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The changing user.

From time to time, I write a column on a topic that I've only recently begun to think much about. This is one of those columns. It might turn out to be full of half-baked ideas, but maybe sharing my thinking will get you thinking too.

Lately, I've noticed subtle but significant changes in the way people interact with computers and other technology, changes in what people expect computers to do, and changes in how they expect the human/computer interface to work. I've also noticed that recent advances in technology are contributing to these changes in people's attitudes.

Just Do It!

Last week I was asked by a second-grade teacher to come to her classroom and look at her Mac. She said it kept freezing up. When I got to her room, I first noticed that she had a gradebook-style spreadsheet on the screen. On checking further, I noticed that in the background ("minimized" for you Windows users) she was also running the e-mail client and Netscape and had another word-processing document open. When I explained to her that her 90-MHz Mac with a mere 16 MB of memory couldn't do all those things at once very well, she as much as said, "Why not? If I need to do all these things at once, then the computer should let me." This user had simply taken for granted that her computer could do everything that she wanted it to do.

In nearly 20 years of teaching people to use computers, I have always instructed people to quit one program before running another. Usually, the machines my students are working on or have had access to in their schools were incapable of running a number of applications simultaneously. Besides, in the olden days, just getting a computer to be a decent word processor was "gee whiz" enough. Today, the average user assumes that a computer can run any number of application programs at once. You might call it the "just do it" shift in user attitudes.

Some of the implications of the "just do it" shift are obvious. First, to get a computer to run a lot of application programs at once, you need a lot of memory - start thinking of the minimum as 64 MB of RAM. Second, you really need a different user interface or operating system. The trouble with most of today's Macs and PCs is that the active application is usually in front of the inactive applications - those in the background. The only user interface that I've seen that handles this problem satisfactorily is the "Window Shade" option (control panel) in Mac OS 8. Push an icon in the title bar at the top of the open document or application, and the screen rolls up like a window shade. All that's left on the screen is a quarter-inch horizontal bar at the top with the name of your document. You can then stack or tile these bars: that is, you can have multiple shades. I like this approach better than small icons since I usually have lots of icons on my desktop, and the one I want to use next gets lost visually.

I Don't Care About File Type

Another attitude shift that I've noticed in the user experience is characterized by "I don't care if this picture is a TIFF, a GIF, or a PICT, it's still a picture, and if I want to paste it into this file, then I should be able to." Users see pictures as pictures, not as computer files of differing file types. The same is true for the letters and documents created by word processors. Who cares if you used Word Perfect to write the letter? It's still a letter, and it should be readable by Word, Claris, and all the others. Likewise, a video is a video. Who cares about Video for Windows and QuickTime?

Accommodating or dealing with the "I don't care about file type" shift in user attitudes is a problem. I often explain this problem to users by saying, "You can't put a Ford carburetor on a Chevrolet." (In many ways, this whole file type mess is the result of corporate competition or "branding" and will probably not go away soon.) There are three ways to deal with the problem: 1) make everyone use the same computer with the same software; 2) make everyone use the same file types, for example, Rich Format Text (RFT), Portable Document Format (PDF), PICT, GIFF, and QuickTime; or 3) teach people to use conversion programs, such as MacLinkPlus from DataViz for documents (Mac to PC and vice versa), Debabelizer for graphics and picture files, and Movie Cleaner Pro for video and sound files. I heartily recommend the third approach and the three programs mentioned.

Unfortunately for many users, a lot of large school districts and universities are taking the first approach and trying to force users to use the "corporate choice." I try hard to avoid all "Ford versus Chevrolet" kinds of arguments and look with disdain on people who paste decals on the backs of their pickup trucks with cartoon characters urinating on the other brand. Enough said.

Kodak, Camcorders, And the Computer

To most computer users, it just seems like common sense that the pictures taken with their still cameras and the video shot with their camcorders should be usable by their computers. The advent of CD-Audio, digital still cameras, digital camcorders, and Kodak's "we'll send you your pictures on a diskette" service makes it seem to users that any and all media should work with their computers. And, say, if you have a printer, why not get the printer to make enlargements of your favorite "Kodak moment"?

Although the audio/video world is rapidly becoming more and more digital, it is in many respects still an analog medium. There are two approaches to coping with users' desire to mix media: 1) take pictures and video in a digital format, using digital still cameras and digital camcorders and equipping computers with the appropriate interface(s); and 2) take pictures and shoot the video with traditional equipment and outfit the computers with the necessary "analog to digital" boards. For still images, there's a third approach: take slides and send them to Kodak and have them make PhotoCDs, an approach that gives the best possible still pictures. At present, the best solution is a combination of the first two options: use digital still cameras that easily connect to most computers but use traditional (not digital) camcorders and put a video digitizer board in the computer. In a year or so, when the new "Fire Wire or IEEE 1384" interface boards for computers become more readily available, you will be able to use digital camcorders directly connected to your computer and thus to its digital hard drive.

You can browse any techno-savvy journal like Wired and read about the "convergence" of the various analog and digital technologies. But for you and me, getting it all to work together seamlessly is a bit of a challenge.

There's some good news on this issue. A lot of people ask me how they can use their computer to take their favorite songs from various audio CDs and make a "compilation" CD-Audio disc. (For one-time personal use, I believe this is a legitimate and legal use of the medium.) The good news is that all you need is a $400-to-$500 CD recorder; software such as Astarte's Toast CD-Copy and CD-Audio, which are often bundled with the CD drive; and a spare hard disk drive or about 700 MB of free space on your hard drive. (The 700-MB figure is for a 72-minute CD; for a 36-minute CD the figure would be about 350 MB.) It also helps if you have a recent copy of a utility such as Norton's Disk Doctor to defragment your hard drive before you burn the audio CD.

There's more good news in this category: inkjet computer printers are now so good that they can indeed make photographic-quality prints. My favorite such printer is the Epson Color Stylus 800 that prints at a whopping 1,400 by 1,400 dpi! You will get incredible results from this printer if you just do the following: start with a high-quality image file (say, from a Kodak Photo-CD), adjust the settings properly, and use HP Premium Glossy Paper (about 75[cents] to $1 per sheet). HP paper is much better than similar paper from Epson or Kodak. At a street price of about $350, this printer is phenomenal, and it's even fast. My black-and-white laser printer is now for sale!

Backup - Who Needs It?

Perhaps the most dangerous change in user attitudes that I've noticed recently is the confidence people have in their computers and especially in their hard drives. Almost no one I know, from neophyte to geek, worries enough about his or her computer hardware to take systematic backup procedures seriously. This is scary. Today's users are like automobile drivers who never check their oil; they just keep driving.

The problem is exacerbated for users who frequently install new software on their computers, and game players are particularly at risk. The explanation for this is simple. Whenever you install a new piece of software on your computer, you are, in effect, giving the installer program or utility the ability to make subtle - and occasionally disastrous - modifications to your computer's hard drive and sometimes even its operating system. People who design installer programs try to write programs that will analyze your computer's configuration, pick the pieces you need, and then install them automatically. For example, suppose an installer program looks for QuickTime 2.1 and doesn't find it - because you're using QuickTime 2.5 - so the program installs the older QuickTime 2.1 in place of or even alongside the newer version. Now you're likely to have problems. There is a fix for this problem: always do a "custom" install instead of an "easy" or "full" install. Of course, you could also read the manual to see what the install program does to your computer before you let it do it. But when was the last time you read a manual without a gun to your head?

The issue of systematically backing up today's ever larger hard drives is more serious than the nagging "install" problem. I have tried scare tactics on today's users, but they still don't back up their important work. Three solutions are worth a try. First, give users a personal file or subdirectory on a file server that is systematically backed up, and train them to store all their work on your server. Second, use a remote network backup utility, such as Retrospect Remote or Apple Network Administrator Toolkit, and surreptitiously back up their drives without even letting them know it. Admittedly, users might construe this second approach as an invasion of privacy; it's best to get permission first. Third, install 100-MB Zip drives in every user's computer and send a technician around on a weekly basis to back up files for the user. In schools, these backup helpers could even be students. Incidentally, some reports I've read recently in the technical journals cast disparaging words on the reliability of tape backup devices.

Then and Now

Twenty years ago, when microcomputers were in their infancy, users viewed them as fragile scientific instruments and treated them with respect, if not awe. Today, users see their computers as information appliances and believe them to be as trouble-free as the telephone or the refrigerator. Today, users also see a computer as a Swiss army knife that is capable of doing many jobs. These subtle changes in users' attitudes and expectations have far-reaching implications for educators at all levels - especially those in charge of the computers in a K-12 school. We all need to pay more attention to the behavior of users.

ROYAL VAN HORN is a professor of education at the University of North Florida, Jacksonville (e-mail:
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Title Annotation:teachers' use of computers
Author:Horn, Royal van
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Article Type:Column
Date:Jun 1, 1998
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