Computers vs. the science class: IT 1, Instructor 0

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Sandra Porter

It's hard to teach bioinformatics when schools work so hard to keep us from using computers.

Anecdotes from the past
Back in my days as a full-time instructor, I fought many battles with our IT department. Like many colleges, we had a few centralized computer labs, tightly controlled by IT (aka the IT nazis), where students were supposed to go to do their computing. Instructors also had a centralized computer lab, but over the years, we gained the right to have computers in our offices. Our major battle was whether or not we'd be allowed to use Macs.

There are certainly advantages in using the school sanctioned computer labs. IT departments have budgets. They can buy new computers on a regular basis and dispose of the old ones. They can find extra mice and wireless cards, and reprogram keyboards if need be. If you can get access to the facilities, using their classrooms can be nice.

The trouble for me though, was that I would send students off to the computer lab to do assignments, but when they needed help with using a program, like Excel, or Word even, the people in the computer lab couldn't help them. Frustrated with this state of affairs, I decided to take matters into my own hands and get computers in the biotech lab.

Little I did know, I'd taken on more trouble. Our first problem came when we tried to use the computers. The students turned them on and tried opened up Excel. One of six computers worked. I called IT. Mystery solved. Apparently, it was our IT deptartment's policy to only install software on the network, not the computers, and so they only installed one copy for a single user, never mind that I ordered a copy for each computer.

Eventually we got that issue resolved, and I decided that computers were so much fun, that I now work in a software company. But it's harder to escape the past than I thought.

The past revisited: haven't we moved on?
Life might be easier, but every now and then I can't help venturing back into the classroom. My first class was last night. To quote Yogi Berra it was "déjà vu all over again."

This community college has very nice computer labs, but the biotech lab has little laptops that were purchased with a grant and do not work very well. And there are NO mice. [One poor student spent most of the night fighting with a finicky touch pad that wouldn't let her select anything but the entire page of text, arrgh!]

Even if the computers had worked better, we weren't allowed to do much. I forgot to ask for the program that I wanted to use, ahead of time, and the guy who came to install the program wasn't able to access it, unless he logged in as an administrator. Hopefully, we can use it in the next class.

At the end of the night, I suggested that any students that have laptops would best off bringing their own.

Lessons learned
And that I think is the lesson from this tale. Biotechnology and other life science programs tend not to have IT budgets, since it already costs too much to buy supplies. When these programs do get money to purchase computers, it seems to me that the equipment often rots. The grants cover one-time only purchases. There isn't money for upgrading the equipment once it's in place and the IT groups are not keen about taking care of equipment that's outside of their control.

I've decided that the schools who require students to buy laptops have found the best answer to this problem. If students have their own computers, they can install software and they can even run programs! Plus they bring a mouse! Or, they can adjust the touch pad their own way and become accustomed to using it. They don't have to be frustrated with wondering where programs are and how to select one line of text.

This would save science programs from the problem of having to upgrade and maintain equipment. Plus the students would be much better equipped for life in the outside world.

I think it would be cheaper in the long run to help subsidize student computer purchases than suffer with the frustration of not being able to teach students what they need to know, and the cost of the frustration and time that gets lost because we're not able to use the computers that we have.