A Voluntary Experience

For the past six months, I’ve been volunteering in the grammar school where my daughter attends fourth grade. I jumped at the opportunity when the teacher asked for parents with computer skills to volunteer one hour per week to help the kids learn basic computer skills. I figured the learning experience would go both ways -- I have not been disappointed.

Living in a relatively affluent school district, I assumed most kids would already have some elementary computer skills. But the range of skills in the classroom is nothing short of amazing. One girl can accurately type about 50 words per minute, while other students struggle to find the infrequently used keyboard keys.

The conditions at the school for teaching computer skills are less than optimal. The existing computer lab is woefully inadequate given the extreme overcrowding in this school, where 1,200 students are shoehorned into a 4-year-old facility designed for 800.

The school came up with a clever solution to the problem. It acquired two rolling carts and stocked them with 30 IBM ThinkPads. The systems are loaded with Windows 98, Microsoft Office, AppleWorks, and Netscape Navigator. The carts roll from classroom to classroom, stopping by a closet to recharge from time to time between classes.

The first few weeks were a challenge to simply get the systems up and working for the students. A sixth grade class had the machines before the fourth-graders, so the devices were arriving with funky fonts, unrecognizable desktop icons, and other desktop customization that proved difficult for some of the fourth-graders to deal with.

On top of that, Windows 98 exhibited its normal quirky behavior. We had 30 brand new systems preloaded with Windows 98, but on any given day, at least three or four -- not the same three or four of course -- would hang on shut down. I know there are patches available to address this problem, but the school has not installed them.

I was beginning to think the effort was doomed, as the other parent volunteer, the teacher, and myself spent the first 15 minutes of each session helping the students get their machines up and making them usable. Then after being out of town for two weeks on business travel, I returned to find the school’s IT department finally pulled the ThinkPads into the school’s wireless network, and had installed NetWare agents on them. The control panels are gone and desktop options are no longer configurable. The only downside is that when 28 students log on to the network over the wireless connection, invariably, about five machines fail to get authenticated the first time around, requiring a second reboot.

As the school year winds down, almost all the students have mastered basic keyboard skills -- meaning using all of their fingers to type with some degree of accuracy -- and can competently use four applications. The reward they get for working hard on the mundane keyboarding exercises is 15 minutes at the end of the hour to surf the Internet -- to sites permitted by the schools’ proxy server.

Still, all is not perfect in this fourth grade class. The students who happen to sit in a weak coverage area of the room sometimes can’t get authenticated without physically moving to a different spot in the room, or will at times have sluggish network response. Netscape locks up on certain Web sites and needs to be killed off using the Windows 98 task manager, and, occasionally, forces a complete system reboot, stealing precious minutes from the one-hour-per week lesson time. We still have sporadic problems getting Windows 98 to shut down properly on all of the machines on any given day.

There have been a number of lessons driven home to me. First among them is that if you take a collection of identical machines with identical software on them, you’ll end up with surprisingly random levels of reliability, which is probably a derivative of what applications were run in what order. Second, if you take a group of students and sit them down in front of a machine, some of them will see infinite possibilities, others will see a computer.

Finally, I realized how helping others learn things that we in the computer industry take for granted is incredibly rewarding. I sometimes wonder about how a less-affluent school district would solve the same problems. Helping our next-generation workforce become technology-proficient is something that each of us can and should be paying attention to. --Al Gillen is research manager for system software at IDC (www.idc.com) and former editor-in-chief of ENT. Contact him at agillen@idc.com.