Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Happy Birthday Mr. Snuffleupagus

The older I get, the more I realize I'm turning into my mother, a woman who has been known throughout my life to launch into a full waterworks display faster than you can say emotionally manipulative Internet chain letter. Case in point, the drive to Midlothian yesterday. I was listening to NPR and Renee Montagne mentioned that it was the fortieth birthday of the seminal children's show Sesame Street, and I got a little emotional.

I got to thinking what a groundbreaking show it was and how, for generations of poor rural kids in pre-Internet days, it was our first exposure to multiculturalism. I thought about how brave the producers had been to push the envelope and insist on a representative cast and crew. I thought about how the program had shown kids like me regular Hispanic and African-American people interacting in perfectly normal ways with those around them at a time when television characters were overwhelmingly WASP. In fact, the show was banned for a brief time in Mississippi because the state thought its audiences weren't ready for the integrated crew and the presence of so many strong, single women.

The show has addressed ethics; emotions; and real-life situations of love, marriage, birth and death. It discussed the 9/11 attacks and featured an HIV-positive character. It found a way to talk about child abuse and disabilities. It adapted and stayed relevant even with the technology boom of the 1990's. Oscar the Grouch may have gotten a cell phone, but he keeps on teaching millions of kids not only ABCs and spelling and basic math, but how to grow up to be better adults. So happy birthday, Mr. Snuffleupagus, and many more returns.

Friday, November 6, 2009


The more I've come to understand my new job and all it entails, the more I've come to realize that there is little, if anything, new under the sun. Case in point: the Commonwealth of Virginia's LMS or HelLMS, as I've come to think of it. LMS stands for the Learning Management System, and it is at once the bane of my existence; the source of all budget shortfalls in the great state of Virginia; the weapon of mass destruction smoking gun from Iraq and the underlying reason for the Republican sweep into office last week. Its connection with global warming has not yet been proven.

About a year before I arrived at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management to begin my new job as a training resource coordinator, the HelLMS train started making preps to pull out of the Richmond station, bound for all points Virginia. By the time I arrived, it was at a full chug, belching and bellowing and picking up speed, and I was left with little choice except to get on board, or get run over. Or, in some cases, a little of both. Now, HelLMS is not unique to Virginia, nor is the concept even new. Virtually every training entity of any scale has it or a system like it: to manage course and facility information, track student enrollments, generate course-associated documents and provide a single repository for training records. Because my office manages, schedules and tracks all Emergency Management training for the state, the title of LMS content administrator was written into my job description and my fate was sealed.

Here's the rub: until October 1, people were accustomed to a certain low-tech ease in signing up for courses and receiving documentation of their completion. What used to happen was this: people would find a course they wanted to take in a location that was convenient for them, get a form from Frank or Bubba or the office file, fill it out and fax or mail it to my office. Alternately, they would fill the form out online and an automated system would email it to an address in my office. The office schmucks before me would then take each form and force feed it (manually re-type all the information) to the doddering and barely functional old Training Management System, which was the predecessor to HelLMS. At the end of the course, some poor schmoe would have to manually print out single certificates of completion for each student and mail them to the location where the training was held. Lather, rinse and repeat...about 4,000 times over the course of a year.

To further complicate matters, the old TMS system was designed to work with Windows 95 and was never upgraded past the point of a few software patches. The system is almost 15 years old and tech support for it had long since run out, so there are all of two computers remaining that will actually still RUN the program (and those only if you're holding your mouth just right). Divide the number of hours in the day by the number of vacant positions by the amount of manhours it takes to nurse the old system along. Throw in a 30% budget cut this year alone. And all that added up to: past time for a change.

I came in right in the middle of all this and inherited the job of, for example, selling the concept to the good ole boy volunteer firefighter out in Buchanan County, whose chief told him he has to take an Incident Command System course next weekend so the County can keep getting its federal money. Firefighter Jones probably has only a vague idea that the Commonwealth of Virginia is operating under budgetary constraints that make the frugality of my childhood seem like a hedonistic Vegas splurge. He probably would not care, if he knew, that yours truly was reduced to scuttling along behind departing conference attendees after this week's Blacksburg Coordinators Brief, stealthily picking up leftover Dasani bottles like some Dickensian street urchin. He is not the slightest bit affected by the fact that, as a schoolhouse, we cannot print manuals without the express written permission of the Secretary of Public Safety. He only wants to sign up for his required course with the least amount of hassle possible, sit through the damn thing, get his piece of paper, and then get back to his day job, his family and all the other pressing concerns of his life. I can't say that I blame him. It's hard for him to see a connection between fighting fires and the Internet. He does not want some yahoo in Richmond, however well intentioned, telling him he's got to make an account in LMS, enroll for the course through the Knowledge Center, negotiate to a certain screen, reconfigure his print settings and print out his own certificate for a course that is already an imposition on his time. And all this on dial-up access. So it's a hard sell.

The other harsh reality is the data migration process from TMS to LMS. This is an ugly for which there appears to be no cure. The TMS system is replete with corrupt data: duplicate accounts, incorrect social security numbers, fake social security numbers, no social security numbers. The state gets two data uploads for free each year. But in eighteen months of trying, even with accounts that seem to be "good" accounts, we have yet to successfully upload a single user account from TMS to LMS. We finally started manually inputting archival information into the LMS from hard copy rosters, but it proved so labor intensive that we were only able to get through about eighteen months before we had to put it down and pick up the current rosters that were piling up around us. Even this system wasn't perfect, as there were names that could not be read on the rosters, line-outs, changed names and email addresses.

All that to say this: it's become apparent to me that the government teat ain't nearly as ample as it used to be. And it's become further apparent that you'd better be prepared to take the rest of the ugly body that comes with it.