Three profiles: end-user monologues
Commissioned by the Task Force to Restructure Computing Services across Penn.
November 9, 1995
Following are three portraits intended to dramatize and personalize the
needs of some of Penn's computer users. People like these form part of the
audience for the message of restructuring. The profiles are fictional, but
each includes events, attitudes, and in some cases actual statements heard
from real users. We have synthesized them to make composite or "synthetic"
pictures. This group of three is not meant to be comprehensive; many
classes of users, such as those involved with research computing, are not
represented. We hope the profiles will help balance the abstract tendency
of the discussions and stimulate thought.
Profile 1: leading-edge computer user
Faculty member in political science.
"Last year I worked with a colleague in the economics department to
develop a course on the polarization of income distribution in America
since 1973 and its effects on electoral behavior.
"We wanted the students to work in teams on this controversial
material so they would have to confront and resolve their own differing
attitudes. The data come from many fields; many factors contributing to
the disparity have been proposed; several hypotheses have been put forward
to explain their interactions; and there's a lot of information about class
self-perceptions and voting records.
"Since there's not just one set of right answers, we acted as
guides to the relevant data and coaches for the analytical and modeling
techniques, rather than lecturers. We asked each student team to work
through the basic material and then produce a fully developed explanation
for one aspect of the phenomenon-a synthesis defended by adequate
statistical apparatus and accounting for all the known data. At the end
each team presented its study and the class vigorously debated the
"We used a good deal of technology, of course. There was heavy
duty number-crunching for the statistical stuff, the teams used Lotus Notes
for collaborating on the studies, and we had a netnews group for ongoing
discussion and for faculty consultation.
"Well, we were completely unprepared for the success of the
experiment. I can't remember a course that got at so much key material or
galvanized the students so thoroughly. So now to meet the demand we want
to offer it as a multisection course.
"This poses a new level of technical complexity. Lotus Notes is
too expensive; we'll also need to involve labs and have additional
support. I've heard there are some Internet-based tools that might work.
And if this scales up successfully, we've thought about doing the course
via the net with a consortium of universities. At that level we could
contemplate generating some serious new research.
"How can you help us plan and support this kind of thing?"
Profile 2: mainstream computer user
Faculty member in the humanities, recipient of prestigious awards. Late
"I'm worried by the amount of time computing and network tools are
starting to occupy in my life. I've used word processors for a long time,
of course, and library databases. I've gotten accustomed to e-mail, and I
remember to check it at least every other day. I've participated in two
listservs, but I don't find much time for them now that my travel and
research schedule is tighter. Some of my colleagues are pushing me to use
the World Wide Web, so I sat down to try to set up my networking software
and install a browser. I found that some of my software is already out of
date, and I have to change it. Why do you have to change the versions so
fast? I spent several hours on this and I still don't have it working-much
less providing me anything of use.
"I've been elected department chair for next year. I'm sure that
means I'll have to understand the systems the BA's use if I'm to care
responsibly for the department's interests. That means even more time
learning and maintaining computing skills. I estimate I'm spending three
to five hours a week already on this. I understand the changing
workplace, and competitive pressure, and all that, but what exactly am I
supposed to do less of to make time for this? And how large will this
fraction of time become in five years? At least once you learned a
typewriter, it stayed learned. You didn't have to relearn it every six
I see many benefits--I've benefited myself--from computing. But
maintaining these ephemeral skills that become obsolete in months comes at
the cost of doing substantive work that might endure longer. I don't think
I have along enough spoon to sup with this devil. What advice can you give
Profile 3: "mainstream-plus" computer user
Staff member in an administrative office. Early forties.
"I've been at Penn for twelve years now. It's been a good
employer. I've lived through many changes in computing at Penn. When I
started our BA had a dumb terminal to the UMIS mainframe and that's all.
Then we all got PCs. It's startling to think how many models we've been
through, along with the software versions, since then.
"At first I relied on the CRC pretty heavily. But as my skill and
experience increased, they got busier. I found it harder to get through on
Eventually we were doing a lot more with LANs and client-server
tools like PennInfo and Eudora. "Fortunately I've always picked up this
stuff pretty quickly. People in my office would come to me for help with
installations and troubleshooting and so on. It started to cut in to my
productivity, so I had a talk with our director.
She was very understanding, and we agreed to formalize my
unofficial role. So now I'm our LAN manager and computer guy for a third of
my time. It's worked out pretty well-except that when was a volunteer, if
I didn't know an answer people weren't upset. Now I'm supposed to know
everything. So I depend more than ever on our Division and ISC to provide
us with accurate information and backup support.
"These days the big challenge is the growing complexity of the tool
set. With the Web we now have image processing, portable document,
graphics converter, and media programs to buy and learn, while all our
regular software continues to gain in size and capabilities. Penn doesn't
support some of the graphics products. Maybe we won't upgrade to the
current word processor version so we can spend that money and learning time
on Web graphics stuff.
"Maybe the restructuring project can address some of these issues.
I worry that it will just mean we have to do more with less money and fewer
staff. I hope I'm not one of the casualties."
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