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Cybertalk 1/22/96: For a Few Clues More

It's the big job interview and you know the question is coming. But what can you say?

"So, what computer skills do you have?"

"Um, word processing, e-mail, um..."

Certainly a good start to an answer, but in itself not enough to distinguish a Northwestern student from others. NU students are not unique in this regard, but is that any comfort? We are supposed to be a cut above the rest, right? Computer skills training is sorely lacking for students and needs better coverage and delivery for our staff.

Students pay a premium price to obtain a premium education so they will have advantages for internships, jobs, and graduate schools. In fulfullment of its educational duties, NU is responsible for ensuring that students leave with mastery of their field and its tools. To achieve this, NU provides courses in essential, everyday subjects such as mathematics, writing, and reading comprehension. Not only are these courses offered, many students find them to be required, along with more "esoteric" distribution courses.

With the computer revolution, a new item has been added to the toolbox of every field. But where is the instruction in the use of this powerful, ubiquitous tool? While many students arrive at NU with some computer proficiency, the computing environment of NU offers new opportunities and responsibilities. Even though some faculty are already making use of this environment in their classes, they are relying upon students to already have the necessary skills, or to acquire them along the way.

Something along the lines of Carnegie Mellon's Computer Skills Workshop would be a nice start. Students do not need to know the intricacies of TCP/IP, computer security, routing, file systems, and other low-level computer operations. But students should understand the general ideas enough to know why there might be hope for retrieving an accidentally deleted file, or what "connection refused" means when Web surfing. This would provide them a good foundation on which to build, making them more productive and adaptable to future technology.

How can we provide such training when most courses already suffer from insufficient time within the quarter system? For half of our undergrads, a solution readily presents itself. Within the College of Arts and Sciences, the existing freshman seminar framework could be easily altered to provide interesting computer-based courses. This would also require that teachers increase their own computer literacy.

One of the two required freshman seminars would utilize internet exploration and discussion. Students would become proficient at using computer networks to obtain and present information, including dealing with the many different image, animation, and audio formats they will run across in their virtual travels.

The training environment for staff could be improved in several ways. The Gartner Group finds that it costs an organization 2-4 times as much for an employee to reach a skill level on their own than it does to train them. The training system is not equal-opportunity, with advanced users finding a lack of training suitable to their needs.

The Gartner Group also finds that retention of formal training is around ten percent after thirty days. "Just in time training", through utilities such as AppleGuide(tm), in which the user learns just what is necessary for the task immediately at hand, should be pursued as an alternative. This, and web delivery of training material, helps avoid the cost of training rooms and time spent away from the job. Such mechanisms allow a trainer to affect more people than in a classroom enviornment, with much less effort. The greater efficiency should free resources so that a wider range of topics can be offered, filling the holes that currently exist.

The addition of a computing skills education infrastructure would help students with their educational and employment pursuits. Extending the training system to better serve more staff would reduce hidden costs and improve the operation of the university. Only with these improvements can we move forward, and enjoy the benefits of the computer revolution.

-Robert, who is featured in the Daily's WebExtra

Netscape HTML Checked! January 22, 1996 - Robert Lentz (

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