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Software & a lack of understanding thereof September 20, 2009

Posted by calvinus in Uncategorized.
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I have a theory.  Granted, this theory has only had a comparatively short period of evidence gathering to find supporting information, but it is a theory nonetheless.

When I was going through the education system (have I ever really left), the mantra was that we were much more computer literate than all of the professoriate and lecturing staff.  Anywhere else I have been, the mantra has been the same: the students are more IT savvy than the staff.  Even now I have colleagues that learn from our students.  This is worrying given how clueless many of our students are in matters of IT.

Let me be quite clear.  It is not their fault, nor is it a criticism of our students’ intellects or abilities.  Yes “da yoof” are more connected, more technologically fluid (but not fluent) than ever before.  However, faced with a minor problem that isn’t on the menu bar of a MS program, “da yoof” are lost.  I get exactly the same questions from panicking and utterly frustrated students that I get from my mother-in-law (and given that she still uses a dial-up, this might give you an idea of the level).

So, here is the theory.  Looking back, I suspect computer literacy probably peaked with the generation that was overly familiar with Windows 2000/ME (not, I stress, that I am suggesting that these were the ideal OS!).  After around that time, operating systems started becoming more user-friendly inasmuch that they would do a lot more things automatically and intuitively for the “average” user (NDLR: the lowest common denominator).  Couple this with the ubiquity of PCs, and MS in particular, and general understanding of the structure and function of software dropped.  The theory goes that understanding and ability to use software (or anything) is inversely proportional to the slickness and popularity of the software and operating system (which means that bloodyVista is a ray of hope for the improvement of user understanding!).

Some examples of what I mean.

1) When did the “My documents” function arrive?  Every year I teach a basic statistics course which involves the heavy use of computer-based workshops.  Despite the fact that the students love the statistics, every week I encounter the same problems.  Student X says that they have a problem – they cannot find the file that they saved their work in last week.

JC “Where did you save it?”

SX “Dunno. It was in My Documents last week.”

JC “Which My Documents?”

SX “?”

JC “My documents on the hard drive or My Documents on the network drive?”

SX “The what?”

JC “OK, have you tried searching for the file?”

Suffice to say, the answer is usually “no” as they hadn’t even realised that the “find” or “search” function existed… So, if something doesn’t automatically appear when you want it, it is clearly a problem of the computer, or so it would appear many people think.

2) Post-graduate student Y tries new software for operating a bit of kit.  Said software saves everything automatically by default and in a proprietary binary that I couldn’t care less about.  This is a good thing as you have all the instrument parameters, all the data, all the conditions, etc. in one compact file.  But this isn’t good enough for student Y: you can’t open up the data in Excel.  This is considered to be a “bad thing” and all hope is lost and there is darkness upon the face of the earth.  “This is useless, I can’t open my data in Excel.” I decided that a response of “RTFM” may not be the most constructive and after a small amount of fiddling (i.e., three clicks) we were able to get the data as ASCII that will happily open up in any spreadsheet that our IT department permit us to use (go figure the length of that list).  But this requires a conscious decision and effort on the part of the operator, even if it is just three clicks.  Therefore it was suggested that the software was “hardly the most user friendly”.

Lets pause for a minute.  Are we regressing?  Should all new software only save data in ASCII human-readable text?  Shall we take this to its logical conclusion and ask that our software only accepts input files that are text-only?  No GUIs please?  This is ironic given that I know the carnage that causes – I teach the use of computational chemistry programs (although admittedly I should use something other than vi).  While we are at it, should we not go back to UNIX and DOS??

The problems, I can handle.  I am more worried about the inability, or lack of confidence, to fiddle around and find possible solutions.  I suspect this year I shall mostly be teaching from XKCD: