Column: User-friendly technology too much to expect

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 17, 2001

Today the spring semester at MSU begins and I will be in Mankato teaching my section of College Composition (the class formerly known as Freshman English) in the computer lab.

Friday, January 19, 2001

Today the spring semester at MSU begins and I will be in Mankato teaching my section of College Composition (the class formerly known as Freshman English) in the computer lab.

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My assignments and schedule and all the rest of the &uot;paperwork&uot; will be on the Internet, and students will have to print off a copy if they want something on paper. It’s quite a step for me.

Using technology in the writing classroom has been a journey with ups and downs. Two years ago I was a traditional English teacher, using chalkboards and lesson plans written on paper. Overhead projectors and videotapes were about as technologically advanced as I got. Today, I am learning how to be comfortable in a room filled with computers, printers and other exotic machines. The lab I used last fall and will be using again this spring is a full service computer lab; from the outside it appears to be equipped with the latest in &uot;hardware and software&uot; for the use of students. In reality, the hardware may be cutting edge (for 1999), but the software creates so much unnecessary unpleasantness, some days I almost wish that I didn’t have to enter another computer lab classroom for the rest of my life.

What raises my blood pressure is the tension created by trying to teach students how to write using computers which are unreliable.

Students make mistakes of their own, of course, which is to be expected since they’re learning how to use them. But name all of the ways a computer can fail a user, and I’ve probably seen them this past year: Computers that turn themselves off when left unattended, but then won’t turn back on again. Programs interfere with each other or use up so much memory that you have to turn some things off before you turn other things on, regardless of whether the two programs are supposed to work together.

I’ve seen the &uot;This program has attempted an illegal operation and will be shut down&uot; reminder so often, that I’m beginning to wonder what sort of laws they have in cyberspace. The list goes on and on.

Software developed by Microsoft is especially vulnerable to problems, which is annoying since MSU cut a deal with Microsoft on the purchase and licensing of their products, so almost everything we use is a Microsoft product, from Word to PowerPoint to FrontPage to Excel and even the ubiquitous (should I say iniquitous?) Windows interface.

Bill Gates and his &uot;boys&uot; have had 20 years to work on some of this stuff; why is it taking so long to get it right? Even programs that work aren’t what I would call &uot;user-friendly.&uot; They take too long to learn and they are too vulnerable to operator and computer error.

One of the major problems all of us have, both in and out of classrooms, is caused by software developers. They are still loading up the products they design with functions and features that have little connection to what people actually want to do with their computers. I keep hoping that computer technology will start being more useful, but my contact with computer science students in the lab where I teach reveals that the &uot;functions and features&uot; mind set is deeply rooted.

Earlier I wrote that I &uot;almost wish&uot; I could leave the computer lab for good. And almost wish is as far as I get. Despite my ambivalence and skepticism I continue to teach how to write with computers. The current generation of college students is going to have to learn how to live and work with technology – especially the bad stuff. Like it or not, the workplace of the near and distant future is going to be dominated by computers and technology, and much of it won’t have been designed to be used by real people to solve real problems. All of the difficulties in the lab are just another way to get used to that notion. Complicated technology, whether it’s hard or soft, will inevitably fail (I hope infrequently and without loss of life), so we need scientists, technicians, developers, managers and even teachers who can cope with those failures.

We need citizens who are wary of prophecies or promises made about each new advance in technology.

Even if I were a wizard, with a magic wand that would get rid of the bad software and weak hardware in my classroom, or a magic keystroke would make everything perfect, I wouldn’t do it.

Like it or not, both teacher and students need to prepare themselves for what still lies ahead: the good, the bad, and the non-user friendly.

David Behling’s is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.