UC Berkeley News


Faculty's digital divide
Access to computing resources varies widely. An Academic Senate committee offers a plan to level the playing field and safeguard network security

| 27 April 2006

Art historian Greg Levine is neither a computer geek nor an unquestioning advocate of teaching technology in the classroom. Yet in every aspect of his professional life he accesses digital information, manipulates digital tools, and inhabits virtual environments. In the field, he uses a digital camera to photograph Buddhist art and architecture (a trip to China earlier this month yielded 2,000-plus photos of caves, temples, and religious sites). Once he's loaded those files to his Mac laptop, he manipulates them in Photoshop, archives them to CD-ROM, catalogues them in an image database, incorporates them into PowerPoint and ARTstor presentations, and displays them in the lecture hall via a digital projector. And that's not counting e-mail, E-Grades, bSpace, or UC For Yourself..

A tiny laptop serves as workhorse for Greg Levine, an associate professor of art history. An Academic Senate proposal calls on the campus to fund a "basic desktop/laptop computing platform" and associated support for all faculty and GSIs.(Cathy Cockrell photo)
Despite heavy dependence on computer technology, Levine has had to fend for himself, to a surprising extent, to function in the digital age. An associate professor who has taught at Berkeley since 1997, Levine currently is not eligible for a computer upgrade through university funds. Seeing the need for a computer dedicated to teaching and research, and fast enough for image-heavy work, he purchased his own laptop at The Scholar's Workstation, using special research funds obtained by teaching Summer Sessions, and hopes eventually to buy a more ergonomic keyboard and a large, flat monitor for his campus office.

But a major research university should do better by its faculty, Levine believes. "We need much more current and advanced projectors and podiums for teaching, support for all sorts of software, support for bSpace's image component as it develops, and more substantial and frequent grants to purchase computers, monitors, scanners, and software," he says.

Could the campus fund a baseline setup for all?

Levine's concerns are echoed by faculty colleagues and GSIs in many Berkeley departments and research units - especially in the humanities, where the campus's technological "have-nots" are concentrated. "Departments generously funded with research grants tend to have excellent computing facilities," says David Messerschmitt, a professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and co-chair of the campus's Academic Senate Committee on Computing and Communications (COMP). Many others make do with obsolete hardware and outdated software, and are "left to their own devices to keep it all running. The greatest shortcoming in many departments is the absence of administrative and technical support for computing."

Share your story
Faculty and instructors, including GSIs, who have experienced difficulties with outdated computing and lack of tech support are invited to relate their experiences to COMP through committee administrator Sheila Press (spress@berkeley.edu). COMP will aggregate these and communicate them to the administration in support of its budget proposal.

In an attempt to address this widely recognized crisis, COMP is proposing that the campus provide a baseline or "vanilla" computing set-up for all faculty and instructors. It's essential today to have up-to-date desktop or laptop computers, the proposal notes, in order to do course preparation, communication and collaboration with students, and grading. Yet in many departments and disciplines, it says, "desktop/laptop computers are handled like parking and long-distance calls: you must pay for it out of your own personal funds, or divert resources from research funds to support instructional needs."

The COMP proposal, following review by other Academic Senate committees, was endorsed by the Divisional Council at its April meeting. The proposal calls for "a funded commitment to provide all faculty and graduate-student instructors with a basic desktop/laptop computing platform, including peripherals, software, network access, and support, and help-desk infrastructure." Participation should be voluntary, it says, and "individuals or departments should be allowed to upgrade the hardware at their expense beyond the basic offering, and also to install additional software when needed.." COMP is proposing a pilot project, funded by the campus, to determine the level of faculty support, and the feasibility, of its scheme.

In preparing its proposal, COMP conducted a pilot survey in spring 2004. Of the 80 administrators of academic departments contacted, more than a third (24 total) responded. Their answers documented wide disparities in support for computing. Nearly one in five respondents said their unit budgets more than $10,000 annually to cover hardware and software for each faculty FTE; another 4 out of 10 (41 percent) placed that annual budget at zero. Likewise, 22 percent said their unit supported one FTE computer-support staffer per 10 (or fewer) faculty FTEs, while for 19 percent of departments that ratio is 1:50 or more, and 37 percent said their departments have no tech-support staff (some, but not all, of those units have a system in place to pay for on- or off-campus tech support as needed).

The high price of cheap support

In those instances where faculty, instructors, and GSIs are left to do their own tech support, the costs of computer upkeep are not null, just hidden, asserts math professor Arthur Ogus, co-chair of COMP. "If my department is not hiring someone to help support my computer, it looks like money is being saved," he says. "But if I'm spending my time doing that myself, I don't have as much time to do my research, see students, and perform administrative and service duties."

Sometimes the do-it-yourself approach is not feasible. Levine notes that performing his own software upgrades is becoming less doable as the software becomes more complex. "It's now at the point," he says, "where I can't spend the time making sure that everything is connected into the right folders and the right part of the hard drive. I do as much as I can."

Tech support has become the most expensive component of workstation computing - more so than hardware, software, or peripherals - says Shel Waggener, the campus's chief information officer (CIO). Computer support now runs at about $800 per user per year in organizations with a standardized computing setup. Where IT staff are asked, instead, to solve problems on a grab bag of machines, operating systems, and software packages, "the cost goes up exponentially," he says.

Many campus units manage to lower their costs, Waggener notes, by relying on tech-savvy students to provide computer support. Sometimes, because a student lacks the most up-to-date technical tools or expertise, the strategy backfires. "You need to calculate what it actually costs," he says, "when somebody can't work because of a virus or a software configuration problem that caused a computer to crash."

Security concerns

Ironically, past successes in creating a more robust campus computing environment have exacerbated the frustrations of faculty on the "have-nots" side of the divide - and made their predicament a potential security risk for others on the campus network.

Computing became ubiquitous at Berkeley in the 1990s, when IST built out the network from 7,000 connections (for computers, printers, and other devices) early in the decade to more than 47,000 today, not counting wireless connections. "You have 47,000 things connected to networks," says former CIO Jack McCredie. If those devices are not housed in appropriate, climate-controlled, secure environments, and if those who manage them "are not well supported or educated, you're not going to be able to keep the system secure."

In fact, Waggener says, the campus sustained more than 71 million security threats to the network, counting viruses, worms, and targeted hacking attempts, during the past 12 months. "The network is more vulnerable," he says, "under the model that allows every department to do their own thing, because the level of resources available, the sophistication of staff, and the training and tools available to them tend to vary widely."

Additionally, the campus has been developing and launching new computerized systems for more and more functions - from course management and grading to course enrollment, calendaring, and web-based e-mail. Alice Agogino, chair of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate (and a former chair of COMP), says the Senate itself is busy "trying to put many aspects of academic life online" - such as personnel and faculty-promotion functions. As such efforts come to fruition, faculty with aging computers, outdated software, and little or no technical support are sometimes unable to use the new systems.

Issues at other campuses

Some college campuses, faced with similar problems, are opting to provide a standard hardware, software, and/or service package for all. At Australia's Griffith University the administration provides a standard computing setup to all faculty and staff, lowering the cost of computing dramatically in the process, says Waggener, to about $360 per user per year. But the needs of a complex research university like Berkeley are unique, he notes, so Griffith's solution is not directly transferable.

Closer to home, UC Santa Cruz is several years into a major realignment of campus IT services. As part of that effort, it is redeploying some departmental IT staff to a central IT unit; launching a central help desk to provide technical support for all faculty and staff (students have a central help desk, as well); and developing both a central ticketing system to track all requests for assistance and a "fixed-asset" system to allow help-desk staff to capture information remotely that describes the hardware and software on a user's desk.

However, notes Larry Merkley, UCSC vice provost for IT, "While all that might sound like - and in fact is - a positive direction, that doesn't mean that everyone in the divisions is enthused." Many, he says, are unhappy about losing control of people and resources.

Obstacles and alternatives

Such concerns are echoed at Berkeley, where the COMP proposal faces considerable obstacles. Money is one. The proposal would require a reallocation of existing campus resources, notes Waggener, who estimates that a full roll-out for all faculty (including new computers every three years) could cost $20 million annually. Another impediment, he says, is that campus departments "would need to give up substantial autonomy that they have today in their computing environments, in exchange for higher-level support."

Yet Berkeley's digital divide is real, he admits, and it figures prominently in a recent high-level review of the campus's information-technology governance, funding, and structure completed by a blue-ribbon panel of IT administrators from business and academia and chaired by UC Provost Emeritus C. Judson King. In their final report, issued in January, the authors offer five case studies to illustrate problems with the way Berkeley's IT infrastructure is organized and funded. Scenario number one cites the COMP proposal. While acknowledging the "lack of a universal basic standard of computing capability and desktop support for all instructors at UC Berkeley," the authors express skepticism that "such a proposal, which spans numerous control units on campus" can "survive the independent budgetary decisions that overlap its scope."

McCredie shares this skepticism, while Waggener questions the workability of a standardized solution across so diverse an organization as UC Berkeley. A promising variation on the COMP proposal, he says, would be to "group faculty within like pools." Thus, faculty who primarily use, say, any of 10 specified software applications might be invited to subscribe to a standard, reduced-rate computing package. The campus would provide a computer and an operating system (there might be several options to choose from), as well as automatic-backup service, insurance against theft or damage, and options for improved support.

While Waggener has issues with aspects of the COMP proposal, he acknowledges that it is attempting to solve a serious and widespread problem. "Today it's completely impractical," he says, "to ask faculty to use all of the electronic tools we have, but provide no support or guidance into how to do that."

The January report on "Information Technology at UC Berkeley: Governance, Funding and Structure" can be found online at technology.berkeley.edu/pdf/IT_Report.pdf.

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