Thirteen years ago the personal computer was changing our lives enough for Time magazine to select it as their "Man of the Year". Computers have become a pervasive part of our infrastructure, used for everything from designing drugs and airplanes to choreographing shows. Networking has amplified the power of the computer, becoming an integral part of its value as infrastructure.
However, at Northwestern, utilizing computers is hampered by the lack of support which our infrastructure deserves. Today I will look at the big picture, with a closer examination of some areas as the quarter progresses.
At the most basic level, obtaining computer access is often frustrating. Public computer labs are small and their hours of availability are declining due to their use as classrooms. Purchasing a computer is not an option for most students, especially since computer costs are not included in financial aid calculations.
For people trying do extra work or class assignments from home, the modem pool is far from sufficient. There still aren't enough modems and the recent time limit reduction makes work on non-trivial projects difficult. The new time limit also means that it now takes more than one session to install the "core" networking applications, and no method is provided for dealing with files that can't be downloaded within the time allowed.
Have a computer problem? When you call the Technical Support Services Information Center for help, your call will be answered by a student employee. This is an odd situation since one doesn't find student employees providing help at the financial aid office, human resources, and other service desks.
While NU has bright students, thrusting them onto the front lines of computer service, especially without a comprehensive training program, does a disservice to the community. When one considers the overhead in managing such a group, and the investment in training that must occur year after year only to be lost when the students graduate, the current system appears to be extremely wasteful.
The support offered from the help desks is uneven across the major computer platforms used on campus. Additionally, the lack of a comprehensive site license policy makes support more difficult since multiple versions of programs must be supported.
Many important functions are overseen by a single person. Should that person fall ill or be absent, service often suffers.
Studies have shown that providing at least three days of training a year reduces support costs. While some training offerings do exist, topics are limited and offered in short, infrequent classes, with charges for some classes.
Students and employees expect to find savvy use of computer networks in pursuit of NU's mission. However, I have heard from many who have been disappointed. NU needs to give its people the resources and time to harness the power of the computer revolution.
As I examine our use of computer networks feel free to let me know what you think via nwu.org.daily or e-mail.
-Robert, The Daily's new guest cyberboy, is a university staff member who specializes in educational computing.