Last Thursday, November 30th, a trio of information-technology (IT) experts came to Swarthmore to help develop a comprehensive 3-5 year plan for the College’s use of technology, touching on classrooms, residence halls, and libraries. Two of the experts, Mark Dingfield ’01, a member of the Board of Managers and a manager at Microsoft, and Larry Levine, the Chief Information Officer at Harvard Arts and Sciences, gathered together with some of the students employed by ITS to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of Swarthmore’s current technology program.
The discussion covered a wide array of topics. The students in attendance were universally strong proponents of the college’s recent expansion of wireless Internet access. “I think at a campus that talks a lot about how we are learning all the time, it is important to be able to sit down somewhere and be able to work or look something up,” explained Armando Leon ’09.
On the other hand, while students thought the new website was an improvement, some felt that it still didn’t make information accessible enough. While a strong supporter of the new dashboard, Chris Ford ’07 particularly hoped Swarthmore would develop a better event listing website: “It is virtually impossible to know what is going to happen tomorrow, even if you can get a handle on what is happening today,” he argued. At the current time, students have to try to navigate the space reservation system or event listings from the Daily Gazette or many separate Reserved Students emails.
Time and again, however, the discussion returned to a single central criticism: Swarthmore’s various technology services have slowly been assembled in a piecemeal fashion, and centralization has suffered. Students have separate passwords for email, computers, Blackboard, Banner (mySwarthmore), and the class recommendation book, to name a few. Data is spread across a series of disparate databases, instead of a single centralized one. Students linked this lack of centralization to an apparent lack of a “consistent plan or guiding principle that would rationally inform everything that is done,” said one student who asked to remain unnamed. Ultimately, many of the students in attendance felt that without a central plan, programs were being added without a strong focus on getting everything to work together. “ITS being what it is, everything is simply a lot of patchwork solutions which are updated minute by minute,” explained the unnamed student. And while the patchwork solutions were frequently seen as important improvement, the question that hung in the air was “who is looking at day two after the system changes?”
Hopefully, the committee will find an answer.