HARVARD LIKES TO consider itself at the forefront of academic exploration and scientific discovery. But while the ceilings crumble in Stoughton Hall, our biggest technological advance this year is a phone system that took two months to hook up. Harvard is so antiquated that we don't even have free access to standard word processing programs in our computer center.
For all the administration's rhetoric about bringing Harvard's information technology systems back into the forefront, even the most basic problems have been ignored. While there are plenty of computers available for use in the Science Center basement, no software is guaranteed, which puts many students at a disadvantage.
This is the age of the computer, as the University has discovered: computers are no longer a luxury or an oddity, but are practically required for business and educational purposes. And they are an essential part of college life, to whichanyone who has ever had to write a paper can attest.
The flexibility of word processing programs makes typewriters completely archaic. The ability to manip ulate text, correct mistakes and save work eliminates the need for painful retyping. Computers truly do make life much easier for students.
The computers in the Science Center, however, do not fulfill our needs. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with the actual hardware. Perhaps adding a few more machines would ensure availability, but generally the hardware situation is fine.
In fact, the Macs there are awesome, powerful machines. The problem is they lack software--any software at all. It's like having a Ferrari with no fuel--useless.
While software is available for students whose courses specifically "require" it, there is nothing provided for those who simply wish to type a paper. Signs in gigantic bold face lettering admonish students who would have the audacity to ask about borrowing a program: "We do not have software to lend you!", "The software library is not a lending library!" and "There is nothing there for you!" These scare tactics are enough to frighten off the most enthusiastic would-be user.
ONE OF THE POSSIBLE reasons for the computer room's inadequacy is Harvard's failure to buy software site licenses. The right to use software on the machines would cost dearly, and is perhaps deemed an unnecessary expenditure.
Of course, other schools, such as Cal Tech, provide their students with a plethora of software, but Harvard is much too poor to do that. It is obvious that with the meager $22,000 that each student is paying to go here, there is no way the school could spare the few hundred dollars needed to put software on all its computers.
The bottom line is that students who need to do word processing at school are without luck. They are forced to either buy their own software, buy their own computers or pay per hour at OIT or Kinko's. Many families can't really afford to shell out thousands of dollars for a Mac or $20 per five-page paper.
Students who are absolutely unable to pay for such luxuries are even worse off. The lack of available software often leads to software piracy, as students "borrow" programs from their friends so they can do their assignments. Of course, the signs in the computer room list "Software Piracy," along with "Purposeful Introduction of Viruses" and subverting network security, among the behaviors that are "STRICTLY PROHIBITED." By banning the actions they foster with their own shortcomings, the czars of the computer room are cutting off all options.
Even more ironic is the fact that there is software available in the Science Center--shelves and shelves of it--but students are simply denied access to it. Programs are locked up in the software library, or protected by a password on the file servers. Although the purpose of reserving the software for those who absolutely need it for their classes is acceptable, it seems pointless to hide the software when nobody is using it. Word processing programs, such as Microsoft Word, should be considered as "required" for every class which assigns papers.
Let's say this inadequacy is truly due to financial reasons. It is understandable that the University would restrict software use in order to raise revenues for the Technology Product Center, which sells computers and programs. After all, this is a materialistic world, and Harvard has to think in terms of its own financial security. It makes sound economic sense to restrict access to software in order to increase demand. There could conceivably be a tremendous loss of revenue if computers and software were available to all students.
In the end, however, the profit is made at the cost of the students--financially, emotionally, and educationally. Many students are simply pressured into buying a computer because they can see no way of competing on an even basis without one.
Those who cannot afford these expenditures at all are forced to work harder, retyping entire papers instead of making minor changes. They may spend sleepless nights waiting to borrow a friend's computer, doomed only to receive lower grades because they are too tired to think clearly. Some are even driven to a life of crime, turning to ruthless software piracy in order to complete their assignments.
The obvious way to remedy this problem is to make existing software available to students. By allowing the full use of resources that already exist, Harvard can satisfy many needs without spending any money. It makes sense to provide access to software which would otherwise go unused, gathering dust in a locked room. Students whose courses involve the use of specific software and computers should still be given priority, but others could profit from being allowed access as well.
An even better option would be for the school to just pay for a few essential programs that everyone could use. This would be a sound long-term investment in the students' equality of opportunity and ease of life, and it would not cost that much.
By making these simple adjustments, Harvard can dramatically improve its computing facilities, and allow its students to take part in modern technology. The University may have big plans for leaping to the cutting edge of the computer age, but it needs to start at the bottom--with something fundamental that will change many students' lives.