Thursday, April 17, 2008

Computers and yours truly

This is a big step for me. The reason I say that is that I have had this blog site since last January. Yes, I know, I have had the site that long and nary a post. Well, that is why this is such a big step for me. Finally, I will post an entry, that is unless I lose this one to the cyber word thief like the last entry that I had prepared. I had an entry ready to post. Then I suffered a Windows moment. Through some key combination that I inadvertently struck, the whole of the document was gone. Yes, gone, just like the snap of my fingers. No undo feature allowed. Just gone. So this time, I have taken the advice of my son, "Nigel" and prepared this one in a word processing program and will then copy and paste it. That should stifle the cyber word thief; at least I hope that it will. But the reality is that if you are reading this post, then I have successfully made the transition from word processor to blog space. If that happens, I suspect that I deserve some congratulations.

Another reason that this is a big step for me is that I am of the pre computer generation. Yes, I remember the time before there was a computer on every lap, well for that matter when only the giant corporations could afford a computer. I remember the television program called "The $64,000 Question". By today's standards with television programs such as "Who wants to be a Millionaire" and "Deal or no Deal" that can potentially give away a million dollars, a program that only offered $64,000, . . . . . well that is nothing but pocket change. But what a program it was in its day. There was a computer on that program; a Univac if I recall correctly, that would spit out a bunch of computer cards with questions printed on them. The contestant worked his way up through the series of questions and if he successfully answered all of the preliminary questions, he would then be put into a sound proof chamber while the final few questions were asked. If he answered all of the questions correctly he was awarded $64,000. Even as a child I looked forward to that program, pondering just what I might do if I were to come into such wealth. One day, and a dreadful day it was at that, word got out that the $64,000 question was fixed, that the sponsors had demanded that the answers be fed to the more popular contestants before the program aired. This event, true or untrue, resulted in the cancellation of the program. However tainted it may have been, that was my first encounter with computers.

I am an educator and have been for longer than I care to acknowledge publicly. In the "pre computer days" I was on the faculty of a prestigious university in the Midwest. I can recall the time when typing an examination was a lengthy time consuming process. It was necessary to type the page, and, being the rather mediocre typist that I am, proof read, re-type making all necessary corrections, re- proof read, and sometimes re-re-type just to make the thing as error free as I possibly could. Now, I put the examination into a word processing program proof read on the screen and can produce a nearly error free document the first time it sees paper. I used to calculate the grades by hand. This of necessity required the calculation of a statistical value called the standard deviation. Many times I sat at my desk, pen and calculator at the ready, and calculated the standard deviation of examinations that I had just given. With class sizes in excess of 100 individuals, the calculation was rather lengthy and sometimes required up to a half an hour to complete (please no comments from you math majors). Now, I type a simple formula in a cell; highlight a column on my spreadsheet page; hit the return key and bang, the standard deviation is there in less than a heartbeat.

Maintaining grades in the pre-computer days required considerable effort. Each student's grade was calculated by hand individually then the statistics for the class were calculated, you got it, by hand. Today, I can put in the formula for one student, hit the fill down screen and bang, the grades are calculated for all students in less time than I could have computed it for one student by hand. In times past, it would take me the better part of a week to manually calculate the grades. Today, I can give an examination, grade it (by scantron of course) put the scores into the spreadsheet that already has all of the previous data recorded, calculate grades, post them, write a form letter advising each student of his scores (something that I did not do in pre computer era) and complete this in less that 2 hours. Some difference don't you think?

I remember countless hours spent in research at the public library, attempting to find information for a paper or publication. Today, I have more information that is better organized and more easily accessible via the Internet from the comfort of my own living room.

Yes I am appreciative of the computer; I use one on a daily basis. I do not long for the "good old pre-computer days". Sometimes I even curse the computer because it seems to be taking so long to retrieve the data. However, it only takes a few seconds of pondering what it was like in earlier times and my admiration of cyber space returns (that is except for the cyber space word bandit who steals my printed data, but perhaps with time, I will overcome even that).

With all of these good features, computers also have their downfall. I detest academic dishonesty. Perhaps detest is too weak of a word, I abhor it, and feel that there is no place in academia for this despicable behavior. I will do everything that is humanly possible to help a student pass my course, but I will not hesitate to fail the student who exhibits dishonest behavior. Now why would a discussion of academic dishonesty be of significance in this blog about computers? Well, I have become aware that there are web sites that have pre-written research papers on virtually any topic and written at nearly all levels of sophistication. Try googling "research papers" and see how many hits you get. Yes, over 29 million (one coincidently is called cheat_______, how appropriate). I am sure that many and perhaps most of the sites are not participants in fostering academic dishonesty. However, a dishonest student need do nothing more than leave a credit card number and he or she can download a research paper, format it and turn it in for a grade. I know that there are sites that I can go to in order to check a student's work to see if major components are plagiarized, but why should I have to? OK it is far too optimistic to expect all students to be honest, but wouldn't it be nice?

Recently an individual on our campus was arrested and charged with downloading kiddie porn on college computers. I am not into the porn thing, in fact I consider it every bit as despicable as academic dishonesty, but viewing kiddie porn...well I can't even describe how I detest such behavior. This contemptible behavior is made all the easier because of the computer. One web site reports that porn sites frequently will get 1,000,000 hits per day.

I have heard that with computers it is easier to find ways to steal another person's identity. Most people will not and do not utilize the computer for such a purpose. But it is possible. It was much more difficult to obtain that kind of information in the pre-computer era. I have heard it said that anytime there is some technology that is developed for important and useful applications, someone will alter and adapt that application for darker purposes. Most people will use the computer in legal and appropriate ways. Some will take advantage and utilize these darker applications to further their own agendas without concern or regard in any way for the rights and sensibilities of others.

Am I glad to be in the computer age today? You bet I am. I find it difficult to conceive just how I coped with the pre-computer era. I use the Internet extensively. I pay my bills on my computer. I monitor my checking and savings accounts on my computer. I keep in touch with my loved ones via computer (that is perhaps the subject of another blog). I have an extensive library of digital photos on my computer. I watch movies on my computer. My laptop goes with me just about everywhere I go. My television is now essentially a computer. House lights can be turned on and off by computer. Yes, I will continue to embrace the computer, and the technology that accompanies it. To do otherwise with such a powerful, useful tool available would be foolish would it not? I suppose that means that I should really maintain a blog then doesn't it? Well, we will see about that.