishonesty – do something bad, go to prison – actually has the effect that we intend. As Ariely points out, if you talk to the people who got caught, the long-term outcome of their actions was never something that they thought about. He also discusses the notion of someone taking small steps, a little each time, that move them from law abiding, for want of a better word, to dishonest. Rather than set out to do bad things in one giant leap, people tend to take small steps, rationalising each one, and after each step opening up a range of darker and darker options.

Welcome to the slippery slope – beloved argument of rubicose conservative politicians since time immemorial. Except that, in this case, it appears that the slop is piecewise composed on tiny little steps. Yes, each step requires a decision, so there isn’t the momentum that we commonly associate with the slope, but each step, in some sense, takes you to larger and larger steps away from the honest place from which you started.

Ariely discusses an experiment where he gave two groups designer sunglasses and told one group that they had the real thing, and the other that they had fakes, and then asked them to complete a test and then gave them a chance to cheat. The people who had been randomly assigned into the ‘fake sunglasses’ group cheated more than the others. Now there are many possible reasons for this. One of them is the idea that if you know that are signalling your status deceptively to the world, which is Ariely’s argument, you are in a mindset where you have taken a step towards dishonesty. Cheating a little more is an easier step. I can see many interpretations of this, because of the nature of the cheating which is in reporting how many questions you completed on the test, where self-esteem issues caused by being in the ‘fake’ group may lead to you over-promoting yourself in the reporting of your success on the quiz – but it’s still cheating. Ultimately, whatever is motivating people to take that step, the step appears to be easier if you are already inside the dishonest space, even to a degree.

[Note: Previous paragraph was edited slightly after initial publication due to terrible auto-correcting slipping by me. Thanks, Gary!]

Where does something like copying software or illicitly downloading music come into this? Does this constant reminder of your small, well-rationalised, step into low-level lawlessness have any impact on the other decisions that you make? It’s an interesting question because, according to the outline in Ariely’s sunglasses experiment, we would expect it to be more of a problem if the products became part of your projected image. We know that having developed a systematic technological solution for downloading is the first hurdle in terms of achieving downloads but is it also the first hurdle in making steadily less legitimate decisions? I actually have no idea but would be very interested to see some research in this area. I feel it’s too glib to assume a relationship, because it is so ‘slippery slope’ argument, but Ariely’s work now makes me wonder. Is it possible that, after downloading enough music or software, you could actually rationalise the theft of a car? Especially if you were only ‘borrowing’ it? (Personally, I doubt it because I think that there are several steps in between.) I don’t have a stake in this fight – I have a personal code for behaviour in this sphere that I can live with but I see some benefits in asking and trying to answer these questions from something other that personal experience.

Returning to the article, of particular interest to me was the discussion of an honour code, such as Princeton’s, where students sign a pledge. Ariely sees it as benefit as a reminder to people that is active for some time but, ultimately, would have little value over several years because, as we’ve already discussed, people rationalise in small increments over the short term rather than constructing long-term models where the pledge would make a difference. Sign a pledge in 2012 and it may just not have any impact on you by the middle of 2012, let alone at the end of 2015 when you’re trying to graduate. Potentially, at almost any cost.

In terms of ongoing reminders, and a signature on a piece of work saying (in effect) “I didn’t cheat”, Ariely asks what happens if you have to sign the honour clause after you’ve finished a test – well, if you’ve finished then any cheating has already occurred so the honour clause is useless then. If you remind people at the start of every assignment, every test, and get them to pledge at the beginning then this should have an impact – a halo effect to an extent, or a reminder of expectation that will make it harder for you to rationalise your dishonesty.

In our school we have an electronic submission system that require students to use to submit their assignments. It has boiler plate ‘anti-plagiarism’ text and you must accept the conditions to submit. However, this is your final act before submission and you have already finished the code, which falls immediately into the trap mentioned in the previous paragraph. Dan Ariely’s answers have made me think about how we can change this to make it more of an upfront reminder, rather than an ‘after the fact – oh it may be too late now’ auto-accept at the end of the activity. And, yes, reminder structures and behaviour modifiers in time banking are also being reviewed and added in the light of these new ideas.

The Wired Q&A is very interesting and covers a lot of ground but, realistically, I think I have to go and buy Dan Ariely’s book(s), prepare myself for some harsh reflection and thought, and plan for a long weekend of reading.

Time Banking and Plagiarism: Does “Soul Destroying” Have An Ethical Interpretation?

Yesterday, I wrote a post on the 40 hour week, to give an industrial basis for the notion of time banking, and I talked about the impact of overwork. One of the things I said was:

The crunch is a common feature in many software production facilities and the ability to work such back-breaking and soul-destroying shifts is often seen as a badge of honour or mark of toughness. (Emphasis mine.)

Back-breaking is me being rather overly emphatic regarding the impact of work, although in manual industries workplace accidents caused by fatigue and overwork can and do break backs – and worse – on a regular basis.

Is it Monday morning already?

But soul-destroying? Am I just saying that someone will perform their tasks as an automaton or zombie, or am I saying something more about the benefit of full cognitive function – the soul as an amalgam of empathy, conscience, consideration and social factors? Well, the answer is that, when I wrote it, I was talking about mindlessness and the removal of the ability to take joy in work, which is on the zombie scale, but as I’ve reflected on the readings more, I am now convinced that there is an ethical dimension to fatigue-related cognitive impairment that is important to talk about. Basically, the more tired you get, the more likely you are to function on the task itself and this can have some serious professional and ethical considerations. I’ll provide a basis for this throughout the rest of this post.

The paper I was discussing, on why Crunch Mode doesn’t work, listed many examples from industry and one very interesting paper from the military. The paper, which had a broken link in the Crunch mode paper, may be found here and is called “Sleep, Sleep Deprivation, and Human Performance in Continuous Operations” by Colonel Gregory Belenky. Now, for those who don’t know, in 1997 I was a commissioned Captain in the Royal Australian Armoured Corps (Reserve), on detachment to the Training Group to set up and pretty much implement a new form of Officer Training for Army Reserve officers in South Australia. Officer training is a very arduous process and places candidates, the few who make it in, under a lot of stress and does so quite deliberately. We have to have some idea that, if terrible things happen and we have to deploy a human being to a war zone, they have at least some chance of being able to function. I had been briefed on most of the issues discussed in Colonel Belenky’s paper but it was only recently that I read through the whole thing.

And, to me today as an educator (I resigned my commission years ago), there are still some very important lessons, guidelines and warnings for all of us involved in the education sector. So stay with me while I discuss some of Belenky’s terminology and background. The first term I want to introduce is droning: the loss of cognitive ability through lack of useful sleep. As Belenky puts in, in the context of US Army Ranger training:

…the candidates can put one foot in front of another and respond if challenged, but have difficulty grasping their situation or acting on their own initiative.

What was most interesting, and may surprise people who have never served with the military, is that the higher the rank, the less sleep people got – and the higher level the formation, the less sleep people got. A Brigadier in charge of a Brigade is going to, on average, get less sleep than the more junior officers in the Brigade and a lot less sleep than a private soldier in a squad. As an officer, my soldiers were fed before me, rested before me and a large part of my day-to-day concern was making sure that they were kept functioning. This keeps on going up the chain and, as you go further up, things get more complex. Sadly, the people shouldering the most complex cognitive functions with the most impact on the overall battlefield are also the people getting the least fuel for their continued cognitive endeavours. They are the most likely to be droning: going about their work in an uninspired way and not really understanding their situation. So here is more evidence from yet another place: lack of sleep and fatigue lead to bad outcomes.

One of the key issues Belenky talks about is the loss of situational awareness caused by the accumulated sleep debt, fatigue and overwork suffered by military personnel. He gives an example of an Artillery Fire Direction Centre – this is where requests for fire support (big guns firing large shells at locations some distance away) come to and the human plotters take your requests, transform them into instructions that can be given to the gunners and then firing starts. Let me give you a (to me) chilling extract from the report, which the Crunch Mode paper also quoted:

Throughout the 36 hours, their ability to accurately derive range, bearing, elevation, and charge was unimpaired. However, after circa 24 hours they stopped keeping up their situation map and stopped computing their pre-planned targets immediately upon receipt. They lost situational awareness; they lost their grasp of their place in the operation. They no longer knew where they were relative to friendly and enemy units. They no longer knew what they were firing at. Early in the simulation, when we called for simulated fire on a hospital, etc., the team would check the situation map, appreciate the nature of the target, and refuse the request. Later on in the simulation, without a current situation map, they would fire without hesitation regardless of the nature of the target. (All emphasis mine.)

Here, perhaps, is the first inkling of what I realised I meant by soul destroying. Yes, these soldiers are overworked to the point of droning and are now shuffling towards zombiedom. But, worse, they have no real idea of their place in the world and, perhaps most frighteningly, despite knowing that accidents happen when fire missions are requested and having direct experience of rejecting what would have resulted in accidental hospital strikes, these soldiers have moved to a point of function where the only thing that matters is doing the work and calling the task done. This is an ethical aspect because, from their previous actions, it is quite obvious that there was both a professional and ethical dimension to their job as the custodians of this incredibly destructive weaponry – deprive them of enough sleep and they calculate and fire, no longer having the cognitive ability (or perhaps the will) to be ethical in their delivery. (I realise a number of you will have choked on your coffee slightly at the discussion of military ethics but, in the majority of cases, modern military units have a strong ethical code, even to the point of providing a means for soldiers to refuse to obey illegal orders. Most failures of this system in the military can be traced to failures in a unit’s ethical climate or to undetected instability in the soldiers: much as in the rest of the world.)

The message, once again, is clear. Overwork, fatigue and sleeplessness reduce the ability to perform as you should. Belenky even notes that the ability to benefit from training quite clearly deteriorates as the fatigue levels increase. Work someone hard enough, or let them work themselves hard enough, and not only aren’t they productive, they can’t learn to do anything else.

The notion of situational awareness is important because it’s a measure of your sense of place, in an organisational sense, in a geographical sense, in a relative sense to the people around you and also in a social sense. Get tired enough and you might swear in front of your grandma because your social situational awareness is off. But it’s not just fatigue over time that can do this: overloading someone with enough complex tasks can stress cognitive ability to the point where similar losses of situational awareness can occur.

Helmet fire is a vivid description of what happens when you have too many tasks to do, under highly stressful situations, and you lose your situational awareness. If you are a military pilot flying on instruments alone, especially with low or zero visibility, then you have to follow a set of procedures, while regularly checking the instruments, in order to keep the plane flying correctly. If the number of tasks that you have to carry out gets too high, and you are facing the stress of effectively flying the plane visually blind, then your cognitive load limits will be exceeded and you are now experiencing helmet fire. You are now very unlikely to be making any competent contributions at all at this stage but, worse, you may lose your sense of what you were doing, where you are, what your intentions are, which other aircraft are around you: in other words, you lose situational awareness. At this point, you are now at a greatly increased risk of catastrophic accident.

To summarise, if someone gets tired, stressed or overworked enough, whether acutely or over time, their performance goes downhill, they lose their sense of place and they can’t learn. But what does this have to do with our students?

A while ago I posted thoughts on a triage system for plagiarists – allocating our resources to those students we have the most chance of bringing back to legitimate activity. I identified the three groups as: sloppy (unintentional) plagiarism, deliberate (but desperate and opportunistic) plagiarism and systematic cheating. I think that, from the framework above, we can now see exactly where the majority of my ‘opportunistic’ plagiarists are coming from: sleep-deprived, fatigued and (by their own hands or not) over-worked students losing their sense of place within the course and becoming focused only on the outcome. Here, the sense of place is not just geographical, it is their role in the social and formal contracts that they have entered into with lecturers, other students and their institution. Their place in the agreements for ethical behaviour in terms of doing the work yourself and submitting only that.

If professional soldiers who have received very large amounts of training can forget where there own forces are, sometimes to the tragic extent that they fire upon and destroy them, or become so cognitively impaired that they carry out the mission, and only the mission, with little of their usual professionalism or ethical concern, then it is easy to see how a student can become so task focussed that start to think about only ending the task, by any means, to reduce the cognitive load and to allow themselves to get the sleep that their body desperately needs.

As always, this does not excuse their actions if they resort to plagiarism and cheating – it explains them. It also provides yet more incentive for us to try and find ways to reach our students and help them form systems for planning and time management that brings them closer to the 40 hour ideal, that reduces the all-nighters and the caffeine binges, and that allows them to maintain full cognitive function as ethical, knowledgable and professional skill practitioners.

If we want our students to learn, it appears that (for at least some of them) we first have to help them to marshall their resources more wisely and keep their awareness of exactly where they are, what they are doing and, in a very meaningful sense, who they are.