Search This Blog

Jul 10, 2006

On vision, geeks, and technology

I have received congratulations on surviving the first week on the job. These were nice, but not warranted. It has been very interesting, and even fun. Everyone around me was so welcoming and supportive. I felt like a kid who got a new videogame for a birthday, and is anxious to figure out what it can do. OK, my ability to comprehend things was a bit overloaded, but I have learned a great deal about the School and its programs. And this is only the beginning; there is so much more to learn. My focus was to understand various office procedures: who turns in what form when, who enters the data where, etc. I really was enjoying reading the minds of people who designed the programs, and make them work so well.

It is my firm belief that only all faculty together can generate a vision for its school. In order to be shared and accepted, it has to come from within. My role is to help integrate various views and agendas into something coherent. We can actually start working on it only in the Fall, when everyone is back. In the meanwhile, I am trying to develop a list of smaller, more focused projects that will address specific challenges our School faces. Here are two examples:

  1. Problem: no money for faculty travel. A partial solution: Cut mailing and copying costs. For example, we can put all student teaching handbooks on-line, use more e-mail instead of snail mail for communication with students, encourage faculty to put their syllabi and handouts on-line. Can it save enough the money? I need to do some math on this, but it is clear that we are talking about thousands of dollars, easy money.

  2. Problem: too much manual data entry. As a result, our staff is overwhelmed with manual work, and has no time to think about improving and streamlining procedures. Much of the problem can be traced to the redundant databases: one is maintained by the University (Banners) and another we keep just for teacher education programs (Helix). The long-term solution is to phase out Helix and configure Banner to serve all our needs. This may take a while, partly because Banner is so new to begin with. However, there should be a number of short-term solutions. All we need to figure out is how to download data from Banner and upload it to Helix.

As one can see, much of my thinking on solutions involves the use of technology. So let me explain my relationship to it. I am probably more proficient than most university professors are, but I am not a geek. I belong to another group of people, let’s call them expert users (EU). Now, geeks are a clearly defined category. They are people who love technology. Unlike geeks, EU’s have no feelings for technology, no love for new gadgets, although they like to know what is generally available. A geek discovers a new amazing gadget, and then is looking for ways to use it. An EU has a specific practical problem, and only uses those bits of technology that can solve it. A geek is looking for an elegant solution. An EU prefers imperfect solutions, patches really, if those an be done quickly, cheaply, and without much training. If I can hammer virtual nails with a virtual microscope, so be it, and don’t tell me I am not doing it right. Geeks hate Microsoft, EU’s don’t care where stuff comes from, as long as it does the job. Geeks spend hours learning how their tools work. EU grows impatient if software does not make sense within an hour, and deems it unusable.

Nothing personal against geeks; in fact, some of my best friends are geeks. And both kinds of people are needed, of course. Just let the users, not the toolmakers be in control of which tools are used and how. Even the nicest of geeks tend to believe they know better what we need; they are often patronizing and sometimes arrogant to people who can’t code. In fact, they rarely understand the specific, practical problems users face, biggest of which is always lack of time to learn new technological tricks.

Anyway, this is enough philosophizing. Let’s try to use technology, but be cynical, pragmatic, and hard-headed about. Like any tool, it is only worth investing in (time and money, but mostly time) when the benefits are clearly obvious. So, mail merge training, anyone?

No comments:

Post a Comment