Killing the 18-month cycle

I’ve been thinking about hardware upgrades. I’ve always stayed a couple of years or more behind the cutting edge. Must of this has to do with my level of income (and debt!), though some of it is a question of importance. My computer at home is now far beyond that mark, but it is rare that it has an effect on my work. The only things that really tax my current setup are Photoshop, number crunching, and having a lot of things open at once. These are all pretty well handled by increases in memory. I don’t manipulate video or play games much, so the performance of a high end system is unnecessary. Besides, I always have the systems at work if I really need something fast.

I attended a meeting of the campus standards committee on Thursday, where we decide on what to recommend to incoming freshmen. I missed the first meeting (I was in Holland), but something seemed a little off. We recommended a minimum of a 1.2 GHz system (on the PC side), or a G4. The thing is, a large chunk of the student body can’t afford such a system. More to the point, the money spent on such a system would be better spent elsewhere. One of the members of the committee mentioned that a student could get a part-time job to help pay for one. I would rather they not have a computer and use the time they would be working to study instead.

This was further brought to a point when a grad student asked for advice on getting a very cheap machine. I think she has the right idea. The breakeven is pretty low.

We would all like to imagine that our students are doing web design, cutting video for their class presentations, and animating 3D models in their spare time, and that all of this is preparing them for the “real world.” In fact, what do you need a computer for as a student in the social sciences? Word processing, email, coordinating data, and perhaps the occasional bout with statistics. Now, what kind of computer can support this sort of work?

Let’s assume you stick with Windows (as the majority of our campus does). I have Win2000 with Word2000 running on a 120 Mhz Pentium with 36Megs of RAM. This is far less than the “required” setup for 2000, and it feels slow. But it is also on a throw-away computer. I mean that fairly literally: many consider a 400Mhz Pentium-based machine to be nothing more than trash. But the truth is that the system would work fine for a student who wasn’t interested in burning MP3s or playing games.

So, the question becomes why are we recommending to students that they come to campus with a 1.2Mhz machine or nothing. What is that requirement based upon? How many instructors are actually using Flash–and should they be?

I like tech, but I think we do our students a disservice when we suggest that they have to spend $1000 on a computer. I also realize that one will spend as much on a 200Mhz machine these days as on a 900Mhz machine–there is an “absolute zero” of these systems of around $150-$200–so there is no reason not to get the most you can for what you can afford. But I don’t think we should be telling students that they need to spend that much to get going. If we do want them spending $500+, I think we should consider requiring either low-end laptops or PDAs, or recommending high-speed connections off-campus. Otherwise, why have a standard?

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