Ten computers -10 carts and 40 wheels – will soon roll across campus aiming to knock down barriers to technology at Portland State.
The mobile lab will be propelled by the Student Technology Access Group (STAG) and is just one part of their elaborate plan to improve students’ access to computer knowledge and technology. Free seminars, a fun and laid-back computer lab and a program to assist low-income PSU students to obtain computers are additional objectives, said Jerrod Thomas, cofounder of the student group and liberal studies major. In just its first three months of existence, STAG has developed some ambitious plans.
Along with access, sustainability is a core value driving STAG. The mobile and permanent labs will include computers salvaged from the university’s older computer stock that often sit in storage for as long as two years. The computers will be refurbished and equipped with reused parts including switches, cables and network cards, Lee said.
A gulf exists between the technology available on campus and many students’ ability to effectively utilize those resources, STAG secretary Brenna Lee said. “If someone doesn’t know how to do something and there are people who do. I hate it when information doesn’t get shared.”
Portland State’s University Studies program is geared for teaching computer fundamentals, though not all students’ benefit. “I’m glad that STAG is existing because we have so many transfer students,” said Candyce Reynolds, director of University Studies mentor programs. She added that transfer students often miss out on the group computer projects that are an important part of Freshman and Sophomore Inquiry.
“I think there are still a lot of students who are uncomfortable with technology and there’d be a place for them to go to get additional help,” Reynolds said. “It’s in line with University Studies values where students really take ownership of their own learning and help each other learn.”
According to Lee, a psychology and biology major who has taken University Studies Inquiry courses, those classes offer a very basic level of computer instruction. Student mentors do their best to assist faculty with teaching computer skills, but sometimes their proficiency falls short, Lee said. “They’ve been taught how to use these programs but at the same time that’s not their job, it’s not their job to be techies.”
Original plans for a STAG computer lab did not include wheels, Thomas said. Creative problem solving between STAG and John Eckman, associate director of auxiliary services, led to the idea of a lab on wheels. It may take up to a year for new student groups to obtain designated space on campus so rather than delaying the lab, Eckman offered the idea of putting wheels under it, Thomas said.
“There’s a lot of big open spaces where we can fit 10 carts of computers in a little circular area,” Lee said. “We’ll roll out our lab to the math mezzanine in Neuberger and be like, ‘Hey, do you want to practice using this software?'” she said. “Just kind of dink around if they have 15 minutes before class. They can see what it’s all about.”
According to Lee, STAG’s alternative computer lab will discard the typical lab rules: no food, no drink, no cell phone. Lab attendants will be available to help students maneuver through computer applications, and assist with computer repair at a workbench, she said. “It’s not a lab where you have to sit down and do your homework by yourself.”
Since it may take a while to find space for the alternative lab, STAG plans to hold seminars in existing computer labs during the interim. Through the workshops STAG hopes to spread the knowledge of how to use popular computer application programs such as Microsoft Excel, PowerPoint and Adobe Photoshop.
Many of STAG’s computers will utilize open-source software, such as Linux, Thomas said. A sizable number of corporations are moving towards utilizing this free software in order to cut down costs, Thomas said. Familiarity with the Linux operating system will give students an edge in the market place, he added.
It may also be important for students to get familiar with Linux because the computers that STAG plans to refurbish and make available to low-income students for a nominal fee will come equipped with Linux.
Thomas said that decisions in STAG are primarily made by consensus and that it is easy to join and have a voice in the direction of the group. You need to only attend three meetings in a row before you can vote.
“We really want to encourage people who are not just nerds to join this group,” Lee said. STAG is going to need “techie” people but there is a need for people with a variety of skills, including public relations, she said. “If you’re interested in helping people there is going to be a way and there’s going to be a place for you to help out in this group.”