Sunday, October 21, 2007

Appropriate Use of Institutional Tech Resources

On Friday, I linked to this Chronicle article about using institutional email and other tech resources appropriately on my other blog. I didn't comment on it at the time. Then Mr. Geeky sent me a comment via email in which he called the author a "stupid bean counter." He ranted for a bit and then said perhaps he was slipping into the curmudgeon zone. And now Kathleen has commented in somewhat the same vein (though less curmudgeonly). I completely understand Mr. Geeky and Kathleen's point, which is essentially, these are our accounts, leave us alone. But let me offer the flip side.

One of the comments Mr. Geeky made was that email was essentially free, so what are you complaining about. Email is not free. Even if you use an open source solution as we do now, there are costs for the server, for the staff to support the server, for the staff to train and support people using various clients, and even for the electricity to run the server. However, some of us have been saying for a while now that email is becoming like a utility. Would you complain about someone having a personal conversation while using the heating/cooling/lighting that the college pays for? Not on the basis of the cost of those utilities. What you're really complaining about is the time that that conversation is taking away from work or they that conversation prevents you from working because it's loud or whatever. So, I think to some extent, the author is using the costs of providing these tech services as an excuse for dealing with a completely different issue.

Another issue Olson mentions is installing non-university software on a university computer. Olson puts the issue of software installs in an odd context. He says:

[M]any faculty members attempt to install their own software on machines assigned to them, arguing that they will use the software primarily to
conduct official business.

Campus information-technology departments don't see it that way. They
are charged with serving the tech needs of faculty and staff members,
but they are also obligated to report infractions by those users. That
conflict often creates an unnecessarily adversarial relationship
between the two.
Umm, not really. I don't know anyone in my department who serves as the software police. Now, I do know that if we see obvious conflicts, we might make suggestions about removing certain software. The real issue for most of us has nothing to do with possible system conflicts but with expectations of support. I've had people ask me how to use x piece of random software they bought at Best Buy and that's just annoying.

Some people do cause a significant amount of difficulty in regard to using equipment, accounts, and other resources for personal use. Is it fair, for example, for someone to store gigabytes of their music files on the college server when space is at a premium? If someone uses physical equipment--laptops, computers, hard drives--and doesn't treat them carefully, allowing, for example, their young children to play with it, is that problematic, especially if it means that the college must buy another computer for them more often than they have to buy ones for other people? Is it fair to make someone spend an inordinate amount of time working with you to install or use software that you're using for something personal? This last item the author mentions. When a request for help clearly regards something for personal use, I steer clear and say no, but I've been blindsided before. I've had people ask for help installing home DSL, setting up iPods (for personal use), working with various software to be used to create a home movie, family Christmas card, poster for an event. Because most faculty have such blended lives, working both at home and on site and not drawing clear lines between the two, they often don't realize that most staff do draw clear lines and don't, for example, check email after they go home for the day. I and my colleagues have all had the experience of coming in on a Monday morning to find email or voice mail or both sent on, say, Saturday morning asking for something to be done by first thing Monday morning. Probably a few of those requests have not been related to their work.

Both Mr. Geeky and Kathleen are tech savvy folks. They know their way around the web and a computer. They can install software without help and they don't install crazy toolbars and cursor crap--or worse--that might infect their computers. In fact, they are Linux and Mac users, respectively, and even if they did accidentally install something crazy, it wouldn't hurt their computers. Both have been on the net long enough to know how to behave themselves on listservs.

Sadly, they are the exception, not the rule. Olson does go over the top, especially for those of us at private institutions, where, honestly I've never seen anyone send something personal or offensive to the mailing lists. But he does provide some food for thought. On the other hand, if we all wanted to bean count . . . I think somebody owes me some vacation time.

ETA: If this is a bit incoherent, it's because I've slept for 5 hours and I wrote this between flights.