Teaching in the digital world, part 1a. Excel, Open Office, or Google Docs?

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Sandra Porter

In part I, I wrote about my first semester of teaching on-line and talked about our challenges with technology. Blackboard had a database corruption event during finals week and I had all kinds of struggles with the Windows version of Microsoft Excel. Mike wrote and asked if I thought students should be working more with non-Microsoft software and what I thought the challenges would be in doing so.

I can answer with a totally unqualified "it depends."

First, I think knowing how to use a spread-sheet program is an advantage in many different kinds of fields and even in real-life, outside of school. I've been using Microsoft Excel for 19 years for many different kinds of things and it's very useful. Lately, I've been using Google Docs, too, since I can share my spread sheets in Google Docs, more easily with other people.

But that's me. If it were totally up to me, I'd say that all the students should just use what I'm using. That would certainly make my life easier. But I also think that would be incredibly selfish and would defeat the purpose of why I teach. I don't teach classes to benefit myself, I teach classes to help the students.

If students had wanted to use Open Office or some alternative, that would have been fine with me. My goal was for them to properly analyze the data.

What about the students?

For students, the choice of a program should depend on these items:

  1. What program will students be expected to know when they graduate?
  2. What program has the features that are needed?
  3. What program are the other instructors using?

Let's continue.

1. What program will students be expected to know when they graduate?

If I taught in a software engineering program or programming area, I would use Open Office without hesitation. I don't know if these kinds of fields ask students to do much in the way of data analysis, but I do know that lots of programmers like open source kinds of things and that's a kind of standard in the programming field.

If I'm teaching in a biotechnology program or bioinformatics, I would use Excel.

I have heard several people from the biotechnology industry describe the skills that they want from future employees. Every single person has said "they should know how to use Excel." When I ran a biotechnology program, our industrial advisory board members all said the same things and in fact, fluency with Excel and excellent lab notebooks were probably the two most important skills that helped our graduates get good jobs.

If students want jobs, they need to be able to write that they know how to use Excel on their resume'. Whom am I to deny them that opportunity when everyone else demands it?

Why is Microsoft Excel the industry-standard program in biotechnology?
Because Excel can be validated. People know how to validate it and how to work with it.

If a company makes products related to human health, and is successful, it will be governed at some point by a complex regulations, and the software by 21 CFR part 11. It is much easier for biotech and pharmaceutical companies to work with software that can be validated.

2. What program has the features that are needed?
Unfortunately, while I can use Google Docs widgets to make pivot tables, it's not easy, and I can't parse data into different columns or clean it up very easily. So, while I like it, it's not the complete answer just yet.

As far as Open Office, I asked the Open Office community for help with this. The OO community demonstrated, quite convincingly, that Open Office can do the things that I need it to do. I do plan to check it out this summer, though I have some reservations (see #1).

Microsoft Excel can do the things that I need, but there is a very problematic bug with the Windows version and people have warned me about using newer versions of Office for the Mac.

I may end up with a combination of Excel and Google Docs but the jury is still out.


3. What software program is used by the other instructors?

This last point is important from a pedagogical standpoint.

I first started teaching students how to use software about 15 years ago. I didn't intend to do this. I taught a course in Recombinant DNA technology and I had every expectation that the students would learn about computing their laboratory computer class.

But I thought that same thing math. In both cases, I was dead wrong.

I fought it at first, but I knew that would be a disservice to the students. Consequently, I taught lots of math and computing skills throughout the time I was a biotech instructor and even afterward, when I've taught extension courses.

Through this experience, I learned that it is better for students to learn one kind of program (word-processing, spread-sheet, drawing, web-browser, slide-making, molecular viewing) really well. After they have learned one program really well, they will have the confidence and knowledge to transfer those skills to other programs.

Most college courses assume that students already know how to use the programs. They treat using software like college courses used to treat typing when I was an undergraduate. They expected that everyone knew how to do it before starting college, but it wasn't actually a high school requirement because it was considered a vocational subject.

Everyone types don't they?

Most college classes don't have enough assignments, with data analysis, to give students a chance to learn any one program really well. Therefore, since all the college computing labs are usually equipped with Excel, and since students can buy it a highly discounted rate, and since most instructors know how to use it, there is a strong case, for using Excel.

If students learn one program well, they can transfer that knowledge to another; after they graduate.

I guess I'm an open source atheist. If the open source programs are the standard, and work the best, that's what I'll use. If Microsoft programs are the standard, and work the best that's what I'll use.

In the end, I care more about students than I do about ideology.