Luddites in Our Midst?

Reaching across the ‘divide’ by rolling carts across campus

Actually, I only used the term “Luddites” to capture your attention. It is what some tend to rather casually call anyone who d'esn’t enthusiastically embrace a new technology. I have been thinking a bit lately about those poor folks on our campus who for many reasons are not adept with laptops, email, wireless, and some of what are becoming the very basic tools of people who work in offices.

My thoughts surfaced to consciousness when I read about the Student Technology Access Group (STAG) at Portland State University (OR). It’s a student-run organization. Because they lack space to create the lab they want to create for helping other students, they are putting 10 recycled computers on carts and plan to bring the carts to various open spaces on campus to create temporary computer labs as they are needed. Their goal is to reach out and assist students who may not yet have crossed that digital divide.

The Luddites have also been on my mind lately. Contrary to popular belief, they were not people adamantly opposed to machines of any kind. They were skilled workers whose livelihoods were being destroyed by some of the first machines for manufacturing. They saw it happening, couldn’t figure out how to stop it, and began busting up machines.

The British Parliament even passed the Frame Breaking Act which carried the death penalty for “breaking machines.” As early machines transformed/created other industries, the workers who faced diminished or lost incomes from their traditional jobs continued to break machines. Over time quite a few were executed, including a 12-year-old boy. (If this were a different column it would be interesting at this point to pursue the parallels in 2005.)

The STAG article caught my attention because the reason for this kind of outreach implies that there are PSU students who just don’t get computers all that well. That sort of g'es against our assumptions about the young people on our campuses. We hear so often about how they are so better with the technology than previous generations.

Apparently, a lot of that knowledge is only skin deep: Learning to use an iPod as second nature is not really the same as usefully understanding what to do with a more complicated laptop with office or presentation software. And we’re rapidly getting to the point that college students without good computer skills can fall behind simply because they are less able to utilize the technology that supports the learning processes and spaces we are creating. STAG isn’t serving Luddites, but other students who are not-yet-skilled enough to make their way financially into the future.

The article I read was Gearheads: These students want to transform the way you use technology. They want to offer “[f]ree seminars, a fun and laid-back computer lab and a program to assist low-income PSU students to obtain computers are additional objectives.”

This sounds like a great bunch of students. “There’re a lot of big open spaces where we can fit 10 carts of computers in a little circular area,” one of the students said. “We’ll roll out our lab to the math mezzanine … and be like, ‘Hey, do you want to practice using this software?’” she said. “Just kind of dink around if they have 15 minutes before class. They can see what it’s all about.”

They’re being supported by the administration which specifically notes its value for third- and fourth-year transfer students who may have not gotten the equivalent of the university’s own group computer projects, which are required in freshman and sophomore years. As well, PSU has an emphasis on learning by helping others.

For me, the icing on the cake was that the labs they are creating will include salvaged computers, from long-term storage, which the students are refurbishing. And they’re using a lot of open source, especially Linux, which will give the students they train a boost if they end up at a company which has moved in that direction.

Congratulations to the students of STAG, and to Portland State University for supporting their mission to do good things for other students. May they meet someone they helped at a reunion in ten years and get some effusive thanks!

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