Friday, October 23, 2009

Engineering Students and Competent Computer Management

As a Computer Engineering & Computer Science major I have a lot of experience keeping a computer up and running smoothly. Actually, I have quite a few personal computers that I keep up and running. So do almost all of my classmates in my major. I keep my antivirus up to date, expect the monthly updates for Windows, avoid creepy / dangerous software, and backup regularly.

The requirement for all Speed School Students to have a Tablet PC for the use in the classroom has proven to be a very interesting. With a total of 7 different majors, not everyone is an expert computer user. Requiring students to manage a computer that is mission critical for their education is a difficult proposition.

What is the underlying problem? The average computer user is not skilled enough using Windows to keep it up and running without any problems. Excluding the abuse of hardware, which should be expected from any educational environment, the main problem is software. At this point, many people would point to Windows as the problem, but I will take a step back and attempt to identify the underlying cause.

Since the requirement for student's is a Tablet PC requirement, the only choice in operating systems is Windows. While Linux provides some support for pen based input, it is years behind what is offered on Windows. While Mac has the possibility of a 3rd party tablet, it is targeted towards graphics and not towards students. Windows is really the best option, and with Windows 7 it is actually a very powerful and friendly operating system.

From personal experience, I have been very successful at using my Tablet PC in class to take notes. Many of my friends have been very successful as well. In a simplified model of reality, there are three classes of computer users.

The first class, highly skilled, I would put myself in this category along with most CECS majors and many of my friends. A highly skilled computer user has no problem troubleshooting their own problems, they build their own desktops, they rarely contact tech support for anything other than a hardware problem, and keep their computer running smoothly almost all of the time. How is this type user able to do all of this? The simple answer is they are not afraid to tinker and guess. This type of computer user experiments, makes mistakes, and learns from experience. This type of user at one point in time was my next type of user.

The second class, skilled, is what I believe most students should fall into, it doesn't mean that most students do. In many ways this is just a competent computer user. They know that it is important to install updates, run antivirus, and avoid making bad decisions that may cause their computer to become infected or cause problems. In many ways this type of user is just smart enough to know how to get themselves into trouble. On the flip side, this type of user should also be smart enough to know how to avoid getting themselves into trouble. A skilled user is able to diagnose simple problems such as wireless connectivity, or install new software, and have a generally positive experience using their computer

The last class, casual, is probably what most of the general population falls into. A casual computer user is able to use a computer for general computing tasks such as word processing and surfing the internet. In general, this type of user may be extremely competent in using the internet, but not knowledgeable about how to keep their computer up and running smoothly. This user does not always know they need to install updates, and unless they have patching set to automatically install them, they may be horribly out of date. They may or may not be running antivirus. Additionally, this type of user may make some bad decisions such as disabling their firewall or installing dangerous software. When their computer works, they are typically just fine, but if they run into a problem such as wireless not connecting, they may have trouble fixing the problem on their own.

While any class of computer user has the possibility of catching a computer virus, a casual computer user is most likely to continue using their computer after it has been infected with a virus, even as the performance of the computer is dramatically reduced as a result of the infection.

I strongly believe that an Engineering student, regardless of their major, should be a skilled computer user by the time they graduate. While many students will not enter college with the necessary skills to manage their own computer, they should be required to learn how to over time. Should these skills be covered in a specific course? No. These skills should be acquired in the spaces between the rigidly defined curriculum. In our modern society, regardless of your field in engineering, you should graduate college as at least a skilled computer user. If your job expects you to design bridges, manufacture chemicals, manage projects, model a assembly line, or implement any complex system, at the very least you should be able to fix your wireless problems and keep your computer up to date and virus free.

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