Back to school

I’ve always liked the beginning of fall and a new school year. Refreshingly cool weather, a fresh new start with new classes, new subjects, new things to learn, and new goals to reach for.

Except for an online course I took a few years ago, it’s been a long time since I went back to the school in the fall – except for the “back-to-school” nights at my sons’ schools, which have a whole different feel for a parent than a student. I’ve always found things to learn, but generally not in the intense fashion that I associate with going “back to school.”

I’m back on a college campus this fall, but not as a student. Last week I started a new job, on the staff of Black Hawk College. I’m thrilled at the opportunity to be part of the learning environment, and I appreciate the community college’s commitment to making learning accessible to many people who for one reason or another face significant if not insurmountable barriers to becoming a student at a traditional four-year college.

I’m also mentally wiped out at the end of each day from the effort to take in so much information. Information is what I work with and what I enjoy, but there’s just so much of it! I am supporting the computer system that handles all the student-related matters – basic student information, course registrations, class schedules, and academic history, as well as details on housing and athletics and other student activities.

Nearly all of this information is subject to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. I had previously read blog comments by parents, expressing irritation at being expected to pay their student’s college tuition but being denied access to the student’s grades, but I had given it little thought. I have never had reason to ask our son’s college to disclose any information about him to me; he tells us what we need to know.

Now that I have taken my FERPA training, however, I realize that I could not show up at my son’s college campus (supposing I lived close enough to visit easily) and expect them to tell me where to find him based on his class schedule. I never thought of class schedules as being particularly private information, but I can imagine situations where I would resent someone being told where to find me at any given time and being able to follow me around.

What surprised me even more was to realize how incredibly complex all this data is. As a student, I never gave much thought to just what information was recorded about me in the college’s computer system. If I had tried, once I learned computer programming, to design a system to handle student information, it would have been woefully inadequate to handle the variety of situations that are far from uncommon.

I never repeated a course myself, so I wouldn’t have thought of needing to make the system able to hold two (or more!) records for the same student for the same course. I did once drop a course, in grad school, and transferred to a lower level course. But I never thought about what records the college needed to maintain about my aborted attempt to take the higher level course.

Part of my work is to be able to train people on using the software, so I need to become an expert user in that regard. But a larger part is to go behind the scenes, directly into the databases, to pull out the data for customized reports. I am dusting off my books on Linux and SQL, two of my essential tools in this task.

Today I made it far enough into the data to start trying to calculate GPA. I never thought it was a very complex calculation, but when I looked at the user manual on the topic today I found nearly a dozen pages explaining all the possible permutations. I decided most of it didn’t apply to what I was doing – which was good because my eyes were glazing over just trying to make sense of it all.

For the most part I really enjoy the challenge of diving into the databases to come back up with useful information. But it’s giving my brain a workout it hasn’t had in quite a while.

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