IT use deserves more thought

April 2, 1999

I applaud the arguments and conclusions in the Joint Information Systems Committee report, Value for Money Considerations in Software Strategies, and endorse the quote from Alan Robiette (who prepared the report) that it will be really interesting if "the financial officers begin to get the bit between their teeth".

What is not required, however, is for IT decisions and solutions to be driven entirely by cost. Information technology must be taken much more seriously as an intellectual discipline and a tool in the service of other disciplines.

As a chartered statistician who has for many years advised students and academic staff on the analysis of research data, I am constantly appalled that researchers claiming to work at the highest level in their own discipline will cheerfully admit that they "have no time" to study or understand data analysis but merely require to be "told what to do". This echoes one of the report's points, that "solutions to common problems tend to be given in a highly prescriptive style" while giving the unfounded feeling that "a transferable skill is being acquired". All the "information" said to be available through the internet has to be sorted, selected, filtered and evaluated before it is useful. Analysis of data is a set of generic skills that has to be understood philosophically; it is not a matter simply of clicking a particular button.

Data graphics is another area of concern, since so many users of software willingly swallow the software vendors' claims that "with a few clicks you will be producing professional-standard graphics". Many published examples demonstrate the inability of readers to recognise misleading or garbled graphics.

My research into IT to support writing skills has repeatedly come up against the barrier that academic users of IT are unwilling or incapable of being as analytically critical of IT as they would expect to be of any other type of knowledge. Robiette points out that "most staff in HE institutions have little interest in IT per se"; that "reactions to complex software packages are very much a matter of one's own taste and prejudices"; and that "many staff make only limited use of a subset of the applications in a modern office suite". Against this background, it is hard to get a constructive debate on using IT to enforce or improve academic standards.

Let us hope that Robiette's report will be widely read by decision-makers and budget-holders in higher education, and that they will reflect on the need to improve both the cost-benefit and the pedagogical aspects of IT. This, however, will not be assisted by recent trends to reduce or denigrate the role of IT specialist staff within institutions. Buying off-the-shelf software and leaving it to be taught by rote by non-specialists who are themselves self-taught is a recipe for disaster.

Reducing or closing computing services, fragmenting them to academic departments or merging them with other "customer-based" services, commodifying and out-sourcing are all tactics that have sapped morale and led to the crisis identified by Robiette.

R. Allan Reese Associate manager Graduate Research Institute Hull University

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