Committee on Academic Computing 2002-2003
Annual Report, 2002-03



The Faculty Constitution indicates that the role of the Committee on Academic Computing is to “advise the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean regarding policies, procedures, planning, needs and faculty expectations related to providing and maintaining effective and sufficient equipment and personnel for meeting the changing needs of the faculty and students for academic computing resources.”

The following faculty were members of the Committee on Academic Computing for 2002-2003: Bryan Bibb, Ross McClain, David Moffett, Dan Sloughter, Michael Svec,  and Ken Peterson.  Administrative members and observers included A.V. Huff, Richard Nelson, Greg Rumsey, Maggie Strickland, Susan Dunnavant, Jane Love, Scott Salzman, and John Payne.

The Committee on Academic Computing met monthly during AY 2002-2003.  In addition, it met with each of four Buckman Forum speakers during their visits to the Furman campus.  The speakers included Brook Manville of SABA, Clara Yu of NITLE, David Brown of Wake Forest University, and Carole Barone of Educause.

The Committee envisioned a year that would be devoted to the exploration of “best practices” in the use of technology for teaching and research, effective academic computing organizational structures, and comparisons of expenditures on academic computing personnel, hardware, and software among peer institutions.  As the year progressed, however, much of the Committee’s time was consumed by the discussion of current or “day-to-day” computing issues on the Furman Campus, which we became aware of through regular communication with the academic department liaisons to Computing and Information Services.

Among the recurring questions and issues that the Committee discussed were the following:

1.  I called “person X” in the C&IS Department and received a reply many days later or no reply at all.  Can’t we improve the level of technology service emanating from C&IS?

Yes, but we need to hire more staff.  For example, Cort Haldaman, Academic Computing Specialist, is currently responsible for serving more than 170 faculty.  By any measure, standard, or benchmark, this is unacceptable.  The Committee recommends hiring an additional academic computing specialist at the earliest possible date to cut Cort’s support load in half.

This hire, while essential under any staffing structure that we might choose, will not be adequate to meet the growing needs for computing support.  The Committee has strongly recommended that Richard Nelson prepare a staffing plan that articulates clearly C&IS’ current and future staffing needs.

With the benefit of the Buckman Forum dialog, it is recognized by the Committee that in order for Richard to accomplish this mission, we need to articulate at the highest level of the university the “kind of student” that we wish to graduate, the “kinds of educational opportunities” that we wish to provide to students, and the “kind of research support” that we wish to provide to faculty.  To a great extent, this will help define the nature of the changes required in C&IS.

In addition to hiring, the Committee encourages C&IS to continue its progress at reducing call-back time and the number of calls that go unanswered.

2.  Is there a clear procedure for obtaining equipment?  If so, what is it?

A.  Faculty computers and academic labs are now on a three-year replacement cycle.  The list of computers to be replaced is maintained and provided by C&IS.  This implies an urgent need for accuracy in the computer inventory, which has been communicated by the Committee and others to C&IS.  We encourage academic departments to cooperate with C&IS in improving and maintaining the accuracy of this inventory, since it will help to ensure the timely replacement of faculty computers.

The university cannot yet commit to providing a laptop to each faculty member, although the administration is sensitive to the value of portable computing options in specific cases, and will attempt to work with faculty to meet those special needs.  Faculty who are expecting new computers in the coming year should communicate special needs (greater disk storage, memory, etc.) to Cort Haldaman (non-sciences) or Wade Shepherd (sciences).

The University leadership is to be commended for moving toward a regular replacement cycle for computers.

B.  A three person “equipment committee,” which is a subset of the Budget Development Committee, exists to consider requests for computers or peripherals that exceed $500 that are not part of the regular replacement cycle, and other equipment that exceeds $3,000.  The Budget Development Committee consists of all of the Vice Presidents, Gary Clark, Richard Nelson, Greg Rumsey, Maggie Strickland, Susan Zeiger, and the Faculty Chair.  Money is awarded according to the number and magnitude of the requests, the perceived merit in each proposal, and amount of money available in a given year.  The committee solicits proposals once a year, which is communicated to department chairs through Academic Affairs.  Academic Affairs presents the proposals received from the departments to the equipment committee.

C.  Requests for peripherals and computers that cost less that $500, or other equipment valued at under $3,000 that is not funded by endowed money or grants, are to come out of departmental budgets.  Given the budget realities in recent years, this category of requests is most vulnerable, and might include important software programs.

D.  All computer and peripheral purchases, including those made from endowments or grants, are to be made through C&IS.  This facilitates C&IS’ ability to gauge the effect of the purchase on support needs in the short and long term and to monitor the number of users of particular types of software and hardware.  For example, if a critical mass of users exists for a given software program, it may become more cost effective for the university to adopt a site license for the program.  

3.  Can the ordering and deployment of computers be executed in a timelier manner?

Frustrations with delays in the ordering and deployment of computers, peripherals, and software have been communicated to C&IS.  C&IS will begin “staging” computer installations in order to reduce the time between the placing of the orders and the actual deployment of the hardware and software.  As a result, not all new faculty machines will be installed in August or September.  Enhanced communication between C&IS and department chairs or C&IS liaisons to academic departments will be essential to avoid frustrations associated with not knowing when computers are expected to arrive.

C&IS has articulated the benefits of continuing to place orders and deploy equipment in a centralized manner.  In order to fulfill new orders of academic computing equipment and software in a timely fashion, new personnel may be needed.  If so, this need should be expressed in the C&IS personnel plan.

4.  What can we do to improve the reliability of Audio-Visual services’ delivery of rolling carts, slide projectors, etc.?

The Committee relayed several complaints about the reliability of Audio Visual Services to C&IS.  Students comprise the majority of the staff in this department, so the Committee focused its discussion on how to enhance the reliability of student workers.  It should be noted that most audio-visual requests are successfully fulfilled, but the central nature of the audio-visual equipment in the class plan of a faculty member demands a near-one hundred percent rate of success.

Two suggestions were discussed. The first was to include a small check sheet on each cart that would require the student to verify that all of the necessary cables, remotes, and other parts were on the cart to be delivered.  A more radical and perhaps more reliable solution would require the faculty who are teaching media-intensive courses to invite one student to be the media representative for the course during that semester.  Audio-Visual Services would train and pay the student, who would assume the responsibility for delivering the equipment on the appointed days.  The underlying assumption is that a student in the class that is using the technology will have a greater vested interest in getting the correct equipment to the classroom in a timely manner.  Faculty feedback on this idea would be welcomed.

As rolling carts continue to give way to fixed projectors and “smart classrooms,” some of the current challenges are likely to subside, but others challenges associated with the maintenance of “smart classrooms” will probably increase.  To the extent that some standardization can be achieved in fixed-mounted and rolling cart projectors, it might become possible to keep spares on hand to reduce replacement time.

5.  Network access (particularly Internet access) is slow.  Can we improve it?

New packet-shaping software (which acts as the “traffic director” for information flowing over the network) was installed, and more bandwidth was purchased this year.  Significant increases in performance were achieved, but the use of peer-to-peer networks to share music and video files continues to present a challenge.

6. How is the FirstClass transition going?

The Committee conveyed faculty concerns to C&IS about the timing of the deployment of FirstClass. C&IS responded that they were constrained by the timing of the release of the money needed to purchase FirstClass.  Staff had to learn how to use, install, and support the program, which pushed the deployment to the beginning of fall term.  

After the deployment, the most frequent negative comment by faculty focuses on the use of the “reply-all” button when the “reply-to-sender” is more appropriate.  This point is made in the FirstClass training sessions, but mistakes are often made.

For mass e-mailings, faculty and staff are strongly encouraged to put the distribution group name in the “bcc:” window and their own name in the “to:” window.  Faculty members are further encouraged to move the reply-all button to the right side of the menu or remove it altogether.

Generally, faculty members seem to have become acclimatized to FirstClass.

7. What is the status of BlackBoard?  How do I learn more about it?

BlackBoard is Furman University’s “course management” software.  Approximately 80 faculty members have courses registered on BlackBoard, and approximately 116 courses have been registered.  It facilitates online discussions, delivery of course materials, online surveys, etc.  

Cort Haldaman has conducted several training sessions for Blackboard, and Melinda Menzer has demonstrated how she uses it in her course through the Faculty Development technology seminars this spring.  The Committee is hopeful that such “best practices” demonstrations will continue in the fall and may help to organize them.

Because of our personnel shortage, online training materials have not been provided to faculty.  At a recent conference at Wake Forest University, they agreed to share their BlackBoard training materials, which can be accessed at the following URL:

http://www.wfu.edu/Library/ITC/training/blackboard/

The Committee agreed to begin looking at open source alternatives to BlackBoard.  A subcommittee of faculty to lead this effort will be recruited this Spring.  It will include BlackBoard enthusiasts and Open Source proponents.

8.  I feel as though I am pressured to buy a particular brand of computer.  Why can’t we go to the local store and buy the cheapest model?

Computers at Furman must operate effectively on the Furman network, be covered by our service contract, and be capable of being serviced at a reasonable cost (in time and money) by our C&IS staff.  To the extent that we can standardize WITHIN platforms (i.e., develop a standard hardware/software configuration for Macs, PCs, and Unix boxes), we should be able to achieve lower maintenance costs and faster maintenance times.  

Of course, many faculty members will continue to have special software, storage, or peripheral needs, but greater standardization in hardware and software may bring tangible benefits to faculty in the form of lower costs and better service.  If your needs are met by the standard configuration, then it helps the University to use it.  If not, your needs should be communicated to the Academic Computing Specialists, Cort Haldaman and Wade Shepherd.  

9.  I just requested web accounts for my students and were told that they're no longer available.  What support currently exists for non-CS students involved in web projects?

C&IS has discontinued its support of student web accounts due to limited resources and staffing.  At the moment, the FirstClass home page folder provides the sole means of public web posting available to students who are not enrolled in a computer science course.  FirstClass webspace competes for storage space with each student's email quota, but C&IS has indicated their willingness to increase the First Class quota for any student upon request (faculty may submit requests for quota increases for their classes).  

The Committee expressed concern about the academic implications of different levels of web support for CS and non-CS students, a problem that lies beyond the purview of C&IS since CS provides its own resources.  All agreed, however, that the level of default support provided for student web authoring is a significant indicator of the university's estimate of the value of technological literacy for its students and that the level of support is a matter of academic significance.  Faculty are encouraged to communicate their expectations and concerns in this regard to the Committee.  Continued dialog among faculty, students, alumni, and administrators about the technological literacy that we expect of Furman graduates will also help to inform this discussion.  

10.  My building is being renovated, and the planned computing facilities in the renovated space will not meet my needs.  Can the Committee on Academic Computing help?

The Committee advocates close consultation between building designers and the actual stake holders in all planned computing facilities on campus.  We recommend that C&IS be consulted for a list of faculty who have used existing labs for teaching and that these faculty be contacted directly for input on new facilities, since steering committee members are not necessarily the primary stake holders where the use of technology is concerned.  The Committee also strongly recommends that the planners consider the qualitative aspects of lab space, including lab configuration and pedagogical flexibility, in addition to the quantitative aspects such as lab size and the number of available seats.

The Chair thanks the members and observers of the Committee for their hard work this year.  In addition, the Committee wishes to thank the departmental liaisons to C&IS for their input throughout the academic year.

Respectfully submitted,
Ken Peterson

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