Linux is amusing, but this is why I teach with Excel

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Sandra Porter

The other day, I wrote that I wanted to make things easier for my students by using the kinds of software that they were likely to have on their computers and the kinds that they are likely to see in the business and biotech world when they graduate from college.

More than one person told me that I should have my students install an entirely different operating system and download OpenOffice to do something that looks a whole lot harder in Open Office than it is in Microsoft Excel.

I guess they missed the part where I said that I wanted to make the students work a little easier.

Before I go farther, let me say I do understand. I have been a minority computer user for years. I spent ten years as one of the only two faculty members in my former 65 person department (Math and Science) who bucked the system by using a Mac, so I know what's it like to have people think that you're strange and unrealistic. I spent many years being warned not to expect any support or help from the computer crew and just as many years wondering what exactly the support crew did besides installing antivirus software and fixing our Exchange server.

And, gasp, I even have VMware on my Mac so that I can run a Linux virtual machine with my own instance of our software (which runs on Linux and other variations of UNIX).

But, I teach students who live and work in the rest of the world.

And, like it or not, the rest of the world is most often the world of Windows. I adapt to the extent that I need to. In the early 90's, I learned that it wasn't really fair to the students if I said, "sorry, I don't do Windows." If you're a conscientious instructor, that's not a realistic option. Your students live in a world where all the school computer labs are stocked with computers running Windows. The staff know how to deal with Windows (and not always that well, either). And, unless you're going to live in your parent's basement, or work as a programmer (somewhere other than Microsoft, of course), sometimes it's not so bad to at least learn what to do if you need to get a job at a gasp, "commercial company."

I am appalled by some of the attitudes that I've seen from other writers. "Universities are not supposed to prepare students for jobs." Clearly, these writers are not paying college tuition bills. Can they really believe that it's morally right to let students (or their parents) pay $160,000 for four years of college tuition and finish school without any marketable skills? (Okay, those are private school costs, but still!)

Let's take a little look into the world outside academia. Let's listen to the things that I hear from people in the biotech and software community.

A few years ago, I went on a tour of a lab at a community college in San Francisco where the students were learning how to graph data from agarose gels with Excel. A person from another company, standing next to me, said, "Wow, that seems pretty basic. Don't students do this in high school?"

Well, no. I've suggested that sort of thing only to be told that the high school teachers can't do this because some students don't have computers.

A few days ago, I described my problems with pivot tables to a woman at another software company. She said, and I paraphrase, "Wow, that seems pretty basic, don't they learn that in high school?"

Uh, no, they don't. And they don't learn this in college either, apparently.

From my perspective, the academic community treats ubiquitous programs like Excel like they treat typing. It's either "doesn't everyone know that?" or "oh, right, that's something students do in vocational training."

And the business and biotech communities seem to think that learning Excel is like learning spelling. Doesn't everyone learn how to use Excel? It's kind of a basic skill isn't it?

Some of my students are going to go work in the biotech industry. Some of them will have to work at companies where software systems have to be validated. And in those cases, the software that's been developed by professionals is more likely to get validated and approved for use in FDA regulated processes.

It's tough living in the real world and writing in the ideal one. And sometimes it's even tougher being a person who moves back and forth between.