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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 conclusions.

"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 thirties.

"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 months.

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 me?"

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 the phone.

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."


restructuring     model     pilot     taskforce     data    


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