Achieving the Embarrassment Level

The increasing power and pervasiveness of computers, telecommunications, and information resources has made the digital divide impossible to ignore. Within higher education, well over half of all courses now include at least some use of e-mail or the World Wide Web.

Efforts to define and help people achieve “information literacy” are also increasing. Faculty and students who cannot fully and comfortably use basic computing tools and information resources are missing out on an increasing array of teaching and learning options.

I was surprised recently to discover that when I visit a campus for a presentation or consultation, I still need to ask about the minimum technology configurations available to most faculty and students—and that I need to ask explicitly about adjunct faculty. On many campuses, the apparently unintended variation in access to technology and support services is still great—not only among entering students and longtime faculty, but also among academic departments.

Defining minimum information technology and resource requirements can be like establishing a “poverty level”—local conditions and expectations matter. It may be useful to establish different levels for different departments or divisions, but only if the reasons for doing so are clearly stated and easily defended.

Instead, each area may need its own “embarrassment level.” What would those responsible for technology be embarrassed to admit that they couldn’t provide for some of their people? Embarrassment is also shaped by expectations. A department or college that aspires to be a leader in educational uses of IT should have a very different set of minimum requirements than one that d'es not.

I’ve found it useful to subdivide such minimum levels into three categories: access, capability, and usage. First, what is the minimum configuration of hardware, software, telecommunications connections, information resources, and maintenance services? Second, what is the minimum set of capabilities each individual is expected to have in order to make reasonable use of the available materials and services? Third, in what ways, how often, and with what results are people expected to use the technology?

The combination of uneven distribution of resources and uneven quality of infrastructure is often made more irritating by the lack of a coherent, credible, and widely known IT plan that might explain how and when apparent inequities will be rectified. Once those minimums have been established, they will further raise expectations among those who have not attained them. Therefore, it is even more important to develop a plan for enabling everyone in the organization to reach the goals.

Finally, due to the still rapid pace of change in the underlying technologies, it is important to build in a process for reviewing and revising the minimums to reflect new technology options and new expectations.

The accompanying chart suggests minimums for access, capability, and usage for faculty members at a mainstream institution—one that wants to be neither a leader nor too far behind the leaders with respect to educational uses of IT.

I hope we can establish similar minimum levels for students, professional staff, administrators, and alumni, and for “smart” classrooms, public-access computer labs, and others.

This could be an excellent parlor game activity or challenge for consortia of institutions. Because no college or university is likely to adopt such recommendations without modification, this could be done as a kind of “open-source” exercise—participants contribute improvements as they find flaws and make their own adaptations. At any rate, please feel free to modify these levels and let me know about the minimums at your institution.

Setting the Embarrassment Level
Minimum Technology for Faculty at a Mainstream University

Access

  • Desktop or laptop computer less than four years old (about 75th percentile in all measurements that matter except price)
  • Color printer, possibly shared, within 50 yards
  • Suite of software products, including at least word processing, e-mail, presentation tool, Web browser, spreadsheet, and Web-based course management tools—all compatible with the latest versions from the same software publisher
  • Fastest commonly available modem, Ethernet or other connection for Internet access with greater bandwidth than telephone modems
    provide
  • No individual usage fees for accessing a basic set of databases and related services recommended by a professional library association group
  • Help-desk capacity sufficient to respond to phone or e-mail messages with answers or referrals within one hour
  • Some kind of almost immediate support for those teaching in a “smart” classroom

Capability

  • Able to operate basic computing and printing functions
  • Able to perform most basic operations required by word processing software, e-mail, and Web browser
  • Able to post course syllabus and some readings for students on Web
  • Able to recognize when telecommunications connection is down or slow
  • Knows when and whom to contact about problems
  • Able to open, read, and send e-mail attachments
  • Knows how and when to ask a relevant librarian for help
  • Able to identify and use a few online information services and databases
  • Knows how, when, and whom to ask for help—help-desk professionals, student assistants, faculty peer mentors, and at least one friend or colleague

Usage

  • Checks for new e-mail messages at least once a day
  • Decides which messages are important and responds to those within 24 hours
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