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It’s hard to teach bioinformatics when schools work so hard to keep us from using computers.

Anecdotes from the past
Back in my days as a full-time instructor, I fought many battles with our IT department. Like many colleges, we had a few centralized computer labs, tightly controlled by IT (aka the IT nazis), where students were supposed to go to do their computing. Instructors also had a centralized computer lab, but over the years, we gained the right to have computers in our offices. Our major battle was whether or not we’d be allowed to use Macs.

There are certainly advantages in using the school sanctioned computer labs. IT departments have budgets. They can buy new computers on a regular basis and dispose of the old ones. They can find extra mice and wireless cards, and reprogram keyboards if need be. If you can get access to the facilities, using their classrooms can be nice.

The trouble for me though, was that I would send students off to the computer lab to do assignments, but when they needed help with using a program, like Excel, or Word even, the people in the computer lab couldn’t help them. Frustrated with this state of affairs, I decided to take matters into my own hands and get computers in the biotech lab.

Little I did know, I’d taken on more trouble. Our first problem came when we tried to use the computers. The students turned them on and tried opened up Excel. One of six computers worked. I called IT. Mystery solved. Apparently, it was our IT deptartment’s policy to only install software on the network, not the computers, and so they only installed one copy for a single user, never mind that I ordered a copy for each computer.

Eventually we got that issue resolved, and I decided that computers were so much fun, that I now work in a software company. But it’s harder to escape the past than I thought.

The past revisited: haven’t we moved on?
Life might be easier, but every now and then I can’t help venturing back into the classroom. My first class was last night. To quote Yogi Berra it was “déjà vu all over again.”

This community college has very nice computer labs, but the biotech lab has little laptops that were purchased with a grant and do not work very well. And there are NO mice. [One poor student spent most of the night fighting with a finicky touch pad that wouldn’t let her select anything but the entire page of text, arrgh!]

Even if the computers had worked better, we weren’t allowed to do much. I forgot to ask for the program that I wanted to use, ahead of time, and the guy who came to install the program wasn’t able to access it, unless he logged in as an administrator. Hopefully, we can use it in the next class.

At the end of the night, I suggested that any students that have laptops would best off bringing their own.

Lessons learned
And that I think is the lesson from this tale. Biotechnology and other life science programs tend not to have IT budgets, since it already costs too much to buy supplies. When these programs do get money to purchase computers, it seems to me that the equipment often rots. The grants cover one-time only purchases. There isn’t money for upgrading the equipment once it’s in place and the IT groups are not keen about taking care of equipment that’s outside of their control.

I’ve decided that the schools who require students to buy laptops have found the best answer to this problem. If students have their own computers, they can install software and they can even run programs! Plus they bring a mouse! Or, they can adjust the touch pad their own way and become accustomed to using it. They don’t have to be frustrated with wondering where programs are and how to select one line of text.

This would save science programs from the problem of having to upgrade and maintain equipment. Plus the students would be much better equipped for life in the outside world.

I think it would be cheaper in the long run to help subsidize student computer purchases than suffer with the frustration of not being able to teach students what they need to know, and the cost of the frustration and time that gets lost because we’re not able to use the computers that we have.


  1. #1 SMC
    October 23, 2007

    we gained the right to have computers in our offices. Our major battle was whether or not we’d be allowed to use Macs.[…]I’ve decided that the schools who require students to buy laptops have found the best answer to this problem. If students have their own computers, they can install software and they can even run programs!

    Will the students be allowed to use Macs in this case?

    Or better still, Linux? (Full-time penguinista for over a decade now…)

    Another possibility is a thin-client sort of setup. Get one (or more, if you want) reasonably powerful machine that you’re allowed to control, and install whatever software you need the students to use on it, then allow students to use their computers to log into it and run what they need. As far as I know, this works with all major platforms and for all major platforms (that is, there are “remote desktop” clients for Linux, Mac, and Windows that can connect to “Windows Terminal Server”, and there’s NX for remote sessions to just about anything from, at least, Linux, Mac, and Windows I believe.

  2. #2 Sandra Porter
    October 23, 2007

    I doubt that my former community college would have let someone use a Linux system. The problem with Linux, is that it really limits the kinds of software you use. Macs are much nicer since you have both UNIX and the ability to use some nice desktop software.

    I like the thin-client idea, but I only teach there part-time, and only rarely at that, so it’s not likely to happen. Plus, it still wouldn’t solve the flaky touch-pad issue.

  3. #3 carey
    October 23, 2007

    Some suggestions:
    If you ask for software to be installed in a lab, arrange a time to test the setup long before the start of your session.
    IT budgets are often ill-defined in an instructional setting. To clarify things, you generally have to work with a campus commitee to prioritize your request, and then you need to make it *real* by getting a line item in the IT budget. This can be difficult if your IT group does not believe is zero-base budgeting.
    If the instructors do not provide input to the appropriate campus committee to get prioritized line items in the IT budget, things simply do not happen. So chat with IT about appropriate lab upgrades etc, then work with them to get appropriate line items in their budget.
    Most of the problems I have seen along these lines result from lack of cooperation in the budget process, which most often is due to a poorly understood budget process. Faculty need to take a little time to figure out how best to shepherd their requirements through the process. Ask your IT director for a short friendly meeting to see if they can work cooperatively with you on this.

  4. #4 Sandra Porter
    October 23, 2007

    This is exactly the problem.

    Instructors should be able to install software on computers at any time.

    And, we also need to be able to teach students how to install software as well.

  5. #5 Sandra Porter
    October 23, 2007

    Also, a very large fraction (between 40-60%) of the instructors at community colleges are part-time.

    Believe me, the odds of part-time instructors taking time off from their other jobs to attend budget meetings are slim to none.

  6. #6 decrepitoldfool
    October 23, 2007

    See if you can get them to install OpenOffice in the labs. It does everything Microsoft Office does, and it’s free. It’s a tiny, no-cost little baby step that a college can take away from absolutely Microsoft everything.

  7. #7 Sandra Porter
    October 23, 2007

    Thanks DCF,

    However, these laptops are running Windows 2000, and I don’t need Office. The program that I want to use is FinchTV. We want to look at chromatograms and compare good quality traces with poor quality traces.

  8. #8 carey
    October 24, 2007

    I once dealt with an instructor who needed that degree of freedom in a lab. So to avoid the usual problems having to do with control, planning, and support, we simply agreed that the lab was completely his to worry about. Our IT group did *nothing* for the lab, other than to put it behind a router to avoid larger network problems.
    Something like that may be possible in your case.

  9. #9 Jason
    October 24, 2007

    FinchTV also works great under Linux 😛
    The main reason I think Linux is a good solution for your environment is that it runs very well on old hardware, and tends to be more secure than Windows. These features both seem like they would help extend the life of aging technology.

    In my experience, IT departments are next to useless in actually helping solve a problem at hand. I don’t know all the details, but it very well might be possible to create a Linux LiveCD that contains the full OS as well as FinchTV already. That way you just toss the disk in the computer and boot it, no matter what. There are issues here with saving out files but they can likely be overcome.

  10. #10 Sandra Porter
    October 24, 2007

    Thanks Jason,

    We don’t need to worry about saving files. We just click the commit button in FinchTV and commit our edits and comments back to the iFinch database.

  11. #11 Jason
    October 24, 2007

    I did just a bit of searching, and it looks like the LiveCD customization tool for Ubuntu is called Reconstructor

    Like I said, no experience using it myself, but it looks fairly straightforward.

  12. #12 Marty Gollery
    October 24, 2007

    We used Vigyaan to get past this issue- Linux CD’s that have a lot of tools installed for bioinformatics education. This way you don’t have to worry about differences in systems, because all students are looking at the same image. No Finch TV, though.

  13. #13 SMC
    October 24, 2007

    It should be noted that not just these specific applications but in general, the notion that there aren’t useful “desktop” (GUI) applications readily available for Linux is greatly outdated these days.

    If you absolutely must use a specific “brand-name” application that “only runs on Windows”, many of them will also work under WINE (“BioEdit”, for example, which can be used to examine and work with chromatograms).

    The reason for mentioning thin-client applications was that then the students could supply their own laptops running whatever environment they feel most comfortable with and still use their own thin-client application to access an instructor-hosted environment (an *nix terminal, “Windows Terminal Server”, or whatever).

    I know I’ve seen self-contained disks for Windows that have a pre-built set of applications (which can be run directly from the CD – no installation required) which allow one to use X11 applications via Cygwin, too.

    (I may be a microbiologist now, but I spent the last 15 years being a professional computer nerd – and the last 10+ being full-time Linux user, despite [or perhaps rather because of] the fact that I was wasting my life supporting primarily Microsoft products. Don’t get me started…)

  14. #14 Sandra Porter
    October 24, 2007

    I’m not certain, but I think most of the programs that we’ll use run on Linux.

    My favorite flavor is *nix, though, is still the BSD that I get on my Mac. . 😉

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