The other day I realised that I really was turning into a computer geek.
I found myself waiting to get into a computer lab at 7.45am on a Friday. Why? I had a university assignment to finish by 12.30pm that day or get marks taken off. I am doing the first year paper in principles of programming -- Pascal programming -- at Auckland University this semester and I realised I’d never been at university that early before. In my last incarnation as a student I’d had it easy, doing arts papers with tutorials once a fortnight that I never went to anyway.
Now I have to go every week and have lectures three times a week. What’s more, I have to spend a lot of time doing homework and vying for a place at a screen in the undergraduate computer lab.
I did an article last year on Dale Spender’s book “Nattering on the Net – Women in Cyberspace”, in which she claimed computer labs at universities were incredibly sexist and male-dominated, a hostile atmosphere for women who subsequently dropped out of computer science papers.
In my experience nothing could be further from the truth. In the first year paper I’m in there are around 700 students. There is a good mix of men and women -- I’d say around 50-50 from looking around -- and a diverse range of nationalities.
The atmosphere in the lab is one of business; no one has the time to be a sexist pig because the programming work has to be done and there are five other people waiting for your computer at most times, except after 9pm.
Best of all, there is friendly and prompt guidance from the wandering demonstrators -- senior students wearing slightly ridiculous-looking red sashes -- who are there even on Saturdays and Sundays to answer questions.
There are problems, though, and they could seriously affect the quality of teaching to the already overcrowded computer science lectures in future.
It’s a problem of funding. At a recent departmental meeting, the computer sciences department was told the university is expected to be running with a $2.9 million deficit next year, with computer sciences taking a 12% funding cut -- the biggest cut of all science faculty departments -- yet class numbers have gone up 20% this year and are expected to keep rising.
This will make the computer labs even busier and the classes will be even larger. With 700 people already doing one paper it is difficult to see how lecturers, tutors, markers and demonstrators, let alone students, will be able to cope.
The stringent measures taken to cut costs have been felt already. There were not enough copies of the first assignment to go around, yet the department was not able to make any more copies because it had reached its budget limit. Students, who had already paid a substantial departmental fee for photocopying costs, had to pay to get a copy of the assignment if they missed out. If they (quite justifiably) refused to do this and copied the assignment off a classmate, they were penalised by having marks taken off for not having the correct assignment one cover sheet! While most who complained about this got their marks back, it was a cause of great frustration. User-pays is one thing but paying twice for the same thing is a bit much.
Luckily students can now use the university’s Web site to access a lot of information which is too hard to get in lectures or tutorials due to sheer numbers. They can also get a copy of all their assignments free. And next semester students taking the same paper will be taught Java instead of Pascal, probably increasing numbers further, because Java is seen as a more useful language.
The department is coming up with innovative ways to get around the overcrowding and underfunding of its papers but, sitting in my lecture (and, like the “mature” student that I am, telling other students to ‘shut up’ so I can hear the far away lecturer), I wonder if it is all worth it for another three years.
I think that’s the main reason many women (and men) drop out of computer science -- getting computer time, getting hold of notes and assignments, even getting a seat in the lecture theatre three times a week is a battle. Why women drop out more readily than men (which they appear to do), we don’t know.
There’s also the prospect of computer science papers costing more than other science papers in order to get more funding (this has been suggested as a solution). Is it worth it? Many students will be forced to ask themselves and their bank balance/student loan managers this question. And many will say it is not.
And it is the computer industry which will suffer -- through lack of diversity of background, gender and culture.