IT on IT

I am grateful to the editorial board of The Williams Record for giving me an opportunity to share some thoughts about computing over the course of the Spring Term. Because the role of computing on college campuses has changed so dramatically in the past few years, members of the Williams community are now expressing greater interest and concern about Information Technology than in the past.

My goal in “IT on IT” is to discuss the current state of computing at Williams and elsewhere, especially at other small liberal arts campuses. In future columns I’ll deal with topics such as privacy, viruses, standards, multimedia, the Internet, routine maintenance times, and the role of technology in learning.

Ten years ago only 10-20% of a typical college or university campus community were regular users of IT. In a very short time we’ve gone from a relatively small group of fairly sophisticated users to a situation where nearly everyone has at least one computer and many have two or more. Many new computer users believe that the mechanics of computing should be easy. After all, other universally accessible technologies—like the car or the telephone—are relatively simple to use. Most of us pause no more than a few seconds when preparing to drive a car that we have not driven before: adjust the mirror, shift to drive, and go. But understanding the current state of computing is acknowledging its present youth and immaturity. We have a long way to go before the standards that have evolved over about 100 years for the auto and the telephone are similarly embedded in IT. Dialing into a network from home is still not point and click.

IT is moving toward becoming a utility just like the telephone or like electric power, which we expect to be ubiquitous and entirely user friendly. We expect nothing less than an immediate dial tone whenever and wherever we pick up a telephone. For that dependability, we pay more per square inch for a telephone system switch than any other computer on campus.

The same demands for e-mail “dial tone” have arrived at Williams and at most campuses. We have not, however, made the same kinds of investments in computers as we have in phones for years. Many colleges have started making those investments, and many are still working on how to pay for them. In the meantime, colleges struggle with budgets and systems that were designed for the small group of technology-oriented early adopters of computing.

Now that everyone has a computer, if only for e-mail and word-processing, the demand for services has overwhelmed most computing service organizations everywhere. Ten to fifteen years ago many academic users were Unix geeks who had developed their own culture and had their own ways of working and getting help. Like car drivers who don’t care about what type of engine is under the hood, newer members of the computing community have little interest in the arcane goings-on inside the computer; they just want to get their work done. For the most part, faculty, staff, and students simply want reliability, simple applications programs, and printers that always work. In spite of all the advances in hardware and in software, we are still in the early phases of evolution of computing development. It will take the IT business time and hard work to reach the level of reliability and simplicity that we now take for granted with our cars and phones.

As a community of technology users, we face many challenges. The new IT Committee, with faculty, staff, and student representation, will be guiding our technology choices. We may not make all the right choices, but we will struggle together to determine the best ways to serve a large and diverse community.

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