Services for Schools, Educators, and Families

When “Ship, Then Test” Fails


“It isn’t rocket science” seems to be a timeless trope, suitable for every occasion and at certain moments hilariously funny when the task actually IS rocket science. So far I haven’t heard it rolled out for the fiasco* or for the rolling catastrophe nearest and dearest to the hearts of educators, the CA4 disaster.

“CA4,” for anyone not associated with a secondary school, stands for Common Application, version 4, which was rolled out this summer after some major upgrades to content and interface.

Or I should say, “has been rolling out since this summer,” with no sign of an end point. Turns out that launching a major website upgrade these days is a lot like rocket science.
And like anything vaguely related to the college application process, the CA4 was already emotionally charged because 1) it was a college application and 2) it contains some significant changes from last year’s edition. And now, with the Common App issuing daily bulletins detailing significant problems (and it looks like the Feds are about to take the cue and follow suit)and the news media paying just enough attention to keep the issue in play in the news cycle–especially as selective colleges keep announcing application deadline extensions, one at a painful time.

I’m not going to cast blame here; enough other bloggers and opinionators are doing that. I imagine Rob Killion, executive director of the Common App, is silently thanking the wizards at Health & Human Services for having screwed up their launch on a scale that has made the Common App’s agonies look piddling. The whole thing is a mess, and college counselors who are still keeping their cool in schools deserve hazard pay for the duration–until the CA4 is working seamlessly for all.

But the CA4 mess and the Obamacare mess are karmic warning shots.

We can now open our laptops or phones or tablets and order up shoes and books and music and news and just about everything else our little hearts desire with ridiculous ease. Commercial websites that sell us stuff have made spending our money really easy. We’re spoiled.

But the Common Application, simple as it seems, is designed to turn a complex organism–a high school senior–into a comprehensible digital file, cross-tabulating all kinds of disparate information and documents to be processed by several hundred different end-users, all of whom conduct their operations in slightly different ways. The task of streamlining something like this while including every feature and bell and whistle that every school, counselor, applicant, and college could possibly want is pretty huge, when you think about it.

So, too, on an exponentially greater scale, is the information processing required by the Affordable Care Act. Whatever the flaws in the actual process of putting this multidimensional and still clunky behemoth together, I think we can stipulate to this: It’s insanely complicated.

Technology is wonderful, and what could make a compulsive reader happier than Amazon 1-Click or the total immersion of the blogosphere? But sometimes we might actually be asking too much of it, depending too much on the capacity of a cadre of coders to conquer any challenge some visionary puts before them. Our expectations about taking the effort out of really complex processes may in these two cases, at least, have run out ahead of the ability of techies to deliver.
In time, a short time we hope, the Common App and will both be working just fine; the class of 2018 will enter college, and millions of Americans will get the health insurance they’ve been promised.
But I don’t think it makes me a Luddite to wonder if, in the moment, we have assumed that we can make anything happen with a website and an idea when in fact we can’t, quite; the White Star Line thought they could build an unsinkable ocean liner, once, too. “Ship, then test” is a cool-sounding mantra, but when people’s futures are on the line, maybe not so much.
When computers don’t do what we want them to do, we’re annoyed, mostly because generally they work and serve us so well. Large scale failure becomes a kind of societal frustration. But sometimes these failures are a reminder that there is still work to be done and new frontiers to explore. Occasionally we’re just not there yet, even when we’re confident we’ll get there soon. 
For educators there are some lessons in all this. I see queries on listservs every day from people wrestling with LMS issues, scheduling software, fundraising apps, iPad configurations, and all the other challenges that come with digitizing so many of the basic functions of our work. It all gets better every day–hardware and software–and we already chuckle at the limitations of those kludgy products from, like, 2009. It’s hard with things moving so fast to be patient, or to expect our students to be patient, but sometimes it’s just what we need. 

*Yup—just did. Zeke Emanuel.